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Getting Dirty: Germanium or Silicon Fuzz?

11.15.2012

The greatest debate in stomp boxes is also the dirtiest: whether germanium based distortion or fuzz pedals are better than pedals with silicon based transistors.

The truth is, germanium and silicon fuzz boxes are both terrific, but are ideal for different sonic approaches. Complicating the debate is a new generation of stomp boxes that strive to blend the growling voices of both germanium and silicon transistors.

Germanium was on the scene first. When you listen to Jimi Hendrix wailing through a Fuzz Face, that’s germanium hard at work mutating his tone. Although the mass-produced guitar stomp box didn’t arrive until the 1960s, germanium had been used as a material for semiconductors in electronics since the 1940s.

Without going into a lot of technical detail, germanium pedals tend to reflect the qualities of an old tube amp, like a Gibson GA-5, pushed hard on volume. There’s a warm floppiness to the way the speaker breaks up; the distorted sound is round and comfortable. Roll back the volume on your guitar and the distortion level on a germanium stomp box will come down as well.

Germanium transistors have several drawbacks, although some players — including me — consider them virtues. They react to temperature, so a germanium stomp box is likely to sound different on an outdoor stage in the summer than in an air conditioned club or studio. Generally, chilly climes are best. Tone freaks have been known to pop germanium distortion devices into the freezer for a Les Paul and Ampwhile before cutting tracks in the studio. Germanium transistors also have a tendency to store electrical charges, which means they can sound different day to day. They also tend to be inconsistent, so it’s less likely that two units of the same model will be exactly the same.

Silicon was developed by the electronics industry in part as a more efficient alternative to germanium. It tends to store less voltage, so is more consistent in its sonic properties from pedal to pedal. Silicon transistors also work at a higher frequency, which will enhance the treble end of a guitar’s signal. And they have inherently higher gain, which means silicon based pedals distort differently than germanium ones, creating a brighter, sharper sound. They also respond better to a power supply than germanium-based pedals, which produce the best tone “browned-down” on a slightly used nine-volt battery. Silicon pedals also tend to be cheaper, since silicon is easier to produce. And if you turn back your guitar’s volume pot, things will still stay nasty despite the drop in loudness.

The upshot: if you’re looking for warm, vintage tones, check out germanium transistor-based pedals. If you’d like something more edgy, think silicon.

In the current boutique-pedal-mad era, wily inventors have tried to blend the best of the germanium and silicon worlds with hybrid pedals. These pedals have a wider range of tonal possibilities and, generally, a premium price. Typically in a hybrid fuzz circuit a silicon transistor drives a germanium transistor, giving the germanium transistor more consistent performance and adding brilliance and definition the more heavily the gain and tone controls are leaned on.

These are pretty hip pedals with a lot of versatility and potential, but — like any stomp box — they take some getting used to. The best way to sort though the germanium verses silicon dilemma is to spend some time at your favorite musical instrumental dealer’s shop trying out as many distortion boxes as they have in stock. (And for God’s sake don’t actually stomp on them. Other musicians are going to buy them.) Keep in mind that expensive isn’t always better. Sometimes a $50 stomp box will get the job done. It depends on the sound you’re searching for.

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