Matthews and company chase the sound of the most coveted vintage Big Muff and come dang close to hitting the mark—and for less than 100 bucks.
Sweet, smooth, mid-forward, and super-rich Big Muff tones. Super-accessible price.
Some high gain settings can sound sizzly and extra-compressed. No violet graphics!
Electro-Harmonix Ram's Head Big Muff
Ease of Use:
Big Muff enthusiasts tend to be a bunch of freaks. For starters, most like their fuzz deafeningly massive and impolite, making it fair to classify at least a few as pathologically anti-social. But Electro-Harmonix gave the Big Muff cult other reasons to be obsessively odd—primarily by creating dozens of iterations of the circuit that engender, shall we say, robust opinions and loyalties, even over the subtlest differences.
But if there's one thing that almost every Big Muff fan can agree on, it's that a great Ram's Head—the colloquial name given to a generation of Muffs from the early-to-mid-'70s—is a magical thing. It's taken a while for Electro-Harmonix to get around to a formal reissue of the Ram's Head. But after a few very satisfying weeks with this pedal, it seems plausible that the time was spent getting it just right. It possesses most of the virtues that make a Ram's Head great. And when you consider the sub-$100 price, it's hard to not be impressed at what the Ram's Head Big Muff delivers.
Blue Mood Muff
EHX says the new, nano-sized Ram's Head is based on the now-legendary “violet" iteration—a variant built around 1973 and distinguished by vivid colors (a striking violet among them) and a particular component mix that generates a smooth, detailed, and slightly mid-forward voice.
A peek at the circuit reveals few overt clues about how the new Ram's Head differs from other mass-produced, four-transistor Big Muffs, or how it might achieve any special Ram's Headiness. There's four prominent but generic BC547 transistors arrayed on a through-hole printed circuit board. And if it weren't for the handsome reproduction of original Ram's Head graphics on the circuit board and enclosure, you'd have little reason to suspect it was special.
But you need to only plug in the new Ram's Head alongside a bunch of classic Big Muffs and first-rate clones to hear how impressively it generates the sounds, textures, and tactile response that distinguish the Ram's Head.
I don't own an original Ram's Head Big Muff, though I've had the pleasure of playing a few. I do have a few very nice Ram's Head clones, however: an original bubble-font Sovtek Big Muff, several Sovtek clones, and a few triangle Muff clones. My favorites among these were used as reference for this review of the new Ram's Head.
Old Big Muff circuits are notoriously inconsistent, making pursuit of a perfectly representative specimen folly and a game of chance. But one of the most striking things about the Ram's Head—both in legend, and in this newest version—is how often it seems to borrow the best attributes of each Big Muff version.
In general terms, the new Ram's Head is growlier in the midrange than most Russian-style Muffs (which are famously extra-scooped and wooly) and “triangle" versions (which are often more focused, fizzier, and white-hot in the high-mids). Sustained single notes are smoother and more sonorous than the output from triangle versions, and tend to split the difference between a triangle's silicon fizziness and a Russian-type's cabernet-smooth contours. It marks an absolute sweet spot, in my opinion, and a reason for Animals-era Gilmour fans to take note.
Fuzz Flights and Muffy Pairings
One of the unsung virtues of most Muffs is how adaptive they are to wildly divergent gear pairings (an uncommon quality among vintage fuzzes). The Ram's Head prominently bears this distinction. Lead lines positively sing with thin single-coils, and become smoother and more vocal still when paired with humbuckers. It's quite happy with either pickup type, even at the highest gain and tone settings.
With respect to amps, some of the Ram's Head's most distinctive qualities, particularly the detail and air in the midrange, are less distinctive in Fender-style pairings. (Many Ram's Head tones were made downright Russian with a Bassman downstream.) With a brighter Marshall in the mix, though, you can more distinctly hear the Ram's Head's midrange sparkle and throatier voice.
Stacking the Ram's Head with boost and overdrive, meanwhile, can yield fantastic-to-messy results. The Ram's Head's intrinsic midranginess can make some compound Muff/OD tones cluttered and compressed, where a Tube Screamer and a Russian Muff might dovetail into a balanced whole. On the other hand, more dynamic overdrives and boosts with flexible EQ options can help you sculpt very precise fuzz tones that leverage the Ram's Head's even, well-rounded voice.
The Ram's Head's balanced and blazing lead tones also cut beautifully through thick modulation, situated both up and downstream from the Muff. (I used a Moog flanger and vintage Small Stone for these tests.) And though the Ram's Head doesn't lend the same oomph and definition to detuned guitars that you get from a mid-scooped Russian version, it still lends explosiveness to throbbing low-D and C-string tones.
To the extent the Ram's head does lower-gain distortion tones, it excels. Placing the Ram's Head's gain control at noon yields some of the smoothest high/mid-gain fuzz you'll hear from the Muff family. (I often use such settings to tame the high-mid spikes that can plague Big Muff/Marshall combinations, and, in this context, this Ram's Head shines.)
At 99 bucks, the EHX Ram's Head Big Muff is a steal. It handily approximates the sound and feel of much more expensive clones and is surprisingly versatile for a fuzz that many regard as inflexible. Whether you are an experienced Muff user or a newbie eager to explore the myth of the Ram's Head, this new nano-version is both an impressive performer and a representative point of departure.
Watch the First Look: