This 1970 Black Finger might be older than you!

Posted in Culture of Lickspittle, Phlogiston, Rock 'n' Roll at 4:00 pm by George Smith

One of electric guitar effects maker Electro-Harmonix’s first consumer devices, this 1970 Black Finger, a “Distortion Free Guitar Sustainer,” has been with me for 45 years. The last thirteen of which had been spent in closets in a box because it didn’t work.

I made getting it going again a holiday project. A liberal application of De-Oxit and some fiddling with the tone potentiometer and power supply leads and it came back to life.

It’s a compressor and probably the first one ever made for electric guitarists. [1] The basic layout is the same as the company’s Big Muff Pi fuzz tone. From 1970, it shares an identical triangle knob layout, plus an on-off switch in addition to the usual stomp switch and a two-battery power harness, just as many of the 1970 Muffs.

In the early Seventies EH removed the on-off switch, put the knobs in a straight line and added an illustration of a, well, black finger.

The 1970 Black Finger contains a real pile of old transistors. In use, after twisting the knobs for the degree of compression wanted, I always left it on for the duration of a session.

It is not a light compression. You know it’s on and squeezing the signal from the guitar, from a lot to really a lot. At the lowest compression delivered, it makes country licks and jangle rock pop. On the extreme end the attack of the guitar virtually disappears.

Electro-Harmonix has a tube-driven Black Finger compressor in its stable but it’s not really anything close to the same pedal.

The 1970 Black Finger was not particularly common. I never met another person who used one. Today there are one or two videos of old models on YouTube. (I’m planning on putting up a demonstration of it when I have the time.)

Of course, it was made entirely in the US 45 years ago before the forty year slump and the installation of corporate dictatorship. And it turned out to be a bit more long-lasting than the American Middle Class.

I used it at swimming pool parties in Pine Grove in 1970 and dragged it almost everywhere through dive bars with the Highway Kings in the mid-Eighties.

The Black Finger had a disadvantage which made it unique, a noise factor, actually. It takes two 9-volt batteries and when they run low the unit begins to distort, hiss at you and pump audibly. That had its uses.

Here’s an old review I wrote of it thirteen years ago for a web music site.

I’m taking it back (edited):

I used [the Electro-Harmonix Black Finger] for thirty years with a Fender Vibrolux and a variety of Hiwatts. It worked well with both but was extremely useful with the Hiwatts when it was necessary to squeeze more sustain out of fairly clean but overdriven sound at a volume level somewhat less than what would kill everyone but the criminally rock and roll insane.

It helped produce an unmistakably brutish sound that used to be common in the Seventies but which is rarely heard today. Waxing heavy on the control knobs makes for a variety of really abusive tones.

The first time you stomp the Black Finger into “on” it hesitates before giving you anything. A nice feature! As if something were charging up or picking up a head of steam before getting rolling. After it’s been stomped “on” once in the session, the lag goes away.

Who knows why it’s that way?!

As for reliability? Utterly so.

If you had a metal box of circuitry that lasted thirty years, what would you think? You could throw it into a landfill and if it didn’t rust it would probably still work when you dug it up ten years later.

Of course, this may be just the case with mine. Not yours.

Seems to be made of old battleship steel. (Actually aluminum although it is a heavy pedal.)

Requires two nine-volt (that’s “two” as in an eye-popping T-W-O!) batteries and eats them at a moderate but not accelerated rate.

Opening the kit to replace them is reasonably but not overly trying.

The edges of the inside of the battleship steel case are sharp and I have occasionally non-fatally nicked a finger while replacing T-W-O, that’s “two,” nine volt batteries.

The Black Finger always did me good. And the name! Exquisite!

Colleagues marveled at the sheer stubborn durability of my Black Finger.

They even sometimes mocked and laughed in disrespect at the annoying glitchy tones coming from it when the batteries ran low and it started to eat itself. But they also admired the clear, thick sustain that educated use could wring from it.

Certainly, it is a tool of utility in making old school rock. While not indispensable, I have never heard anything quite like it since.

The Black Finger has mostly always sounded old although it sounded quite new in 1970 or so. Guaranteed to sound old now, always.

That’s good!

It’s a tough, brutish, potentially ugly-sounding compressor that works well with tough, brutish, potentially ugly-sounding big amplifiers and fuzz tones. (Really, you put a fuzz face circuit after it and the results are great.)

It is not for milchtoasts.

You should be an old, crabby guy with a beard and a large bald spot for best results with the Black Finger.

1. The only other electric guitar compressor on the market at around the same time was the Dan Armstrong Orange Squeezer.

The Orange Squeezer was a ca. mid-70’s very small box with a fixed setting. It was much less aggressive, smaller and simpler in design than the EH Black Finger.

It attained some popularity for its use by Steely Dan (obviously never credited on recordings), some country artists who loved what it did for their picking, and later, Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits.

Like the old Black Finger, who uses Orange Squeezers today?

Really, nobody. Maybe some older session aces who either have originals or who bought clone designs of the original, which exist, but which still aren’t popular in any real sense.

There’s not much to compare between the two designs although I’d argue that the Black Finger I have, when set right, works great for accentuating country licks, adding warmth (although the tone knob can make it really irritating, too) and with distortion (refer the fuzz face citation) furnishes the vintage A-to-Z with the twist of the guitar’s volume knob early-70’s hard rock sound.

The Orange Squeezer was deemed more successful. No one credits the Black Finger with anything. It was totally eclipsed, and then erased, by the rapid success and reputation of the Electro-Harmonix Big Muff Pi fuzz. (Dave Gilmour of Pink Floyd wanted the Muff fuzz after Dark Side of the Moon. What if he had heard a Black Finger in line before his Fuzz Face?)

The only other compressor I’ve used that’s equal or better (for my taste) is the one designed into the Scholz R&D Sustainor which came many years later. At a practical level, the Scholz R&D compression circuit of the mid-Eighties was/is somewhat easier to work with and a slight bit more naturally musical than the original 1970 Black Finger. Both supplied a lot of compression. There were no really mild settings to be had from either.

What’s the difference? The Black Finger was not set in its equalization. Maxing the compression only kills the attack from the guitar as it blooms the tail.

The compression in the Scholz circuit, along with the rest of the design never totally kills the attack but does add a lot of mid-range.

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