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May 2014
more... Builder ProfileGearEffectsNovember 2010Electro-Harmonix

Builder Profile: Electro-Harmonix

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Builder Profile: Electro-Harmonix


An assortment of late-’70s Mike Matthews creations (left to right): a Deluxe Electric
Mistress, a Muff Fuzz, and a Polyphase. Photos by Tom Hughes

Pi in the Sky—and Everywhere Else

If there’s one pedal that EHX is most known for, it’s the Big Muff Pi. Myer and Matthews came up with its design in 1969. “When I came out with the Big Muff, I spent a lot of time shaping the cascading gain stages, which gave a super-long sustain. I also worked a lot with the filters to get the notes to sound less raspy and more sinusoidal and smooth. That’s how the Big Muff got its long, violin-like sustain, because the filters filtered out the harsh cross products.”

From there, the Big Muff Pi sold like, er, hotcakes. “I brought the first ones up to Manny’s Music and Henry [Goldrich], the owner at that time, told me that Hendrix just bought one,” Matthews recalls. “Carlos Santana bought a Big Muff mail order. He sent in a check—a Carlos Santana check, y’know, with his drums and bongos on it— and Carlos Santana stationery. We still have copies of that here.”

At that point, it seems the floodgates had opened fully—both crazy product names and off-the-wall design ideas were flowing freely. “One of the other ideas I had around that time was a guitar that had a speaker that was in a ceramic case that screwed into the guitar. So the guitar output would go to an amp, but part of it would bleed into a separate amp that would feed the signal back into the ceramic speaker that would give you some actual real feedback right into the guitar.”

As for the funky names on Electro- Harmonix gear, the story behind them is predictably circuitous. “What happened with the Big Muff is that, we had this treble booster, our bass booster, and then we had a fuzz. It had a muffled sound, so I called it the Muff Fuzz. Later on, when we developed the superior distortionsustainer unit, because we already had the Muff, I called it the Big Muff. That’s how it came about—it evolved. But I also like those names with a double meaning. And the Bad Stone was just trying to play off the name of the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” hit. I came up with most all the names.”

With Hendrix and Santana using Big Muffs at the height of their powers, it’s no wonder the devices did so well. “We were building 3000 Big Muffs a month,” Matthews says. “We quickly followed it with some variations. We had a little treble booster, a bass booster, a Little Muff . . . and there wasn’t that much competition.”

But that didn’t last long. “MXR came along and they were a big competitor. We battled. They came on big with the Phase 90, and we were really working hard to come out with a phase shifter. As we were working on it, the problem was that there was some feedback. But that feedback turned out sounding good, so we captured it. You could have regular phasing or, with the flick of a switch, you could have feedback and get this really edgy sound. The feedback would sharpen the notes. A lot of our competitors, they hate noise. Anything that has noise has to be taken out. They’ll work their asses off filtering out every ounce of noise to the point where they filter out the feeling. I mean, playing music is really . . . it’s getting out feelings. So I always want to leave the feeling in.”


Left: The top row of this Small Stone collection shows left to right) a mid-’70s model with minimalist graphics, a late-’70s version with large orange lettering, early-’80s and mid-’90s models with blocky black-and-orange graphics, and a recent Small Stone Nano, while the bottom row features three Electro-Harmonix/Sovtek co-branded units built in Russia and a US-made late-’70s Bad Stone. Photo courtesy pedalarea.com. Middle: A late-’70s Electro-Harmonix Echo Flanger. Photo by Tom Hughes. Right: An early-’90s Mike Matthews-branded Soul Kiss wah-type effect. It features a plastic case with a strap clip and is controlled with the mouthpiece coiled next to it. Photo by Tom Hughes.

A Fistful of Firsts to Finance Immortality
For decades now, stompboxes from a plethora of manufacturers have been available in such variety that we take them for granted. But Matthews says it was his company that pioneered distortion, delay, modulation, and even sampler pedals. “The old Electro- Harmonix, we had great sounds—we were very innovative. We were first with a lot of things. I mean, we were first with a flanger that wasn’t something you created for the studio. We were first with analog delay. We were first with low-cost samplers—the Instant Replay and Super Replay. I took those to Ikutaro Kakehashi, Roland’s founder. He liked the technology. He flew me to Japan and wanted me and David [Cockerell, designer of the Small Stone] to be part of Roland. But his chief engineer thought they could do it themselves, so I made a deal with Akai. Kakehashi told me it was his biggest mistake, because Akai samplers ruled the industry.”

While Matthews may come across as pretty bold, he’s also honest about some of the company’s early setbacks. “Instead of really focusing on the chassis and the mechanical construction, we moved on to the next thing. A lot of the early pedals were flimsy and broke down easily. That was not our bag, at that time. That was back in the ’60s and ’70s. Now, of course, our products are built rock-solid.”

Matthews continued his overall quest for immortality in the early 1970s with a trip to Haiti and dalliances with the powers of mental telepathy. Fortunately, the quest also involved making effects pedals. Lots and lots of effects pedals.

“In order to whip death, I had to grow the business,” Matthews explains. “Double it in size every year. If we missed that goal and only grew by 50 percent, we’d have to make it up the next year. Again, it was back to my ex-wife and this goal—it was absurd—to whip death in my own lifetime. I was always interested in expanding, in coming out with more stuff so I could make more money, hire more engineers, and have a great scientific think tank that would help me eventually whip death.” Considering the time period, it’s easy to assume this exceedingly lofty goal was all some sort of flower-power pipe dream. But Matthews says, “I wasn’t a hippie, I was a loner. I had long hair, but I wasn’t really in any group. I was just into making money, having fun, playing in the group.”

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