Our pursuit of the perfect tone never ends. Some people will spend decades tweaking their amps, pedals, and guitars, while also constantly buying new stuff in order to bring in more diversity while also keeping their own signature tone in there. But nonetheless, there are some legendary devices that kept their reputation over the decades, with guitar players using the almost unchanged versions even to this day. One of the most notable examples is the well-known Big Muff Pi, made by a guy named Mike Matthews under his famous brand Electro-Harmonix. Over the years, he also started Sovtek, a Soviet Union-based company best-known for their vacuum tubes, as well as alternate versions of old Electro-Harmonix pedals.
But while we look upon Big Muff as one simple 3-knob pedal, this famous distortion has gone through many changes. Its history is actually rather interesting and there have been many versions over the years. While all of these were based on the original model, there were minor or major changes to the circuit, including tonal characteristics and some functionalities.
Since the pedal is way more exciting than it might seem at first, we decided to look more into the matter, do some digging, and look into its history and some of the versions.
The story starts back in the 1960s when young and talented electrical engineering student Mike Matthews got involved in the music world. After working for IBM for a while, he started his own business, seeing a huge potential in guitar distortion. Fuzz pedals were a big thing back then and he eventually made a decision to make these devices himself. At first, he made Foxey Lady under the Guild brand as a contractor. In 1968, he founded Electro-Harmonix, the same company that’s active to this day. A somewhat altered version of this Foxey Lady was a basis for the model that would later be known as Big Muff.
It’s not completely certain, but it seems that the so-called Axis fuzz – an altered version of the Foxey Lady – was the first-ever Electro-Harmonix product on the market.
The first Big Muff
The very first Big Muff was released in 1969. This was a joint collaboration between Matthews and his partner at the time, Bob Myer. Known officially as the Big Muff Pi V1, it also got its nickname “Triangle Big Muff.”
While many might claim that this was the “best-sounding” Big Muff, it’s hard to pinpoint the exact signature tone. The reason behind this is that there are a few different circuit versions floating around, and the whole early EHX history is a bit blurry.
This particular version was “reissued” (not sure if this is the right word for such a pedal) in 2018. It was one of their “nano”-sized versions of old pedals.
Second version: The “Ram’s Head”
The next step in the pedal’s evolution was the V2 Big Muff, popularly known as the “Ram’s Head.” However, just like with the Triangle, there were a few inconsistencies with this edition. Some would argue that the version was just a little “darker”-sounding, with less mid-end in the mix. The sustain, however, was still there. This pedal was packed with FS36999 and 2N5133 in the same circuit, both of which are technically the same type of transistor.
The original Ram’s Head was sold between 1973 and 1977. It was reissued in 2019.
Third Version: “Red and Black”
The next version came in 1977 and was present on the market for about a year. Design-wise, this is the Big Muff Pi that we all remember, with red letters and the black surface around the switch. As far as the circuitry goes, this was essentially the same pedal as the Ram’s Head. However, the consistency in production was noticeably better.
This particular design that inspired its nickname was used on a lot of the reissued versions of the Big Muff since its return to America in 2000.
Although the casing looked almost identical to the Red and Black model, the fourth version saw notable changes in the circuitry. Made in 1978, the significant difference was also with the potentiometer orientation. While the earlier models had three different sweeps for volume, tone, and sustain knobs, here we had a regular formation that we can find on any of the modern versions as well – the minimum level is on the left, the maximum is on the right.
On its circuit board, we can find two chips, RC4558NB and one of the 741 chips. This was the first version to use operational amplifier chips and one less gain stage.
There’s a modern version of the V4 Muff called the “Op-Amp” Big Muff.
The next step in Big Muff evolution was not a drastic one. While the circuitry was the same one we could see in the fourth version, there was an additional tone bypass feature. Right on the top panel, where the input and output jacks are, there’s an additional switch that lets you completely bypass the tone knob in the circuit. The same feature could be found with some of the later editions of the third version. These were most likely manufactured at the same time as the fifth version, but are pretty rare to stumble upon.
This particular model featured the recognizable black and red design and was sold between 1978 and 1980.
Sixth Version: “Reversed Logo”
Sold from 1979 (or 1980) up to 1984, the most notable visual change the sixth version saw was the reverse use of colors for the logo. There were a few different color pattern designs as well.
As far as the circuitry goes, the company used a significantly smaller board. Overall, it featured some of the same principles we could see with the third version. The tone bypass feature was also present, but a notable – and somewhat weird – change came with the lack of the LED indicator light.
