Buzz Osborne’s Guitar Rig: 35 Years Of Evolution, Insanity, And Sublime Innovation

Buzz Osborne’s Guitar Rig has been studied for years by the Doom Metal community. In the early 1980’s Buzz Osborne started The Melvins, not knowing what kind of effect he would have on the future of music. Buzz has always had an interesting approach to guitar, and today we take a look at almost 4 decades worth of gear.


Buzz Osborne's Guitar Rig: 35 Years Of Evolution, Insanity, And Sublime Innovation
King Buzzo with his 70’s Gibson Les Paul

Buzz Osborne’s Guitar Rig: The Genesis

Roger “Buzz” Osborne started The Melvins in 1983. The band has been a revolving door of members, with lineup changes on almost every album. The creative force remains with Buzz, despite the constant member changeups.

The Melvins are a hard band to describe, as they certainly don’t wear their influences on their sleeve. Buzz has stated many times that Black Sabbath, KISS, and Led Zepplin were huge influences, but it was hardcore and punk music that made him want to take the stage.

The Washington State band has been around for a long time, and have cemented their spot in Metal history. Their sound has inspired Doom Metal and Sludge bands for decades now. But they came about during the time of the Seattle Scene explosion, and are often thought of as “one of those bands”.

The Melvins often get unfairly lumped in with “Seattle Scene” of the late 80’s and early 90’s. It’s easy to see why, since the Melvins often associated with those people, like Matt Lukin, Kurt Cobain, and Dave Grohl. But being geographically from that area didn’t make them a part of that scene.

In fact, they often tried to disassociate themselves from that crowd as much as they could.

The Melvins were constant outsiders, but were easily named as an inspiration for all of these Seattle bands. Nirvana, Soundgarden, and a whole slew of other bands cite The Melvins as a huge influence.

Their mix of experimental music, Metal, Rock, Noise and even Industrial made them stand out from the herd. But it’s lonely at the top, and while bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam were getting signed to major labels left and right, the Melvins somehow stayed a part of the Seattle scene, while also standing outside of it.

They did this by being heavier than their peers, and more abstract and psychedelic. Having more in common with Black Sabbath than Pop or Arena Rock. They were more Metal than anything else that came out of Seattle and were initially looked over by major record labels.

Kurt Cobain eventually helped them get a record deal with Atlantic Records in 1991. They recorded three now legendary albums in the 90’s while signed to the major label.

And that’s where we are going to start…

Buzz Osborne’s Guitar Rig: Houdini/Stoner Witch/Stag Era

Buzz Osborne's guitar rig
The Melvins: 1991

Buzz Osborne’s guitar rig was pretty interesting from the beginning. Strangely enough, Buzz seemed to always shy away from tube amplifiers, using pedals to craft his tone. Their major label debut, unfortunately doesn’t lend much info about how they came up with tones.

Buzz also tends to stick with what works, having said many times he knows nothing about production or sound design.

 “I just did this interview for this guitar magazine, and they ask me about my technique. And I say, ‘technique? I don’t have any technique, I just play.'”

Kurt Cobain was set to be the producer for “Houdini”, recorded at Razor’s Edge Studios in San Francisco. This was unfortunately at the height of Kurt’s drug problem, often showing up too drugged out to make any real contribution.

The Melvins ended up self producing much of the record, due to Cobain being asleep for most of the recording. This would later be a problem for Atlantic Records, since the product they delivered was deemed “unmarketable” due to the raw nature of the album.

While there was a set of studio amps at the disposal of Buzz, he mostly used his main rig for the recordings, which consisted of:

  • Sunn Beta Lead Amplifier
  • Black ’69 Les Paul Custom ( The one with the KISS sticker)
  • Proco Rat Distortion Pedal
  • Gibson Les Paul Standard
  • Hi Watt 4×12
  • Duncan JB Pickup in the Bridge
  • Gibson Les Paul Custom from the mid-70’s black with inlays like the Les Paul artisan ( Seen in The Picture)
  • BOSS Bass Overdrive (Yellow)
  • MXR Blue Box Octave Fuzz

Buzz tunes his guitars to drop D. Since the Sunn Beta Amps only really have one channel, Buzz started using the switch on his Les Paul to control his stage volume. Using the neck pickup for cleaner, quieter tones and the bridge pickup for full on distortion. He has the switches modified to go left to right, instead of up/down.

For live use, this is an interesting setup. Buzz has said he prefers the BOSS Bass Distortion because it is “less fizzy” than most other distortion pedals, and that it is more transparent. The MXR Blue Box was used in Buzz Osborne’s guitar rig as the “panic button”. This pedal was used to basically be noisy, and add oomph to the overall sound. There’s tons of videos of Buzz playing live in this era, and his tone is pretty consistent.

In the studio, though? Who knows?

The studio had several Marshall JCM amps, that may have been used recording Houdini, and Buzz owns a few Marshalls himself. It is really hard to say what was used, and what wasn’t.

But this is definitely the live Buzz Osborne guitar rig from the era. Funnily enough, a lot of these items show up on our guides for Doom Metal.

