Roots Radical: EHX's Big Muff
Written by Nicholas Kula
All the way back in 1969, just a short two years after the Summer of Love in San Francisco, Mike Matthews and his partner Bob Myer cooked up the first Big Muff on perfboard, just like you or I might put a pedal together today. Matthews, a rock ‘n’ roll keyboardist and recent Cornell graduate, had gotten his start manufacturing Foxey Lady pedals for Guild, which in its original form was a near-copy of the Mosrite Fuzz-rite, itself an alleged riff on the Rhodes Fuzz, designed by one session player named Red Rhodes. Matthews and company altered the design to what we know as the Big Muff, and switched up the Foxey Lady design to accommodate it. Soon after, EHX-branded Muffs hit the scene and the company never looked back.
Since that fateful day in 1969, nary a pedal has been copied more times or tweaked as much as the EHX Big Muff. With over 30 documented variants under its own name, the Muff is one of the most modified circuits in history, with many mods part of official EHX Muff canon.
Unofficial names abound in the Muff’s storied lineage, the aforementioned “perfboard” Muff is colloquially known as such because it’s built on a pre-perforated circuit board. The Triangle Muff is named because its knobs form a triangle shape. “Ram’s Head” and “Violet Ram’s Head” stem from the EHX company logo found in the bottom-right corner, the latter because of the print color. Many more iterations exist that followed the company through its history, to Russia and back.
While we might view pedal clones as a newer phenomenon, cloning actually existed even back in the ‘60s. Mosrite ended up having the contents of the Fuzz-rite encased in a solitary integrated circuit by Sprague, and the first Tone Bender is a modified Maestro FZ-1. The Big Muff was certainly not immune to cloners, getting its first bite in 1972 by Jordan Electronics with the (ironically named) Creator. Many other companies followed, with several notable entries: the Ibanez 850 Overdrive, Maxon D&S, Elk Super Fuzz Sustainar (sic), used by Wata of Boris and a slew of others by companies like Sekova, Lyle, Marveltone, Jen and many, almost innumerably more.
Matthews and company shuttered in 1982, but nine years later resumed operations in Russia, first issuing the Mike Matthews’ Red Army Overdrive and continuing on for several more iterations with a litany of different paint jobs and enclosure sizes. Just like other Muffs, the value and collectability followed the timeline of “neutral, low, high,” and soon, players began to ask for the Russian versions by (unofficial) name, either as the “Civil War,” “Green Russian,” and “Black Russian” versions, with several subnames in each category, and each one brought to prominence by a different famous musician who favored one version above all others.
Many famous guitar gods are privy to a certain version. J. Mascis of Dinosaur Jr. claims any Muffs made after the Ram’s Head version “are [fart noise],” something he actually and very animatedly said to this writer during his time in music retail. However, Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour chose the Civil War version above all else for the Division Bell album and tour. Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys and Stephen O’Malley of drone collective Sunn 0))) prefer the Green Russian version to all others despite playing drastically different types of music. The first well-known recording using a Big Muff ended up being cut by the Carpenters on “Goodbye To Love,” featuring the Triangle Muff that’s supposed to be the hairiest of all the renditions, yet found itself gnashed in the gears of Richard and Karen’s soft rock machine.
With so many players across so many genres playing one, it can be tough to nail down the sound of the Big Muff, and some people wouldn’t even consider it a fuzz, though Matthews himself says that it is. Its core sound would be that of a harmonic sustainer, as Matthews designed the dual-clipping stage with “violin-like” sustain in mind. The Muff supposedly works best when fed to a clean, high-headroom amp, as its punishing output volume can work best its mojo in this arrangement. The Muff also stacks amazingly well, pairing up with almost any overdrive or distortion pedal to stellar returns. The result is always different when the Muff and another pedal do battle, and guitarists have used this unpredictability to great effect in the last 60 years.
In the present day, modern builders have paid great homage to Matthews’s circuit, with several well-known companies getting their “big break,” as it were, with their Muff-esque offerings. Pedals such as EarthQuaker’s Hoof and Black Arts Toneworks’s Pharaoh acted as a trebuchet for the careers of such companies, and other products such as the Big Tone Music Brewery Royal Beaver and JHS Muffuletta have taken the circuit to absurdly opulent ends. And because there exists hundreds—if not thousands—of Muff interpretations with more being built all the time, it’s safe to say that the Big Muff is an enigma—there is simultaneously much like it and nothing like it.