If there’s a bigger debate in the fuzz world, I’m not aware of it. Germanium enthusiasts swear that only germanium should be used in fuzz pedals. Some people prefer silicon, and others enjoy both for what they do. But the bigger question is this:
What’s the big deal?
When people talk about silicon or germanium, what components are they actually talking about? And what sonic differences do they have?
Germanium is a bit of a buzzword. A lot of people throw it around because they’ve heard the word associated with pedals they like. Like the Fuzz Face. To a certain degree it’s been engrained in a lot of guitarists that it’s better than silicon. The same way that we’re prone to believe that true bypass is better than buffered bypass.
While there are some key sonic differences between germanium and silicon, how noticeable is this difference when it’s a single component we’re talking about?
What Are Silicon and Germanium Transistors?
Transistors are one of the most important inventions in the 20th century. They’re used in a lot of modern applications like cell phones and computers. In a very basic sense, they’re mini amplifiers. They amplify the signal based on the voltage applied.
Transistors have diodes made of either silicon or germanium. Both silicon and germanium are both on the Periodic Table of Elements, in the same group (14). They’re both metalloid materials (containing metal and non-metal materials, like any well-rounded musician 😉 and both have atomic numbers (14 and 32 respectively).
Germanium was the first material to be used in transistors. They were used largely in radio technology, like AM radios and car radios. And in the 1960s they were used in guitar pedals. Most notably the Tone Bender.
The germanium transistors helped to create a smoother, warmer fuzz tone that is somewhat along the lines of a tube amp. But like your warm tube amp has a hole in the speaker. The Tone Bender is one of my favorite fuzz pedals and I love the range it has, in addition to its relative smoothness.
But germanium has a few inherent issues. To start it’s pretty rare for something used so widely. Especially compared to silicon.
If you can get your hands on it, you’ll have a tough time automating the manufacturing of transistors with it. The process of making transistors out of germanium is surprisingly manual. So they’re more hand made than machine made.
In addition to that, they can be wildly different tonally from transistor to transistor. They may hold onto voltage, which will alter the tone. They’re also extremely sensitive to temperature and the tone can change depending on the temperature of the transistor. Legend has it that some guitarists will actually throw their fuzz pedals in the freezer before recording.
This is unsubstantiated as far as I can tell, but sounds like an experiment in the making. But the real question is if it sounds sweeter if you keep it next to your ice cream. Or meatier if you put it next to your frozen meats.
In short, it’s temperamental, hard to make consistently, and fussy. Something guitar players know a bit about.
Like many inventions, engineers seek to improve on an item while giving it more consistency. Silicon is pretty much better in every objective way.
They’re extremely temperature sensitive, can handle more voltage (and don’t store voltage), and more importantly for manufacturers and pedal builders, they’re very consistent.
Inconsistencies can be fun, like in the original Klon Centaur pedals. But it’s just not practical for most consumers or manufacturers. Manufacturers also like that silicon transistors are less expensive than germanium. This gives the consumer a lower priced fuzz pedal.
Tonally they have more treble and a higher gain threshold. The Big Muff Pi fuzz pedal might be the most commonly used fuzz that uses silicon transistors.
What Are The Differences Between Silicon And Germanium Fuzz Pedals?
I do feel it important to mention that the transistors are only part of a fuzz pedal’s circuitry. It’s not the only thing that’s going to affect (effect?) the tone. Fuzz pedals are pretty simple circuits, but there are still other tone altering components.
That’s not to mention your guitar and pickups, your amp, and your speaker(s). All of these things are going to change how your fuzz pedal sounds. I recall Mick from That Pedal Show saying in passing how when someone says they really like pedal x, what they’re really saying is they like pedal x with the guitar and amp they heard it on.
Which is something really important to understand. There are some pedals I love with my Strat that I very much dislike with my PRS.
All that said, when using a controlled environment and really just comparing the pedals, you will notice some differences.
Fuzz pedals with germanium transistors tend to be a little more amp overdrive like. They’re smoother and warmer and can have a mid range boost. They also have more touch sensitivity and react really well to your guitar’s volume and tone knobs.
Fuzz pedals with silicon transistors tend to have more top end treble. They’re good at cutting through mixes and are a little more full band friendly because of this. They have more gain capabilities and aren’t very responsive to volume knobs.
Here’s a cool video showing the differences practically.
What Fuzz Pedals Use Silicon And Germanium Transistors?
Perhaps the benchmark examples of fuzz pedals that use germanium transistors are the Tone Bender and the Fuzz Face.
Tone Benders were one of the original fuzz circuits and used germanium transistors because at the time, that was the only option. You can still find these pedals used for not too much, but there are a lot of modern pedals that use Tone Bender style circuits.
The Fulltone Soul Bender is a great option for just over a hundred bucks (used). Though some of the original versions fetch a hefty price tag.
Moving onto the Fuzz Face, Dunlop makes a ton of these still, including the adorable Fuzz Face Mini.
The ProCo Rat and Big Muff Pi are the most common examples of silicon transistors. Although I like to think of it as a stand alone fuzz pedal that happens to use silicon transistors. Both the Big Muff Pi and Rat are still widely available today. The Big Muff has so many different versions out there, including germanium versions.
And of course there are a lot of pedals inspired by the circuits found in these pedals.
But one thing I want to point out is that using germanium transistors doesn’t make a pedal a Tone Bender clone or copy. And using silicon transistors doesn’t make a fuzz a Rat style or Big Muff style fuzz.
You can make some assumptions based on the use of either germanium or silicon transistors. But these are just one component in a pedal of dozens.
Our Dark Horse fuzz pedal uses silicon transistors, but is hardly a Rat style pedal. I think a lot of people get caught up on certain things because of origins. Like fuzz pedals originally used germanium transistors, so therefore they’re superior.
I’m definitely not a purist of most things guitar related. While I have extremely strong opinions about literally everything related to guitar, I also like to use my ears more than anything.
That said, I do understand generalized preferences. YouTube is a great resource for hearing just about any pedal before you buy it (if you can sit through 20 commercials in a 5-minute video). Your local music shop probably has some killer fuzz pedals on hand you can try in person.