The Tone Bender is the grandaddy of fuzz pedals, and its blooming sustain and dynamic, interactive fuzz set a high tonal standard that modern pedal designers still aim for. Influential early rockers (some of whom you may have heard of), including The Who, The Beatles, The Yardbirds, and Led Zeppelin, all depended on Tone Bender variations for their signature early fuzz tones. This may have been, at least partially, because there just weren't a whole lot of other fuzz pedal options back in those days, but it's also because the Tone Bender is a freakin' amazing fuzz. A good one can sound as thick as a concrete milk shake, yet cut through a mix like a greased-up machete. Huge, gooey gobs of fuzz give way to richly textured clean tones when the guitar's volume is rolled back, and subtle changes in pick attack can yield a wide spectrum of tones. One of the (not-so-secret) secrets of this characteristic tone and responsiveness is the germanium transistor. It is an immutable law of nature that genuine, no-nonsense, sixties fuzz tones absolutely require germanium for that distinctive girth, wide-ranging dynamics, and deliciously spongey attack. However, high quality supplies of these glorious, antiquated transistors are drying up fast, so when a pedal manufacturer releases a new germanium-based fuzz in the classic style, one would do well to pay attention and have one's wallet at the ready.
Well, friends, ready your wallets, because Keeley Electronics, highly esteemed pioneer of the boutique pedal industry, has just released a pair of very limited edition, Bender-inspired, germanium-powered fuzz pedals. I was fortunate enough to spend some quality time with one of these, the Silver Bullet CV7003, and I enjoyed it immensely. The Silver Bullet is constructed around a core of two silicon transistors mated to one exceedingly rare, military-spec, CV7003 germanium transistor, straight from Robert Keeley's private hoard. This special little transistor is visible through a tiny cut-out in the Silver Bullet's circuit board, which can be seen when the pedal's back plate is removed (have a look yourself, if you're feeling skeptical). Controls consist of Fuzz and Level knobs, and a Tone knob that is tuned to allow the player to perfectly match the pedal to different varieties of pickups. Other handy features include an easy-on-the-eyes status LED, true bypass switching, and a power jack that accepts a regular old 9v, Boss-style power supply. The intent is to deliver big, vintage Tone Bender sound and feel, but with all the modern conveniences that vintage models, and many modern reproductions, lack.
Like most guitarists, I haven't ever had the opportunity to play an actual, vintage, germanium Tone Bender, but in my years in the business I have played through countless copies and other modern Bender-based designs of reputable stock. In this context, I can safely say that the Keeley Electronics Silver Bullet CV7003 easily ranks amongst the most satisfying Tone Bender experiences I've had. Its sustain is the gift that keeps on giving; even at low volume and low gain settings, this sucker can hold a fermata indefinitely. That's a very impressive quality. The overall tone is exactly what I like in a Bender-style British fuzz—thick and saturated, with a squishy, compressed quality, but also with a definition and edge that lets every note be heard. It blends beautifully with a little bit, or even a lot, of amp break-up. Rolling back the guitar's volume knob is when the real miracles occur, however, as the formerly lava-like molten fuzz goo generated by the dimed Fuzz control transforms into a beautiful, complex clean-ish tone that sparkles with a most delicate halo of germanium sheen. This is one of the most prized qualities of the Tone Bender family of fuzzes, and the Silver Bullet nails it. The pedal's tone knob offers a range of EQ contours that match it nicely to any pickup or amp. At fully counterclockwise it doesn't seem to be attenuating any frequency, resulting in a massive, heavy-bottomed sound that will thicken up even the puniest Strat bridge pickup. Rolling it clockwise seems to focus the sound in the midrange, which will likely suit humbucker-equipped guitars best, preventing a build-up of bass and low-mid mud. At the most extreme clockwise setting of the Tone knob, the tone was rather pinched and nasal, which probably won't be a useful setting for too many players, but every other setting produced rich, lovely vintage fuzz textures. It's easy to get lost in the Silver Bullet, and one could certainly spend a few hours massaging different tones out of its multi-hued palette of fuzzy colors.
What we like: Real-deal vintage germanium Tone Bender action in a solid, modern package. Excellent tone and feel, with a huge range of useable tones at almost every setting. The Silver Bullet is totally worth your hard-earned buckaroos.
Concerns: None to speak of, really. The extreme clockwise range of the tone knob wasn't very useful, but this is a very, very minor issue in a pedal that generates such an incredible spectrum of great tones. Forget I even mentioned it!