Sovteks and a Stogie: Mike Matthews leans on an Electro-Harmonix-designed Sovtek Bassov Blues Midget head in a room full of Sovtek tubes and testing machines circa 2008.
Among the multitudes of stompbox manufacturers to have come and gone over the years, Electro-Harmonix is one of the longest running and most prolific. They’ve also made some of the most iconic pedals of all time, including the Big Muff Pi, the Small Stone, and the Deluxe Memory Man. The fact that this company—founded by the enigmatic Mike Matthews in 1968—was there when the fuzz box craze started is amazing. The fact that it has thrived during so many changes in popular music is even more so. Today, certain EHX pedals are must-haves for many players, and the company’s influence has most assuredly been a huge factor in the boutique stompbox boom of the last two decades.

As you can imagine, based on the warped sounds that emanate from so many EHX devices, Matthews’ story and the saga of Electro-Harmonix is a long, twisted tale that could only happen in the world of rock ’n’ roll.

From Kool-Aid Stands to Guild Foxey Lady Fuzzes

Matthews’ tale begins in New York City. “Ever since I was a kid, I was always into business— y’know, big money,” he says. “On the street in the Bronx, my mother first set me up with one of those stands to sell drinks. And our drinks were better because she helped me make real fresh juice as opposed to Kool-Aid or . . . stuff out of the sewers. I was just always into hustling and business as a kid. I also started playing piano when I was 5. It was classical, and I quit in the fourth grade."

Then came rock ’n’ roll. “I really got into it in college, but I didn’t know what the hell I wanted to do. My father said, ‘Well, you’ve got to have a profession.’ So, for no particular reason, I registered in electrical engineering. Between the electrical engineering, being into business, and being a musician, it was sort of natural for me to fall into this industry.”

Even as he was beginning this free-fall toward immortality in the pantheon of stompbox pioneers, Matthews got married and started to feel his literal mortality. “I got married young,” he says, “and my first wife told me I should work toward a goal. So I took that to the ultimate extreme—this was right at the beginning of Electro-Harmonix—and that goal was . . . to whip death. In my own lifetime.”

Back up. Weren’t we talking about effects pedals here? Rock ’n’ roll?

“If you look at each generation,” says Matthews, “they live longer than the last. I thought if you look ahead a hundred years, people will be regularly living to 100, 120, maybe even 200 years. A thousand years from now, they’ll cross the threshold where they just won’t die.”

Smacking Rather Than Stomping: Matthews lets loose on an Electro-Harmonix Mini-Synth, circa 1979.
Rediscovering Roots
Though he’d had his head in the electrical engineering space, Matthews couldn’t stay out of the rock world for long. The road to becoming a guitar-gear kingpin began with Matthews wanting to get back into playing music—which he had given up temporarily to take a straight job as a salesman for IBM. “You know how it is,” he says, “once it gets into your blood, you want to get back. You like the people digging you. You want to be a star. The ladies, the money, the glory. Basically the glory, y’know.” [Laughs.]

As Matthews rediscovered his rock roots, he also witnessed the renaissance that was unfolding around him in Greenwich Village. He gigged around the area and got close to some of the biggest players of the day, including Jimi Hendrix. The two met when the future Strat master was working as a sideman for Curtis Knight and the Squires, and Matthews says he encouraged Hendrix to develop his vocal abilities so he could move on to establish his own career. Hendrix apparently did so, and soon went off to England as Matthews went his own way.

The future pedal guru was in and out of day jobs and night gigs, but through it all he clung to the dream of breaking out. And slowly but surely, Matthews found ways to make money from music.

“My relationship with Hendrix had really no effect on my work,” he says, “because I wanted to start playing again. At that time, ‘Satisfaction’ was a big hit. It was Number One for 13 weeks, I think. Everybody wanted a fuzz tone, but Maestro couldn’t make them fast enough. I started building fuzz tones to make some quick money so I could quit my day gig at IBM and play music again.”

Matthews and then-partner Bill Berko, an audio repairman who claimed to have his own custom fuzz circuit, outsourced construction of the units and sold them to Guild, which ended up labeling them “Foxey Lady” in an effort to capitalize on Hendrix’s rising popularity.

But for Matthews, starting his own business was the real dream. “Back in ’68, I worked with this brilliant guy, Bob Myer at Bell Labs, trying to design a distortion-free sustainer, so everybody could sound like Jimi Hendrix. The LPB-1, the Linear Power Booster, started the business.”

As Myer developed the LPB-1, he found that it wasn’t difficult to create a circuit that sensed the lower volume and turned up the gain as a note died out. The real difficulty was decreasing the gain fast enough so that there weren’t horrendous popping sounds when a new note was struck.

In short order, Matthews learned a few things about the guitar business. “I started out selling the LPB-1s via mail order,” he recalls. “You can’t sell direct as a manufacturer and at the same time sell to stores [laughs], because a store isn’t going to buy something that competes with them. What I did was advertise at full list, and the stores would still get their discount. I didn’t make a profit, but it basically paid for my advertising. As such, I was able to advertise as a big company, which gave me a big presence and built up demand at the stores.”