This remained the rig that Buzz used for the majority of the 90’s. The recording of “Stoner Witch” and “Hag” made no change in the rig. Looking at artists that followed, you can tell that Buzz Osborne’s guitar rig was a huge inspiration. His setup in the 90’s is basically the blueprint for modern Doom Metal.

You can hear elements of Buzz Osborne’s guitar rig all over these Atlantic-Era albums. Especially the combo of the Rat Pedal and the MXR Octave Fuzz. This is most famously heard on “Honey Bucket”. This sound is ridiculously heavy, and is a trademark of the “Houdini” album. It was a filthy album, and didn’t have any radio-friendly songs.

“Houdini” was almost a complete disaster for the record label, so for the next album they brought in the big guns for guitar sounds and production. This was meant to “reign in” The Melvins…as much as they could.

“Stoner Witch” is a little harder to pin down when it comes to Buzz Osborne’s guitar rig. This was the first time the band had access to a big, proper studio. The album was produced by Garth “GGGarth” Richardson and Joe Barresi at the legendary A&M Studios in Hollywood. I’ve seen this studio many times, and they have a vast amount of equipment there.

Buzz probably took advantage of the different amps and effects that were available, as “Stoner Witch” definitely has a larger palate of sounds than “Houdini”. Although with songs like “At The Stake” you can hear what I believe is the signature Melvins sound.

We do know that “Stoner Witch” featured the famous Black Les Paul, but it was actually recorded mostly with a Fender Mustang Reissue. Buzz has said:

I love when people come up to me and say “Your guitar sound was better on Stoner Witch, when you used a Les Paul.” I’m just, like, “What album do you think I only used a Les Paul on? Plus, I used a Fender Mustang reissue on that, dumbass!”

So now we know a little about the past. Unfortunately, in underground rock there is rarely a book of producer’s notes. Especially since The Melvins often did everything live, and in one take on their albums. Obviously, you wouldn’t require notes for a one take album.

What they used for these one take songs, is a mystery.

The “Stag” album was the final album with Atlantic Records and the recording team and location was the same as “Stoner Witch”. So onece again, it is hard to pin down what Buzz Osborne’s guitar rig was in the studio. King Buzzo… if you’re reading this, we would love to hear how these albums were recorded!


What we DO know, is Buzz kept his live rig the same throughout this time. The only thing that changed was the speaker cabinets, usually based on the size of the venue. The Sunn Beta Amps/Les Paul combo remained the same for years.

Buzz Osborne’s guitar rig went through a few changes, but it was switched so often that it’s pretty hard to keep up. There was a stint with Marshall Amplifiers, and a few boutique experiments.

But Buzz Obsorne’s Guitar Rig took a huge turn for the better in the 2000’s. It was time for a change, and Buzz made quite a few..

Buzz Osborne’s Guitar Rig: Electrical Guitar Company and Signature Guitar

Buzz Osborne's Guitar Rig: 35 Years Of Evolution, Insanity, And Sublime Innovation
Image Courtesy of Getty Images

While a lot of the DNA of Buzz Osborne’s guitar rig has remained the same over the years, there have been some interesting choices in gear over the last 15 years or so. With experience, comes knowledge, and I cannot think of too many guitarists that have made such a drastic change for the better over the years.

Buzz Osborne’s guitar rig changed because of convenience. Look, touring is tough on your instruments. A guitar is made of wood, and wood can be temperamental, even when you’re playing an expensive Les Paul Custom. This makes the guitar tech’s job harder, and the guitar player’s life harder as well.

Buzz has always been unapologetically unconventional with his setup. Most guitar players will scoff at a solid state amplifier being used instead of a tube amp. But Buzz had it right, from the get-go. The Melvins are constantly touring, and the Sunn Beta Amps that Buzz used in the 90’s were resilient. No tubes=less work and downtime.

But the guitar is still a point of contention. Luckily, there was an answer for this also, and it has become a mainstay in Buzz Osborne’s guitar rig.

Buzz Osborne's Guitar Rig: 35 Years Of Evolution, Insanity, And Sublime Innovation
King Buzzo Signature model

Buzz Osborne’s rig changed in a huge way when he got hooked up with Kevin from the Electrical Guitar Company. Kevin Burkett is a avid guitar player, and has played in many touring bands. he found that there were serious issues with reliability when it came to traditional guitars.

But necessity is the mother of invention. he started swapping out the necks of his guitars with Travis Bean necks. At the same time, he was afraid to take these expensive metal-necked instruments out on the road, as they are very expensive. he saved up some cash, bought a huge supply of aluminum, and filled up the back of his car with it. He talked to every machinist in town before he finally found one to teach him how to make an all metal guitar!

The nature of these instruments means you never have to adjust the neck. You never have to setup your guitar in the middle of a tour. And best yet, you never have to retire a guitar because you’re too afraid to take it out on the road with you. Kevin checked his messages one day on his answering machine…it was Buzz, wanting a guitar built.

