Underrated Stompbox Classics: Vintage Electro Harmonix Hot Tubes
Looking for an overdrive pedal that doesn’t lose your low end, doesn’t give you a pronounced “Tube Screamer-like” midrange hump, and looking to separate yourself from the rest of the guitar playing community with a different pedal choice? Check out the old school vintage 1978 Electro Harmonix Hot Tubes. Despite being an underrated and overlooked effects choice, they sound great, come with their own hardwired, dedicated power supply, and in the world of vintage pedals can be had for song if you spend some time looking for one!
Back in the late seventies, everything in the guitar world was different. High wattage amplifiers paired with multiple speakers were king. People tended to judge guitarists based on the size and wattage of their guitar rig. Having a large rig was akin to being more like Jimmy Page from Led Zeppelin, Joe Perry from Aerosmith, and Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top. The problem with these high wattage amplifiers is that they have to be pushed to such a loud volume before they get a pleasing distorted tone. So various effect pedal manufacturers began to make pedal circuits that would push high powered amplifiers into distortion at much lower volumes. Now, guitarists using various effects to augment their amplifier’s tone isn’t anything new. Jimi Hendrix wouldn’t be Hendrix without the legendary pair of a cranked Marshall with a Fuzzface, Clapton wouldn’t have gotten some of his iconic tones without a treble booster to push his amp, and Jimmy Page from Led Zeppelin would use Tone Benders and other distortion pedals to push his Marshalls over the top. However, by the mid to late seventies what had changed was there was a market for cranked amp sounds in a box.
Electro Harmonix was one of the innovators of the period. Riding high on the creation of the Big Muff, Electric Mistress, and other units, Mike Matthews set out on making what he thought was his companies take on an overdrive pedal. Namely a pedal that would push your amplifier to natural distortion without changing the tonal qualities of the amplifier too much. They released the Electro Harmonix Hot Tubes in late 1978. In the late seventies there were no companies going after this concept, and it seemed that Electro Harmonix was trying to corner the market with their new release of a solid state overdrive effects pedal. Unfortunately, a few years later in 1984 Mike Matthews was forced to declare bankruptcy and the original Hot Tubes never seemed to take off in the way it should. It’s a shame because the pedal really rocks! Flash forward to 2013, Mike Matthews and Electro Harmonix rereleased their Hot Tubes in a smaller box and the pedal finally started to get the notoriety it rightly deserved! But why buy a reissue when the real vintage units are still out there, and easily obtained for a good price? Just my two sense.
The original late seventies Hot Tubes is a distinct looking pedal. Housed in the same large chassis that Electro Harmonix built Memory Man’s, Deluxe Electric Mistress’, and POG’s etc, the Hot Tubes has its own dedicated power supply wired into the pedal connected to a step-down transformer to power the pedal. What’s great about it is there is always power for the unit, and you never need to worry about a battery! The Hot Tubes has what has come to be known as standard overdrive pedal controls: Overdrive (the amount of gain and crunch you’re adding to your signal), Tone (Cutting high frequencies or boosting high frequencies), and Volume (setting the volume level of the distortion effect). There are three insert plugs on the rear of the unit labeled input, (from your guitar into the pedal) direct out (if you want to run through the circuit to color your tone without using the effect), and effect out (if you want to use the pedal as a traditional overdrive pedal). There is also a tone-bypass switch located on the back-right side of the unit that allows you to turn off the tone pot. The Hot Tubes tone-bypass switch is located where other large box EHX pedals have their switch (Memory Man has the Chorus/Delay switch, Deluxe Electric Mistress has Filter Matrix/Flange switch etc). As for the look of the original units, they were screen printed with two tubes on the front in red and black, which just screams retro 1970’s art style. Even though the pedal itself is a CMOS circuit solid state based effect, the artwork reflects the fact that the pedal is designed to simulate the dynamics of a distorted tube amplifier. I think Electro Harmonix succeeded farther than they ever could have imagined with this unit.
As I stated in my introduction, this is one of my favorites under the radar vintage effects units. Even though Electro Harmonix has reissued them in a smaller modern enclosure for roughly $65, you can still find the originals on a deal from time to time. Lately they’ve been going from $250-$350 online, but I’ve seen them also sell for under a $100. Remember buying the original gets you collector value on top of the original circuit design. As for the sound I really love the unit with all different kinds of guitars. I find that being able to bypass the tone knob is able to help you compensate for what guitar you choose to use. I tend to bypass the tone stack when using single coil guitars like Stratocasters and Telecasters because they can get a little ice picky with the pedal. But it makes my single coils have a bit more darkness to the tone, with more gain and louder output which is great for single coil guitars! But I love using the Hot Tubes’ tone knob with P90’s and Humbucker equipped guitars to help them get a bit more sizzle out of the signal. It helps add some brightness and presence in the mix to what can be darker sounding pickups. I also love that the pedal is extremely sensitive to pick attack and the natural dynamics of how you attack the guitar when you play, just like a cranked tube amplifier would be with your electric guitar. At the highest overdrive/gain setting it can start to sound a little fake distortion sounding, so it helps to already have your amplifier set rather loud to give a more natural sounding crunch. I also found that choosing to use the tone-bypass switch when using the Hot Tubes in a pedalboard scenario is really important to have the pedal work well in your guitar rig. Strangely enough, not bypassing the tone knob actually helps the Hot Tubes when using it in a pedalboard, but with only a guitar and an amp I found bypassing the tone stack was preferred in most applications.
While you can get a ton of versatility tonally with how you set the Hot Tubes, I tend to set my amount of overdrive pretty high and then use my guitar’s volume knob to get different tones as I play. The Hot Tubes full out is a very warm sounding, thick, and meaty overdrive. There is no shortage of low end and the high end of the pedal never sounds harsh, or hard, but rather sound really smooth and organic. To me it I feel very Billy Gibbons esque when playing with it, in the sense that I can get a heavy feeling tone, but play incredibly relaxed while doing so. It also reminds me of my 1959 Tweed Bassman turned up very loud past the breaking point where it gets a really attractive squishy distortion. It has similar distortion qualities to a Tweed Bassman and feels very similar with a Stratocaster. The notes have a real clarity, but when the overdrive knob is maxed gets very squishy in a Bassman type way.
I really love my old EHX Hot Tubes. I think the silkscreened artwork is incredibly funky and unique. And I also love how retro the pedal is just from sheer size. Even though some may find this to be impractical in a modern pedalboard sense, I find it somewhat endearing. Nobody makes pedals this big anymore, but I like to pretend that Big box equals big tone ha-ha. I got turned on to these pedals twelve years ago when I saw Charlie Sexton was using one at an Arc Angels reunion gig. I just thought his tone was spectacular so I spent weeks hunting a unit down. That was part of the fun as well. It did take a fair amount of work to actually find one. For the last several years this pedal was relegated to my effects graveyard drawer because I wasn’t using it but I have rediscovered my love for it in the last few months after pulling it out for fun. After doing some research, Mike Matthews has actually posted a video link to Youtube where Stevie Ray Vaughan was using one live in 1987. So even though it isn’t usually associated with SRV, I find it really cool that he used one. I think any player looking for a unique flavor of distortion should check out the EHX Hot Tubes!
KEEP ON PLAYING- AM