By Adam Jazairi & Guitar-Muse Staff
Ever since Jimi Hendrix plugged his Strat into a fuzz box, effects pedals have become an integral part of rock music. From David Gilmour and Robert Fripp to Kurt Cobain and Kevin Shields, many great guitarists have relied on stompboxes to color their sound. We talked to Mike Matthews, the founder of Electro-Harmonix, to get some perspective from one of the most celebrated manufacturers of effects pedals.
1. First of all, Mike, thanks for talking to us. What made you decide to start Electro-Harmonix back in the late ‘60s?
Well, I sort of fell into it. Ever since I was 5 years old, I was into business. Hustling all sorts of things, selling things on the streets, I used to fish balls out of the sewers, and sell them, when I was in camp, instead of playing golf, I’d run in the woods, and looking for golf balls to sell.
When I went to college, my father urged me to pick a profession, so without any real special interest, I started electrical engineering. Also, my mother started teaching me to play piano when I was five, then I had classical lessons, and quit in the 4th grade.
Then in the late 50’s I started doing some boogie woogie on the piano, and when I went to college, I saw my first rock and roll band. I first got a Wurlitzer, and then eventually a Hammond organ, I played with a band, and really dug it.
Also, in college, and in the summers I promoted rock and roll concerts at these huge clubs, I had all sorts of groups, like Chuck Berry, Lovin Spoonful, The Rascals, The Byrds, even a band called Curtis Knight and the Squires, along in the Chuck Berry concert, and their guitar player was Jimmy James, who I became real tight with, and he eventually went off to England and became Jimi Hendrix.
So that’s the background with music, the electrical engineering, and business. I also got a masters in business administration from Cornell.
My first job after graduating was with IBM selling computers in the mid 60’s. Once you’re playing, you get it in your blood, and I still had that in my system.
At that time I was married, and I wanted to quit for a couple years, and play again. My wife was kind of conservative, so I wanted to make some quick money so I could say, “Here’s twenty-five grand, I’m going out playing, and you got a little security.”
At that time, Fuzz Tones were hot, because the Stones had the hit “Satisfaction”, and it had that fuzz tone guitar riff, and all the guitar players wanted that sound, and Maestro couldn’t make them fast enough.
So this technician on 48th street, he was building them a few at a time and selling them. He asked if I wanted to go in with him, expand that, and sell fuzz tones. Then he dropped out, and I was left alone, to make these Fuzz Tones.
But I didn’t do it myself, I found a contractor, and he would build a few hundred, and the founder of Guild Guitars, wanted to sell Fuzz Tones, and since Hendrix had just become hot, he wanted to call them “Foxy Ladies”.
So I was working at IBM, and going over every couple of weeks, picking up a few hundred Fuzz Tones, and dropping them off at Guild, he’d give me a check, then going back to work.
But now, since Jimi Hendrix was hot, everyone was looking for a distortion free sustainer. I ran upon this really brilliant inventor/designer, Bob Meyer, and asked him to develop this distortion free sustainer.
Now, sustaining the note, is no problem, as the note dies out, you just sense that and build up the volume. The problem at that time with the circuitry available, was when you hit a new note, and the gain was turned way up, if you shut the gain down really fast you get these clicks and pops, so that was a difficult project. Eventually we got it, called that the Black Finger.
One day, I went over to test the prototype, and plugged into the prototype was another small box. I said, “Whats this box for?”, he said “Well, I didn’t realize the output gain of the guitar was so low, so I built this little booster.”
In those days, all the amplifiers you’d crank em up to 10, and they wouldn’t overdrive distort, they built them conservatively, when I tried that booster box into an amp, I turned it all the way up, it got so loud, because there was a lot of extra headroom, then turning it up more, it would begin to overload and distort.
I said “Wow, what’s in there?” – and it was just one transistor.
So, I started to build those, and hired the lead tech from that to build them, and rented a small loft, I was still working at IBM, and started advertising them in mail order, and that took off. So then I had to make a decision, to quit IBM, so that’s how I got into it – and this power booster, I called the LPB-1, and that was the first Electro-Harmonix product.