Buzz Osborne’s guitar rig changed forever once he started working with Kevin Burkett. The King Buzzo Standard models are all aluminum, with an extra skinny neck that could never be possible with wood. Buzz uses the same pickups his beloved Les Paul comes with, the 490T. The rest of the instrument is all aluminum.

Buzz Osborne's Guitar Rig: 35 Years Of Evolution, Insanity, And Sublime Innovation

New Amp and Speaker Setup For Live/ Recording

Buzz Osborne’s guitar rig changed in more ways than just the guitars he was using. In my opinion, it seems like he has tried to make his setup as bulletproof as possible. This makes sense if you spend 250 days a year on the road playing shows.

Buzz continues to use Sunn Beta Amplifiers as his main amp. These are still the original ’79 solid state versions that he started with, back in the 80s. But there has been a big change to his cabinets and pedals:

  • Custom Empress Cabinets- 2×15 and 12×15
  • Way Huge Pedal
  • MXR Compressor
  • BOSS Bass Distortion
  • Octavio Fuzz Octave
  • BOSS Tuner
Buzz Osborne's Guitar Rig: 35 Years Of Evolution, Insanity, And Sublime Innovation
Image Courtesy of Premier Guitar

The Empress cabinets are the biggest change to Buzz Osborne’s guitar rig. These have replaced the Hiwatt 4×12 Cabinets from the 90’s. The 4×12 cabinet setup is a staple in the guitar pantheon. So of course Buzz did something completely different.

The two 15” speakers is something of an anomaly in the guitar world. Personally, I don’t know why more guitarists refuse to use them. The 15’s in this cabinet cover the low end and mix with the BOSS Bass Distortion really well. The most interesting thing is that they do all of this without stepping on the bass guitar in the mix. It’s not the most conventional setup, but it works.

The Way Huge and Octavio take the place of the MXR Blue Box from his original live rig in the 90’s. Once again, it is used for over the top fuzzed-out madness. Buzz has said the compressor is for controlled feedback and generating noise. These all work with the 2×15 cabinet to create the huge low end while still remaining clear and distinct.

The genius of the entire amp setup lies in the other cabinet. The second cab runs a single 12” speaker and another 15”. When playing live, the microphone is set to the single 12”, and one of the 15” speakers. This covers all kinds of sonic territory, providing mid-range to come through with rumbling bass.

Buzz says about the cabinets:

“I think 15’s are very overlooked by most guitarists. I have Empress make these cabinets custom for me, with the name “Blown” on them. That way when someone asks what kind of cabinets I use, I tell them I use Blown speakers”

Almost everything about Buzz Osborne’s guitar rig is unconventional. I wouldnt expect anything less out of King Buzzo, but none of the choices are made just to be “different”. It all comes down to practicality. Function over fashion, which should honestly be The Melvin’s motto.

As far as recording goes, Buzz Osborne’s guitar rig is the same for most of the recording duties these days. It seems he is finally content with his rig.


Buzz Osborne’s Guitar Rig: Wrapping Up

Buzz Osborne's Guitar Rig: 35 Years Of Evolution, Insanity, And Sublime Innovation

I think a lot can be said about going against the grain with your guitar rig. While we have so many people turning to modeling amps and complicated processor setups, there is something to be said about keeping it simple. Buzz Osborne’s guitar rig has seen multiple incarnations over the years, but it has also stayed the same in one aspect.

Simple.

The internet has bred some kind of hive-mind idea that everyone needs X+Y to play Metal, usually Celestion Vintage 30’s and a Peavey 5150. This just isn’t true. Buzz Osborne’s guitar rig is a great example of this. Sometimes you need to think outside the box, and more importantly… outside of internet opinions.

You should use whatever works for you. Whatever sounds right to you. Not what some stranger on the internet tries to tell you. There are many ways to achieve an original tone, and you can only find them by going against the grain!

What Amplifiers does Buzz Osborne use?

He uses the Sunn Beta Lead Amplifiers. These are solid state amps from the 1970’s.

What kind of guitar does Buzz Osborne play?

Buzz Osborne plays several models from The Electrical Guitar Company. These guitars are all metal, made from aluminum.

Which pedals does Buzz Osborne use?

His main source of distortion is the BOSS Bass Distortion. he also uses various form of fuzz and octave fuzz.

Who makes the cabinets for Buzz Osborne’s guitar rig?

Empress Cabinets makes custom “Blown” speaker cabs for him. One cabinet is 2×15, and the other has a single 12” with another 15”.

Does Buzz Osborne still use his black Les Paul?

He no longer uses his black Les Paul custom when playing live. He exclusively plays guitars made by The Electrical Guitar Company.

Christoper Horton

Christopher started playing guitar in 1994 at 14 years old. He has been a part of the Metal community for the last 25 years and has 11 solo albums under his belt. Christopher started his career in Atlanta, Georgia in the late 90's, later securing a major label record deal in the early 2000s under the name IAMSOUND. He worked briefly as a hired gun in Los Angeles before he opened his own studio in 2010 in Savannah, Georgia. Chris has worked with some big names over the years like Tripping Daisy, Kylesa, Baroness, and the legendary Reflux.

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