Not Your Everyday Big Muff Pi: When Premier Guitar was brainstorming pedal manufacturers to approach about being part of this special four-cover/collectible-custom-pedal issue, Electro-Harmonix was a no-brainer because of its place in stompbox history and the quality of its products. Here, senior quality control technician Zaida Sojos tests one of the custom PG “Pedal Issue” units seen on select November 2010 issues.

The Russian Connection
If you look back at EHX boxes over the years, they’ve all got a pretty similar look—brushed, folded-metal enclosures with bright color schemes. That was until Matthews ceased US production in the mid ’80s and hooked up with Russian producers to both export Russian-made pedals and get into the tube trade. “In 1979, we were doing a lot of business with Communist countries. I got a letter inviting us to one of the first-ever trade shows in Moscow open to consumer companies,” Matthews remembers. “This was a huge trade show with exhibitors from the US, Germany, and Japan. I thought ‘I gotta go.’

“But, as it turned out, no one in Russia had any money. In the end, we got no orders. The show was a failure. Russia wanted our stuff, but they had no money. What could I buy from Russia? They needed money. I decided to try to buy integrated circuits, Russian integrated circuits— these cheap, jellybean ICs that would cost 15 to 20 cents apiece. When I went over to visit, I had to go to the Ministry of Electronics to talk business. There I saw, hanging on the wall, vacuum tubes. I said ‘Send me some samples,’ which I got a month later. I took them out to Jess Oliver, who worked at Ampeg and designed most of the great Ampeg amps. He said the tubes were good, so I switched from wanting to buy ICs to vacuum tubes.”

As luck would have it, this gambit paid off pretty well. “I was able to grow a lot faster. I was able to start a good business with the ICs, but because I called on people in the music industry—and because they knew me—they would try the tubes. Now I own the factory. So the ’79 trade show was a failure, but it got me into vacuum tubes and the tubes got me back into Electro-Harmonix. And that got us back into the pedals. I partnered with a military company that repackaged the Big Muff and Small Stone.”

If you’ve ever wondered what the deal is with the austere-looking black versions of the Big Muff Pi and Small Stone, they’re the result of this Russian connection. They bore the Sovtek brand name, and they had yellow lettering (there were also green-and-black and black-and-red versions at various times). However, by the mid ’90s, EHX had begun reissuing original designs, and in 2002 they began adding new designs to the lineup once again. And as recent offerings like the Ring Thing (reviewed July 2010), the Cathedral Stereo Reverb (Feb. 2010), and POG prove, the company is clearly in the midst of a second golden age.

Carousing with the Competition: Friend and fellow effect pioneer
Bob Moog (left) stops by to say hello to Matthews circa 2003.

The Irony of Immortality
As far as the current boutique pedal boom, Matthews says he welcomes the competition. “We have the Electro-Harmonix name and the history. And, instead of having one or two of these companies to compete with, we have one or two hundred—which actually makes it easier. But most of these guys, y’know, they’re into analog stuff only. They’ll bring out their own versions of various flangers or distortion pedals. They come up with some good stuff, but it’s too expensive. I’m happy for the competition— they compete with each other.”

As for what’s ahead for Electro-Harmonix, Matthews is blunt when asked if he’ll offer up a peek. “No. But what’s really hot right now—what we’ve sold out of—is the Freeze (reviewed this issue). If you hold down the momentary switch, it’s constantly taking a sample—so whatever you’ve played is frozen and sustained. And you can play on top of that and release that switch and it dies out. It’s very musical.”

And then he launches back to the past, back to his original goal of immortality. On one hand, he seems to have given up the goal. On the other, it seems he’s attained it through the role he played—and continues to play—in both the history of musical instrument manufacturing and guitar music.

“In the late ’70s,” Matthews confides, “I had too many problems all at once. It was overwhelming. I was expanding into too many things and I collapsed. Since we reformed, I’ve become more conservative. Now I’m much stronger financially and more patient—and not trying to whip death. I’m just trying to make money and have fun and take things slower.”