Big Muffs: Distortion or Fuzz Units
Hey fellow gear heads and guitar lovers one and all!
I thought I would write a follow up piece to last week’s blog about overdrive pedals. I decided to spend time dedicating my thoughts to one particular unit that has won the hearts and minds of many a guitarist: The Electro Harmonix Big Muff pedal! I’ve recently become a convert to these stomp boxes and I wanted to share with you all what I’ve learned about their history, collectability, differences between variants over the years, and notable users so I can help you get the most out of your guitar tone at home or in the studio. Remember the wise adage once spoken by many a guitar tone freak: “If you ain’t got tone, you must go home!”
First off, many of you might be asking yourselves “What the hell is a Big Muff and why should I invest in yet another pedal???”.
The History: Big Muff’s were the creation of a small electronics company in the late 1960’s, Electro Harmonix, and they grew to become one of the most influential, and widely used stomp boxes of all time! Created by legendary guitar effects guru Mike Matthews in 1969 and going on to full out mass production in 1970, Big Muffs were designed to help electric guitarists of the time get a more violin like sustain from their instrument so they could cut through a band with solos, or add meaty amounts of distortion thickness to guitar riffs. Big Muff production has been going strong for nearly 50 years!
The circuit: The Big Muff circuit design was unique for its time because it used a four stage Silicon transistor circuit that wasn’t as limited as other pedals of this type. Most fuzz/distortion pedals of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s used germanium transistors which gave guitarists a particular tone in their arsenal, but they came with quite a few drawbacks. Germanium transistors are extremely sensitive to temperature changes and can squeal or stop working under extreme heat conditions. This can make it a major pain in the butt to take this style of pedals out for live performance use. Germanium transistors are also sensitive to their placement in the pedal chain of pedalboards, most needing to be placed at the beginning of your signal chain. The Big Muff circuit design solved both of these issues by replacing germanium components with more reliable silicon components.
As for the sound of the Big Muff pedal themselves: I have found they are incredibly addicting once you get a feel for the sound under your fingers. I grew up playing blues on relatively clean Fender amplifiers, so jumping into a Big Muff at first was a big of a jump for me. But once I learned how to control the distortion feeling under my fingers, I was hooked for life!
Big Muffs can sound extremely loud with thunder like low end punch, and at the other end of the spectrum can also be quite piercing in the highs depending on how you dial the pedal in. As I swept through the tone knob I could go from deep, bassy, sludgy kind of tone (great for 90’s grunge), to thick and piercing (great for classic rock), and buzz saw like trebly hits (great for cutting through a mix or really making your neighbors hate you). Big Muffs tend to have a unique characteristically mid scooped tone (the mid frequencies are pulled out of the frequency spectrum when the pedal is on), and are one of those pedals that completely transforms your tone of your guitar. There is no guitar volume knob roll off with your guitar or smooth clarity like when the pedal is in bypass, when a Big Muff is on: You’ll know it!
Big Muff Variations Over the Years: In the decades that followed the original release of the Big Muff, Mike Matthews and his staff worked relentlessly to update the effect by constantly changing out components. Some of the component changes were because as a company, Electro Harmonix would purchase the cheapest electronics components they could find in bulk and use them until they ran out. This could produce differences between versions just because they electrical components themselves weren’t always of consistent quality between electrical values, and because each reorder of electronic components might not be the same. That is why is it common place to try several versions of Big Muff’s out until you find one you like best for your uses.
Pedal Historians tend to agree that there are three main groupings of vintage Big Muffs:
The Original Vintage USA Big Muff Pi which include (#1 the triangle version, #2 the Ram’s head (noted by a photo of a Ram’s head on the pedal, version #3, and version #6). These versions of the Big Muff are traditionally thought to be smoother. Used by Santana, David Gilmour of Pink Floyd, Frank Zappa, and allegedly Jimi Hendrix in recording sessions!
· The Op Amp Big Muffs which used a IC chip instead of the traditional circuit include (version #4 and version #5) These versions of the Big Muff are traditionally thought to be more crushing. These models were made famous by the guitarist for Smashing Pumpkins Billy Corgan, who used these Big Muffs to create huge walls of distortion in his songs.
· The Russian Big Muffs which were made in Russia from 1990-2000 which include: (version # 7 and version #8). These versions are thought to be the most consistent from pedal to pedal and are housed in an awesome no-frills military looking enclosure with cool looking Russian writing all over it! The green Russian ones were used by Dan Auerbach from the Black Keys.
I get asked all the time: “Which Big Muff sounds the best? Which one should I save up to buy?” The answer unfortunately isn’t so simple. Most vintage Big Muffs are extremely collectable and therefore can be expensive. Early Ram’s Head version are extremely sought after because David Gilmour used one in the 70’s with Pink Floyd and can go for $700+. The Green Russian version #8 are highly sought after and can go from anywhere from $350 to $500 on the vintage market. So, what’s a musician with a modest budget supposed to do?? I for one think you can find Black Russian Big Muffs in the original Russian wooden box for dirt cheap (*$125 and under). I use them all the time and I truly feel that if you have the proper amplifier and guitar you can get a wide range of tones covering all the different Big Muff eras!
Notable Players: I find that Big Muff’s are necessary pedals if you’re into Pink Floyd, Frank Zappa, Dinosaur Jr, Smashing Pumpkins, The Black Keys, and most maybe most notably in modern music Jack White from bands you might have heard like the WHITE STRIPES, RACONTEURS, AND THE DEAD WEATHER! If you’ve never heard any of these musicians check them out and you will learn about the power that a Big Muff can provide in your musical arsenal!
KEEP ON PLAYING-AM