What the founder of EHX can teach us about innovation

Mike Matthews - Electro Harmonix

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Recently, Mike Matthews was inducted into Vintage Guitar Magazine’s Hall of fame – in the innovator category. When I found this out, I wasn’t surprised a bit – the man is everything I personally think of when I hear the word “Innovator”.

Around the middle of 2011, I talked to Mike Matthews – the man behind Electro-Harmonix – for the first time. Now, with the news from Vintage Guitar Magazine, I’ve started to think about what we can learn about innovation from Mike.

Know Your Customers, be business minded.

Many innovators are brilliant – but a good number of them never go to market or never succeed because they lack a solid business sense. Not the case with Mr. Matthews.

The first thing I noticed in the interview was the fact that he has an incredibly strong business sense. Armed with his Masters In Business Administration, everything he does from the design of a guitar pedal to the acquisition of a company is based on – and motivated by a solid business purpose. To some of you, this might seem counter intuitive – maybe you think that a man who is dreaming up and designing pedals should be a – well, “dreamer” more than a business man.

I’ve got a different opinion on that. We’ve got to remember that in this relationship, we’re the artists, and Mike is providing some really great tools that allow us to be inspired to make the art. An incredible pedal that has the power to inspire is more likely to come from the mind of an individual that is very in tune with what his customers want – and that’s exactly what a business mind does the best. Mike knows what guitarists want – because he knows what they’re buying. Read the interview – he’s paying attention to what sells. That’s the business sense.

Be cost conscious

Another thing Mike seems to keep in mind is the cost to the end user. I say “seems” because in the interview he never said specifically that this is a goal or even something he keeps in mind, but there were plenty of references to making things affordable to the working musician. This is all done while maintaining the highest quality. I’ve never met an EHX pedal that wasn’t solid as hell.

You can make the best product in the world, but if you price it out of range of too many of your customers, you’re really not doing yourself any favors.

Today, we’ve got folks working on vacations to the moon, personal robots, and cars that drive themselves, but all of these things won’t be available to anyone but the wealthy – at least at first. Mike & the rest of the folks at EHX are making gear that we can all afford, and just as important – gear we can count on.

Know your trade

Mike also went to school for electrical engineering, something that no doubt has paid off a million times for EHX. He is a musician starting with the piano at 5 years old, and in the early 60s was a promoter for several very big acts, like Chuck Berry, Lovin Spoonful, and even became pretty tight with a certain Mr. Hendrix. Mike is a musician, knows musicians, and what they want.

Electrical engineering – check. Musician – check. Quality time spent with other musicians – check, check.

The lesson here? I don’t think you need to hang out with future rock stars to do it, but embed yourself with the people who use your products. Get to know how they think and what they want. Have the skills to make it happen, and always listen to your customers.

Don’t try to do everything

It’s clear from talking to Mike that he worked really hard to build the EHX name, it’s products, and its reputation. While working for IBM, Mike was building pedals in his spare time, but he found talented people to help him do the work – leaving him more free to come up with new ideas and manage the business deals. Often, would-be innovators get hung up trying to do everything, and end up buried with their own work and ultimately ineffective. In Mike’s story, I find plenty of examples that show he knows when to delegate, and how to find good talented people to bring an idea to life.

Be alert for new ideas – always

Another thing that I noticed about Mike was that he is always alert and ready for the next idea – he can recognize great product ideas that most people may not even see. Check out the interview linked at the top of this article for more on that – specifically how the idea for the LPB-1 (Linear Power Booster) came about.

Mike was looking at a prototype of another pedal he was working on (The Black Finger, a distortion free sustainer) – and noticed that the engineer had it plugged into something else. He asked what that was and was told that it was a little booster for a low output guitar. Something clicked – Mike saw a product, and the LPB-1 was born – ushering in a new age of overdrive.

The lesson here? Innovators are never “off” – they’re always alert for new ideas.

So the interview with Mike was a lot of fun. I learned a lot. Mike is a really cool guy, so I am really happy to hear that he was inducted into Vintage Guitar Magazine’s Hall of Fame.

He’s right there with the likes of Jim Marshall, Leo Fender, and Les Paul.

Some of the innovations from Mr. Matthews:

The LPB-1 (Linear Power Booster)

The first analog delay (The Memory Man)

The first affordable digital delay (Two Second Digital Delay)

Affordable sampling (Instant Replay, Super Replay)

The first electronic flanger (The Electric Mistress)

The amazing expression pedals that have no moving parts (The Crying Tone wah, and the Talking Pedal)

The first electronic looper (The 16 Second Digital Delay)

Other Products we’ve reviewed here at Guitar-Muse.com:

The Super Ego Synth Engine

The Stereo Pulsar

The Neo Mistress

Tim Monaghan (129 Articles)

Tim has been playing guitar & bass since he was 12 years old and has been in Jazz, funk, rock & metal bands. Influences include Jeff Beck, Stanley Clarke, Doug Stegmeyer, Baden Powell, Steve Vai, and pretty much anyone else who has a unique style that expresses their individuality. One of Tim’s many hobbies is building, tweaking, and repairing basses and guitars.