Financial Issues and Bankruptcy
Despite the company’s reputation and great products, the financial situation was a little shaky in the late 1970s. After some years of struggling, Electro-Harmonix finally filed for bankruptcy in 1982. As things worsened, Matthews eventually opened up a new company in the USSR called New Sensor Corp and its subsidiary Sovtek that focused on making guitar amp tubes. After a while, they also started making reissued versions of Matthews’ old Electro-Harmonix pedals.
Seventh Version: “Civil War,” “Green Russian,” and “Black Russian”
After a few years of successfully making and selling vacuum tubes, Matthews continued with the production of his old Electro-Harmonix pedals. In the early 1990s came the first Sovtek version of the Big Muff Pi, popularly labeled as “Civil War” in the US due to its unique color patterns. This comes as the opener of the seventh version of the famous distortion pedal, which also includes the “Green Russian” and the “Black Russian” Big Muffs.
The pedal came as the direct copy of Mike Matthews’ Red Army Overdrive, released in 1991. The differences were just in the design and color patterns.
The “Green Russian” came in 1994, with the circuitry almost unchanged, but with new color patterns. The same could be said about the so-called “Black Russian” which came out in 1998. The “Green Russian” version was reissued by Electro-Harmonix in 2017 in a smaller and more convenient casing.
The final version of the Russian Big Muff came out in 2000. Also labeled as the “Black Russian,” it had the same circuitry as the pedal with the same nickname, although it was built into a smaller enclosure. Later editions of this Version also featured true bypass operation.
In 2000, Matthews finally brought back the production to the United States after the success of his Sovtek products. The ninth version of Big Muff came that same year, and it’s still in production. Popularly known as the “Classic NYC” among the collectors, there have been six different circuits of this pedal. The color pattern is the classic red and black, the same one we can see on the third Big Muff version from the 1970s.
The pedal has the original 4-transistor circuit, featuring 2N5088 transistors. As far as the tone goes, there were some “tone soaking” issues due to buffered bypass. In 2001, the company started implementing the true bypass operation. This version is still in production to this day.
As the Electro-Harmonix pedal production took off in the early 2000s, the company began introducing a few other versions as well. There’s the “Little Big Muff” that came out in 2006. Essentially, it’s a smaller version of the regular Classic NYC.
The next version came two years later with the “Bass” Big Muff. Mostly based on the Sovtek versions, this one is intended for both bassists and guitarists. Aside from the three basic controls, the company also added the switch for four modes of operation labeled as bass boost, normal, and dry. The bass mode adds a boost to the bottom end, the normal setting is like the standard Big Muff, while the dry mode mixes your unprocessed and processed signals. This last mode is often very useful for bass players.
From 2009 and onwards, Electro-Harmonics began making the “Tone Wicker” version. The main idea was to sharpen out the high-end with the new “Wicker” control. There’s also the tone bypass switch, just like on the fifth version.
The Germanium 4 version is probably the most versatile one as it offers a “2-in-1” kind of deal. There are two separate circuits here, one for overdrive and the other for distortion. And what’s really exciting, you can use either of these individually or at the same time. But the most drastic change comes with the inclusion of germanium transistors. This is usually not that common with distortion pedals, as germanium transistors provide less stability in operation. However, they’re favored for their smoother tone.
The Deluxe Bass is a further improvement of the Bass version. Released in 2013, it’s intended for both basses and guitars. We have more controls here, including an integrated noise gate, as well as the -10 decibel switch. What’s more, the pedal offers an XLR output and an additional “Crossover” mode.
Another more “advanced” version is the Deluxe Big Muff. As the company explains, this one adds that “violin-like” sustain to the regular guitar distortion.
The Essence of Big Muff Pi
While the circuitry changed over the years with all of the versions listed above, there are some basic principles it relies on even to this day. The harmonically rich fuzz effect was really popular back in the 1960s, which is why Mike Matthews was so keen on making his own line of pedals.
Although inspired by this kind of tone, Big Muff Pi brought something a little bit different to the table. Instead of making just “over the top” broken amp-like sound, the pedal retains some tightness and bottom-end in the tone.
As compared to some other fuzz pedals from the late 1960s, the Big Muff didn’t have germanium but rather silicon transistors. The only exception is the Germanium 4, released in more recent times.
The main idea was a 4-stage circuit consisting of simple boosting at the input, clipping stage, tone stage, and the output booster. New characteristics that made it stand out at the time was the double clipping stage and the increased sustain.
But although Big Muff was originally released about five decades ago, it still remains as one of the most popular dirt pedals to this day. The peculiar tone characteristics found their use in almost any genre that one can think of. And you can’t say that about a lot of distortion pedals.