2. When you started making modulation pedals in the ‘70s, was that a response to the changing needs of musicians, or was it a natural progression for EHX?
We were the first with a lot of stuff, we were the first to come out with a low cost flanger, the original Electric Mistress, we were the first with analog delay, the Memory Man, a cheap digital delay, called the Two Second Digital Delay. At that time, two seconds was pretty long and I wondered what would happen if this was stretched out to 16 seconds. We eventually came out with the 16 second digital delay, then I said, “Could we play this backwards?” – we developed these features and that was the first looper.
We were the first to bring out a low cost sampler, The Instant Replay, and then the Super Replay.
The Big Muff, we came out with in 1969. In fact, we still sell thousands of them a month. In fact I have here, a copy of mail order and check from Santana, on Santana stationary – he ordered one in 1971.
Now, we make several other modulating pedals, though. Stereo Pulsar, Stereo Electric Mistress, that has both flange, and chorus that you can mix in, which is usually a hard thing to do, because when you get the peaks, if the peaks override, you get an oscillation. We have other ones, The Worm, we have some pedals that use tubes, we’re all over the spectrum.
3. There’s been a lot of great buzz surrounding the Freeze Sound Retainer, one of your most recent pedals (and the highest item on my to-buy list). To my knowledge, this is the first drone pedal on the market. What did you have in mind as you developed this unique stompbox?
Well actually, that feature was part of our HOG, the Harmonic Octave Generator, which is also a solid seller of ours. What the HOG does, is it not only can generate octaves, like the POG, you could also mix in 1/5 above, or 1/3 above an octave, you could mix in a lot of different harmonics – you can make your guitar sound like an organ.
Anyway, that freeze feature was part of the HOG, and we liked it, and eventually we brought that out in a product by itself. It’s actually superior to the freeze that’s in the HOG, it’s a really nice, useful product. All these products, we have demos of them on our website.
Also, 11 years ago we brought out the Holy Grail, which is a really inexpensive but high quality reverb box, it’s really simple, but whats interesting about it, it has a really great spring reverb sound.
4. Where do all the ideas come from?
Well, basically, my strongest skill is as an entrepreneur. Sometimes I’ll have an idea, or somebody else runs an idea past me, and I’m just good at knowing which ones to try to design. I try not to get involved in something that’s too complicated. They go on forever. So things that won’t take too long to design, and things that I think will sell, and I’ve got a pretty good success rate. Most of the names, I’ve come up with.
Actually, Electro-harmonix started in ’68, and we were expanding real rapidly, and I got sidetracked in my head, obsessed with a goal. I used to smoke a lot of pot back in the 70’s, and one day my wife said to me, “Why don’t you get a goal, and work towards it?”
So, while I was stoned, I came up with the goal all of a sudden, of defeating death. At that time, and even today you realize that mankind with science and technology keeps living longer. And eventually as we could defeat the things that cause us to die faster than we die, we could become immortal, if we don’t destroy the whole human race, which is a bigger probability.
So I said, Jeez, if this is gonna happen, maybe in 1000 years, or 2000 years, I gotta do this in my own lifetime, so I got obsessed, I pushed the company, we had to double our sales every year, because my idea was to build a super multi-billion dollar company fast, and then have a think tank of people that could really focus on whipping death. (laughs)
So eventually, by pushing the company to that level, I eventually went bankrupt, in the early 80’s.
In 1979, we were doing a lot of business with some of the communist countries, like Poland, Hungary, etc., I got a letter from Russia, inviting us to participate in the first consumer trade show open to the western companies (in Moscow).
I got all my favorite musicians together, and brought them over to Moscow. We demonstrated our products, but then three times a day we would do some rock and roll songs. Whenever the band would go on, the whole fair grounds – everybody would come into the building to see these crazy Americans.
At that time, Russia had no money, and we got no orders, so from a business standpoint, the show was a failure. So I started thinking to myself, well, what can I buy from Russia? They need money.
At first I started to explore cheap integrated circuits. In 1988 when I went over to the Ministry of Electronics, and I saw some vacuum tubes hanging on the wall. I took back some samples, went out to see a buddy, Jesse Oliver. Jesse designed most of the early Ampeg amps. I said, “Hey Jesse, are these tubes any good?” He checked them out and said, “Yeah they’re good.”
