When searching for that utopian tone, that heavenly perfect sound, you will have probably come across silicon and germanium transistors. It is an ongoing debate to which is better or has the best tone. Well, I think it's time to put this all to rest, they are both great in their own way! Let's take a closer look at these little technical marvels.…
Cue swirly wobbly effect….set the way back machine to the early 60s…..wooowooowooo.
So, who was first? Germanium transistors came on the scene first and although guitarists didn’t really encounter them until the 60s they had been used in electronics since the 1940s. Listen to early Hendrix, that great tone he achieved in the early 60s? That’s germanium tone power, baby! Stomp boxes that feature germanium transistors tend to sound more like an old tube amp being pushed hard. The tone produced is warm, round and smooth. Germanium transistors also react well to changes in volume from your guitar volume pot, play light and they react accordingly.
This all sounds groovy man, but they also have some drawbacks. The main thing with germanium transistors is they react to temperature! What? I hear you cry! Yep, most players agree that a cold germanium sounds better than a warm one. Probably why Hendrix always sounded so good playing chilly open air festivals! Real fuzz tone aficionados have been known to keep their germanium pedals in the freezer for a while before whipping them out for that studio session, those crazy dudes! Germanium transistors also have a habit of storing electrical charges, meaning they can sound different from day to day. They can also be inconsistent so two of the same pedal can sound very different (although this has got better with boutique pedal builders choosing the best for their pedals). Find a good one though, and its musical velvet for the ears.
So, we move forward in time slightly to the silicon transistor. These were developed by the electronics industry as a more efficient alternative to germanium. Silicon transistors store less voltage so they are much more consistent and will sound more or less the same from pedal to pedal. Silicon also works on higher frequencies giving you a sharper more trebly tone. These transistors offer higher gain and distort slightly differently than a germanium transistor for a sharper sound. Distortions and fuzz pedals powered by silicon wont react as well to playing dynamics or tweaking your guitar volume pot, it will stay pretty gnarly even when the volume is lowered. Hendrix tended to be using Silicon in the late 60s and by Axis Bold as Love, according to pedal guru Roger Mayer, it was all silicon.
So, to sum up, if you want warm vintage tones go for germanium. If you are looking for something brighter and edgier, go for silicon. These days there a quite a few pedals offering tones from both transistors. Just check out the Amptweaker TightFuzz, Hartman SFZ or Guitar Systems FuzzTool Jnr to name just three! So if you are unsure what's best, have both! Yay!
Now, after all that fuzzy pyschodelia….I need a lie down.