In May of 1965 The Rolling Stones were recording at RCA Studios in Hollywood. Keith Richards needed to record a horn line but didn’t have a horn player booked for the session. So Richards grabbed his Maestro Fuzzbox, Gibson Guitars’ first “stomp box,” a small pedal with a circuit inside designed to simulate the distortion of an overdriven amp. With this pedal, Richards recorded the iconic three-note riff to “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” as a guide for the session player later. Much to Keith Richards’ shock and dismay, the record company released the song with the fuzzed-out guitar while the band was on tour. The song eventually rose to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Sales of the Maestro Fuzzbox, which had been sluggish, exploded, and soon the sound of distortion was everywhere.
“(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” may seem like a simple song about sexual frustration amid intrusive advertising, but it’s deeper than that. The song itself sounds like frustration: the beat never changes, the chords never resolve, and Mick Jagger just keeps trying and trying and trying.
On the song, the Stones can’t get satisfaction because their desires are so exaggerated, but even more so because satisfaction is antithetical to consumerism. We must consume constantly, and so an endless parade of new products is needed to provoke a ceaseless desire.
Half century after the recording of the song an endless array of guitar pedals very much like the Maestro Fuzzbox are available to augment a musician’s sound. Self-described “tone-nerds” scour eBay and Reverb.com, watch endless demos on YouTube, join forums and follow hashtags on social media, all in an endless pursuit of sonic satiety. I know this, because I am one of them.
These pedals are imbued by their hoarders with the same magical powers our ancestors assigned to the depths of the forest. These enchanted objects and places cast a spell over us; their inscrutability is intoxicating, reminding us of all we cannot ever know. We cannot imagine what dwells in the forest darkness any more than we can imagine what happens to this train of electrons as it races through a circuit. The entire process lies outside the experience of our five senses.
Only when we fire up that pedal, but even then, only the sonic sorcerers who created the circuit really know what we’re hearing. We can’t envision the processes by which the sound has been so fundamentally transformed, and this mystery itself becomes a selling point, a talisman that attracts buyers and remunerates sellers in an endless quest for sonic satisfaction.
The Klon “Centaur” was designed by an electronics wizard named Bill Finnegan who hand-wired about 8,000 of these stomp boxes between 1990 and 1994. Finnegan “gooped” the inside of these pedals, covering the circuitry with a thick, black putty in order to keep the inexpensive and readily available resistors, capacitors, and other components a proprietary secret, kind of like Colonel Sanders’ 11 herbs and spices. Noted users of the Centaur include John Mayer, James Hetfield and Nels Cline. Like its mystical namesake, the Centaur is an elusive creature, capable of providing the holy grail of tone, one tone to rule them all. Nearly every description of the Centaur includes the adjective “magical.” As a result of the hype, Flanagan recently descended from the mountaintop and is again selling his Centaurs, this time for $2,000 apiece.
Magical new sonic technologies have been used to great effect by musicians as far back as The Beatles and The Who, and more recently by players like Matt Bellamy of Muse and Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave. These audio innovations are fueling creativity and driving down costs, enabling even bedroom guitarists access to formerly price-prohibitive sounds. Coupled with new recording technologies, these advances may allow the next “Bohemian Rhapsody” to be recorded by a 14-year-old in her bedroom.
The irony here is that the pursuit of the perfect tone used to be a simple act of rebellion and involved turning an amplifier up as loud as it would go. That is until a song about our inability to find satisfaction in a consumerist society gave birth to a nearly endless parade of guitar pedals imbued with magical tonal powers.
The stomp box commodified the very rebellion that distortion initially represented, and now markets that act of transgression to anyone wandering into the local Guitar Center. Is it any wonder these tone chasers are never satisfied?