Page 5 of 8
Glenn Snoddy, recording engineer and inventor of the fuzz tone
May 4, 1922-May 21, 2018
Glenn Snoddy's contribution to the world of music wasn't a song or a style of playing. It was more like he helped discover a new color.
A recording engineer in Nashville in the early 1960s, Snoddy helped capture and re-create what is commonly called "fuzz tone," the distorted, overdriven effect that helped shape the sound of modern rock & roll.
And it was all, quite literally, by accident.
Already a recording veteran (he'd worked on pivotal sessions for Patsy Cline, Hank Williams and Johnny Cash), Snoddy was manning the console for a session with producer Don Law and country singer Marty Robbins, who was recording his 1961 single "Don't Worry." A broken amplifier that the bass was running through created a dirty sound about halfway into the recording that caught the attention of everyone working on the track.
"The transformer in the amplifier blew up," Snoddy told Murfreesboro, Tennessee's Daily News Journal in 2016 about the happy accident. The bassist (country and rockabilly session guitarist Grady Martin) reportedly wanted to redo his part, but Law and Snoddy insisted it remain.
After its release, "Don't Worry" went to No. 1 on Billboard's singles chart and musicians in particular loved the buzzy sound. Snoddy says Nancy Sinatra was in Nashville and wanted that exact sound for a recording session, but by that point the original "broken" amp had completely died. So he began figuring out how to re-create the fuzz, designing and building a preamp effects box to capitalize on the curiosity. He sold the design to Gibson, which turned it into the Maestro Fuzz-Tone FZ-1, the first commercially available guitar distortion pedal.
While the distorted guitar sound was pioneered by players like Howlin' Wolf guitarist Willie Lee Johnson and Link Wray (most notably on the revolutionary 1958 instrumental hit "Rumble") in the decade leading up to his invention, Snoddy was the first to capture that fuzzy lightning in a bottle (or, rather, box). The Gibson pedal (which initially sold for $40) wasn't an immediate hit and the company ramped down production of them until 1965, when Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards used his FZ-1 on the band's seminal hit, "Satisfaction." Gibson sold 40,000 pedals in the wake of that song's success, after reportedly moving a grand total of three over the course of the previous two years.
The fuzz tone sound became the foundation of '60s and '70s rock & roll, leading the way for other popular pedals, including the Fuzz Face, beloved by Jimi Hendrix and Pete Townshend, and the Big Muff, which saw a revival in the late '80s/early '90s, the key to the guitar sounds of bands like Mudhoney, Smashing Pumpkins and many other alternative rock acts of the time.
Snoddy, who'd later open Nashville's Woodland Sound recording studio (home to many important sessions, including the one for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's "Will the Circle Be Unbroken"), died on May 21. He was 96. — Mike Breen
Ted Dabney, electronics engineer and co-founder of Atari
May 2, 1937–May 26, 2018
In the beginning was a word. And the word was pizza.
Pizza parlors, to be exact – the ones lit by the blinking screens of arcade cabinets and populated by animatronic critters. In the mid-1960s, such establishments only existed in ambitious schemes cooked up by Ted Dabney and Nolan Bushnell, two friends then employed as engineers by California-based electronics company Ampex.
Dabney agreed to join Bushnell in his business venture, which combined the former's technological and electronics expertise (gained in the '50s at the Navy's electronics school on Treasure Island in the San Francisco Bay) with the latter's unbridled creativity and experience working as a carnival barker during college.
Unsurprisingly, the duo's initial efforts failed to bear the intended fruit (or dough, for that matter), but they did mark the genesis of electronic gaming as a cultural institution. What started out as a far-fetched dream would soon become a household name: Atari.
At the time, coin-operated arcade cabinets were largely analog machines: pinball, fortune tellers, skee-ball. Dabney and Bushnell were intent on replicating the mechanical complexity of these games first on a computer, and later on a television set. Programming and buying computers was cost-prohibitive, so Dabney – inspired by how a TV set's vertical and horizontal move the picture back and forth – devised a way to move digital shapes across a screen using a universal platform that was cheaper to build and easier to manage and store.
"Ted came up with the breakthrough idea that got rid of the computer so you didn't have to have a computer to make the game work," one of Atari's first employees, Allan Alcorn, told the New York Times in June. "It created the industry."
Bushnell pitched the new motion circuit technology to arcade manufacturer Nutting Associates, who helped the duo produce the first-ever commercially-available coin-operated cabinet video game, Computer Space, in 1971.
The sci-fi themed game netted Dabney and Bushnell enough royalties to found their own company, first called Syzygy and quickly renamed Atari. The company broke into the mainstream in 1972 with the release of Pong, a simplified departure from Computer Space that simulated table tennis with two lines and a dot. By the end of 1974, Atari sold more than 8,000 units of the game at $937 a pop.
Unfortunately, Dabney reaped a much smaller reward than his partner. He learned that Bushnell had applied for a patent without his consent, submitting Dabney's designs under his own name. Bushnell's charisma pushed Dabney to a lower rung of Atari, leaving him frustrated enough to sell his ownership for $250,000 in 1973.
Disillusioned by the perils of success, Dabney largely bowed out of the industry. In the meantime, Bushnell pushed Atari into living rooms with a series of video consoles. In the late '70s, Bushnell enlisted Dabney to help develop a new venture – a restaurant-slash-arcade called Pizza Time, later renamed Chuck E. Cheese's. After further disputes split the pair up again, Dabney retreated from the entertainment industry for good.
Dabney died of esophageal cancer on May 26. — Jude Noel