There are few sounds and models of instruments that sit atop the family tree of sound. For better or worse, these are the original masters of tone that are ceaselessly emulated. The Big Muff (add ‘Pi’ or ‘π’ for its full name) certainly gets a seat at this lauded table of hugely influential tone makers.
From its beginnings at the adolescence of rock ‘n’ roll, this pedal has coloured the sound of guitar like no other. 50 years into its existence, this invention straight out of the Woodstock generation is showing no signs of slowing down. If fact, it continues to evolve thanks to the players who champion it and the makers who are determined to extract the most life possible from this unique pedal.
The Big Muff π began life in the late ’60s, breaking down the sound of the guitar to its elements and rebuilding it with colourful, glorious fuzz.
A Team Effort
A meeting between two like-minded engineers, Mike Matthews and Bob Myer set the train in motion for the production of the Big Muff. The first collaboration between the two yielded the LBP-1 Linear Power Booster. This pedal was auspicious for another reason: it became the first released under Matthews’ newly founded Electro-Harmonix company.
The minor success of this model was enough to encourage the pair to continue their hunt for a groundbreaking sound. The team experimented with other circuits in the same enclosure and this resulted in what Matthews coined the ‘Muff Fuzz’. Matthews was keen to build a three-knob pedal that would incorporate a lot of sustain and supercharged distortion: the Big Muff was born.
Sign of the Times
Since guitarists first plugged into amps, there had been experiments, intentional or not, with distortion. In the beginning, distortion wasn’t the goal, but those tubes couldn’t help but be warmed up when guitar amps were cranked up. The resulting perfectly imperfect sound of distortion went hand-in-hand with the atmosphere of teen rebellion that swept through the ’50s.
In the ’60s, distortion was elevated to an art – the hitherto breakup of the amp tubes was augmented with the help of pedals specifically made to create crunch. A pioneering voice in the field of fuzz was the Maestro Fuzz-Tone, finding a champion in The Rolling Stones hit (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.
Other fuzzes that featured in the ’60s were the Tonebender Mk1 – this pedal was favoured by Jimmy Page when he played with The Yardbirds. Another influential pedal in this formative period was the Dallas Arbiter Fuzz Face – a moon-shaped stompbox conceived well before the time when we needed to consider pedalboard real estate. This pedal was a first-choice fuzz for none other than Jimi Hendrix.
The Big Muff, however, added extra depth to the character of fuzz. Compressed, sustained and saturated with multiple stages of distortion, with a slightly scooped mid-range that served to accentuate its harmonic richness in the top-end of the frequency spectrum.
Mark 1 of the Big Muff (known as the ‘Triangle’) gave way to another classic version which was nicknamed the ‘Ram’s Head’. This incarnation of the pedal was immortalised by David Gilmour soaring solos with Pink Floyd. Years later, it also became central to the tone of J Mascis – the bone-crushing wall of sound that typifies the sound of Dinosaur Jr. owes a lot to this elegant fuzz circuit.
By the late ’70s, Electro-Harmonix was a booming company. As is the case when companies expand the scale of production, the cost of manufacturing became a concern. This brought about the inclusion of the Op-Amp Big Muff – a design that enabled the team to cut down the traditional four-stage transistor circuit. Far from a pariah, this version of the pedal made its way onto some important recordings. Billy Corgan of The Smashing Pumpkins used it extensively on seminal records Gish and Siamese Dream.
The Big Muff’s continued appeal is partly due to the aesthetic tweaks that Electro-Harmonix has made throughout its life. From the early iterations – simple silver – through to the late ’70s – the iconic red and black versions – through to the revisions of today. Electro-Harmonix was always adept at developing the Big Muff’s identity throughout its lifetime and creating a compelling narrative – not bad for a pedal with just three knobs.
For what it’s worth Electro-Harmonix was doing its part to deescalate the simmering tensions between the US and Russia in the Cold War period. Matthews owned the New Sensor Corporation: a company based in Russia that manufactured vacuum tubes, guitar and bass amps and significantly, its own version of the Big Muff. This military-inspired version of the pedal made its own waves in terms of aesthetic and sound, contributing heavily to the tone of noise-rock icons, Sonic Youth.
It’s rare that a single sound can transcend the various eras of rock. Even more interesting is the way that it epitomises style in different ways – it sounds just as at home in the soaring solos of David Gilmour, as it does in the full-scale sonic assault of J Mascis. It proves that no matter what your approach is, sometimes all you need is volume, tone and sustain.
Note: For an unparalleled exploration of the history of this one-of-a-kind pedal, visit Kit Rae’s Big Muff π page.