With the 50th anniversary of Pink Floyd's psychedelic debut comes a resurging interest in Syd Barrett's equipment and techniques, along with a new generation of commercial entities seeking to profit from all the excitement. What has remained a constant force over the years of discussion has been a handful of rumors and myths that, when repeated often enough by seemingly authoritative figures, almost become fact. With this small piece of writing, I'll be challenging some of the allegations about Syd Barrett's effects pedal habits with facts in the hope that it will help guitarists to make informed decisions about their spending, as well as potentially ease some new historical evidence out of the woodwork. Discussing and criticizing makes for a healthy and knowledgeable community.
Syd Barrett's alleged use of the Selmer's Buzz Tone and (Fuzz-)Wah is one of the stories perpetuated by the Internet that seems to originate from Julian Palacios' biography, 'Lost in the Woods'. We know the band was using Selmer amplifiers early on, so it's certainly not beyond the realms of possibility that they experimented with the pedals too, or that Selmer may have simply put the group's name in advertising for the pedals that are yet to be digitized in the modern age.
The classic riff from 'Interstellar Overdrive' sounds incendiary when coupled with a Selmer Buzz Tone (or any fuzzbox for that matter), but the following video shows that the sound from the album can be nailed with just the Selmer Treble 'n' Bass amplifier.
I'm satisfied with my original Selmer Buzz Tone (and I'll be happier if it ever comes back from being repaired) but I would very much like to see the proof that this model is even remotely connected to the band. At the moment there is nothing tying the two together.
The 'Games for May' photo
For now, this remains the only photographic evidence that Syd Barrett ever used guitar effects pedals at all. In Palacios' book, he refers to the "Vox Tone Bender" pictured here, and consequently, the newly released official Pink Floyd book accompanying the V&A exhibition also features a photo of a Vox Tone Bender (obtained from a vintage effects merchant in the UK).
Considering that the Italian Vox Tone Bender wasn't distributed in the UK during the 1960s (with the British branch of Vox having an agreement with Sola Sound to sell Tone Benders instead) and because Pink Floyd only started performing outside the UK in late 1967 (brain-damage.co.uk), there is some doubt over this long-lasting assumption.
The biography doesn't address the difference between the Tone Bender pedals mass-produced in Italy for Thomas Organ, with the famous British-built Sola Sound Tone Bender that the Italians copied, which brings its authority on this issue into question. Fortunately, the 'Games for May' rehearsals photo itself provides a clear shot of the pedal, from which we can learn the following things:
- The attack control is angled at such a position that indicates the shorter variant of Bulgin's chicken-head knobs, from the Sola Sound Tone Bender, rather than the taller chicken-heads on the Vox units.
- The face of the pedal is completely smooth, with no indication of the face-plate around the controls that the Italian pedals feature.
- Jack sockets are in the reversed positions on the Vox Tone Bender, compared to the Sola Sound model - try to work out whether that's the guitar or the amp's lead hanging out of Syd's pedal. The nuts on the Tone Bender pictured are plastic-black too; rather than the metal present on the alleged Vox Tone Bender.
What would I suggest to someone looking to re-create the early Pink Floyd sound?
Along with LSD and a time machine, if I wanted to own some pedals that I could be sure were connected to Syd Barrett on a budget, without naming names, I'd settle for one of those switchable 'Mk1.5'/MkII Tone Bender clones that everybody seems to be building nowadays. It does, however, all seem rather irrelevant when one considers the fact that 'Piper at the Gates of Dawn' hasn't got any fuzz guitar tracks at all, and apart from their flagship hit-single, the bootlegs and earlier demos are so crude that the fuzztones could be anything at all.
Often mistaken for a prototype, the silver/gray colored Vox Wah was the predominant wah-wah on the UK market in 1967. One of these pedals would be on the 'Syd Barrett pedalboard' too, as its distinctive, thin, treble sound can be heard for miles on 'Apples and Oranges'. I find it rather amusing that the only pedal that we can be relatively confident about hasn't made it to any publications or official exhibitions yet.
Proceed with caution when shopping for boutique fuzz pedals when someone plays the 'Syd Barrett card' because the reality is that nobody truly knows what went on in there. Having the imagination to create something completely new would be a good start though.