So I started importing the tubes, and focusing on them, Electro-Harmonix had closed in the early 80’s, so I was working alone, out of my apartment, and the tubes would be up to the ceiling in my apartment, and I started calling these service shops around the country, and orders built.
Russia collapsed in the early 90’s, and the factory that made these tubes was a conglomerate, they made integrated circuits, they made clocks, and they broke up their factory into several parts, and I was continuing to sell the tubes. But they borrowed a lot of money from a Russian bank, and they couldn’t repay it, and they came to me, and said “We’ve got to either close, or sell the company to you or Groove Tubes.
By that time, I was doing pretty big business, I had a lot of manufacturer accounts. This was back in the late 90’s, when I actually bought the factory. And since then I’ve been through a few wars with some racketeers, but we won.
Also, in the early 90’s I noticed that all the EHX pedals that I was making in the 70’s were selling at big markups. In the 70’s there was nothing called the vintage market. The vintage market developed. So I started making the EHX pedals again, and a small military factory in Russia who was desperate for work, I gave them the circuit for the Big Muff, and they laid out the pc board, designed a new housing, and they made them for me.
Later on, I expanded. Now I don’t make any of those pedals in Russia, I make them all here in New York City – we make about 70 different pedals. So that’s how I got involved with Russia, and also how it helped me get back into Electro Harmonix (pedals).
6. It seems that more and more often, people have taken to making their own pedals. What’s your opinion of smaller “boutique” pedal companies like Analogman, Devi Ever, and Death by Audio?
I’ll tell you something, because of the vacuum tubes, and selling to not just manufacturers, but a lot of service shops, we also started selling all sorts of replacement parts, and then with our own pedals, we actually sell parts to lots of these small boutique makers , you know – the chassis, and they print them up themselves, or foot-switches, and all sorts of other stuff.
Back in the old days, there was the Fuzz Tone, and EHX, and in the early 70’s it was just three main companies, Musitronics, MXR and us, but now, over the world, there’s hundreds of effect pedal makers.
7. Especially with pedals, the battle between analog and digital rages on. Given that EHX makes some of the best analog pedals on the market (Small Clone, Electric Mistress, Memory Man, etc.), might I presume that you prefer analog to digital?
Well, first of all, I have several great designers, but I’m a guy that likes a product that’s successful.
With the digital you can do all sorts of tricks and things that you just can’t do analog. The POG 2 is digital, the Freeze is digital. But then on the other side of the coin, the Big Muff, we still sell thousands of them, and that’s all analog, so I’m just interested in what sounds good, and what sells. I don’t have a preference.
8. I know it’s hard to pick, but do you have a favorite EHX pedal?
Not really, my favorites are the ones that sell. (laughs) Whether it’s the Big Muff that we first brought out in ’69 or the POG 2 which is a huge seller, or more recently the Freeze.
9. Now, the tough question: Do you have a favorite pedal not manufactured by Electro-Harmonix?
No, if it was a favorite, we’d be making it.
10. Every year, you guys seem to top yourselves with exciting new pedals and great reissues of classics. Does EHX have anything on the horizon that we should keep an eye out for?
Well I just don’t like to talk about what’s not out. I don’t even tell the our dealers. Then when you design something you think it’s gonna come out in April, then it slips till June, then July – so our policy is just not to talk about anything unless it’s out. Yesterday, we just received a prototype of something new thats unique – there’s nothing like it on the market, and it’s all analog.
We do have three new products we started shipping a few weeks ago, the Neo Mistress, which is a very economical flanger, the Stereo Talking Machine, which is like an envelope type unit that has very vowel vocalist sounds, that’s digital, the Deluxe Memory Man with tap tempo.
We have something really sensational that we hope will be out in about three months. You can call me back when it’s out. (laughs)
Even nowadays, when nearly every kid with a guitar has a pedal or two in his rig, Electro-Harmonix remains on the cutting edge of effects. For the latest in innovation, the highest in quality, and some of the greatest classic pedals, look no further than EHX.