You Never Forget Your First
Nothing drew us closer than the moment I was able to call my Big Muff Pi by its proper name. There it was, splayed out in front of me with pictures of all its girly parts. The knob layout, screen printing, font and components all matched and finally I knew what kind of man I was. I was a ’74-‘75 Version 2 Edition 3 Ram’s Head with Daka Ware knobs guy, but don’t tell my Version 2 about my ‘95 Version 7 Green Russian Bubble Font I’m seeing on the side. I owe Kit Rae, creator of The Big Muff Page, a six pack for this moving moment of self discovery.
A Big Muff Pi "Ram's Head" Version 2
My Version 2 was the best birthday present I ever received. My best friend ever since purchased it from a certain large guitar store who’s employees had obviously not consulted bigmuffpage.com before they had slapped $79 on it and threw it in the used section. Snooze you lose I guess.
Kit Rae does a few things well, including designing tactical weapons and elaborate fantasy swords, and illustrating intensely trippy landscapes and scenes of monsters and voluptuous demon women. But crammed somewhere in the section of his brain labeled “things I’m OCD about” is the Electro Harmonix Big Muff Pi, and he has compiled the most impressive catalogue of juicy information about the Muff that any dude with transistor tattoos could dream of.
I read the Big Muff Page in its entirety, and I think I know more about Big Muffs than anything ever. It is by far the most detailed Big Muff resource on the web, and while it can be completely over the top in its documentation of the Muff down to its nerdiest gear-dude detail, it is also an amazing story of the Muff’s evolution which took founder of Electro Harmonix, Mike Matthews, on a crazy, wild ride.
I managed to track down the forger of dragon blades to thank him and try and nail down exactly what inspired him to become the biggest Big Muff nerd on the web.
“The first time I heard David Gilmour’s guitar solos in Pink Floyd’s song “Comfortably Numb” on the radio was a huge Big Muff moment for me. The sound and playing just blew me away, and was the reason I learned to play the guitar, and the reason I tried my very first Big Muff.”
“I still remember the first BMP I ever played, a [Version 6]. This was back in the '80s. I thought it sounded like crap, I just did not get it, but I was playing through this awful Yamaha solid state amp. Then I tried a Russian Big Muff through a Fender in the '90s, and I was hooked.”
“When I started getting into BMP pedals in the 1990s the information available about them was limited, very confusing and contradictory,” explained Kit. “Back in 1994 Kevin Macy wrote a short article on BMPs in Vintage Guitar Magazine, but that was really all that was out there that had some accurate information. Once I started to delve deeper into the maze of all the different versions and release dates, and what was going on with EHX during that time - going from a USA company, to Russian, then a US company again - I realized there was a lot more to it than I had thought. The company also had a very colorful history, and this being the flagship pedal, tying the history of the two together seemed a logical approach for my website.”
From Foxey Lady to Dinosaur Jr.
The site captures this history quite well, tracing Mike Matthews’ first experience producing fuzz pedals after being enlisted by Guild at a NAMM convention to rework the Foxey Lady in the '60s to union protests forcing Electro Harmonix to move production to long dormant post-war Russian factories in the '90s, to settling back down in New York City where Matthews continues to produce ground breaking effects with EHX including modern versions of the BMP.
Kit traces the evolution of the Big Muff Pi along this timeline, mapping out minute changes in the pedal’s circuit design, components used, screen printing, audio characteristics, and just about everything else you could consider when dealing with a fuzz pedal. He uses this information to debunk myths about the Big Muff, pin-point which version is used in which immortal Gilmour, Tony Peluso or Erney Isley solo, and simply to create a resource for fellow collectors while sprinkling in goodies like the Hendrix-Muff mystery, the origin of the Big Muff Pi’s name, and a peek at Dinosaur Jr’s J Masics' ridiculous Big Muff collection.
Reading through bigmuffpage.com I’d often come across sentences that would blow my mind just little, like when Kit makes statements like “Only about 4 or 5 of [Version 1 Big Muff Pi] variants are different enough to distinguish when comparing by ear,” or “there are 18 variants of the [Version 1 Big Muff Pi], and 20 variations of the [Version 2 Big Muff Pi].” It dawned on me that this is not information that Kit had stumbled upon by looking things up on the internet, and EHX doesn’t label their Big Muffs by "version." In fact, Kit has created his own labeling system for categorizing a BMP that distinguishes each subtle or drastic change with his system, which could only be developed through obsessive attention to detail that would’ve won a head-nod from Darwin himself.
“I have owned just about every variant ever made of the V1 and V2 BMPs,” explains Kit. "I would often buy a vintage V1 or V2 just because it had a circuit I had never seen before. I would buy it, play it, trace the circuit, then throw it right back on eBay, unless it was something that sounded unique and worth keeping. After collecting for a few years I realized there were dozens of different circuit variants, so I started to trace them and make schematics. Some just have minor component value differences here and there, and the circuit is very forgiving to minor changes. But then there are several that sound very different. You could take all the V1 circuit variants and blind test each. Many of those would sound so similar as to not be worth mentioning as different, but 4 or 5 have a distinctly different and unique sound. Same with the V2, and to some extent with the V3. They got more consistent with the V6 towards the end of the '70s."
“This is not on my website, but I have a huge circuit chart, numbered in chronological order, with each circuit variant ever made, and all the knob types used. When I say '18 variants of the V1', that means I have seen 18 different circuits in that box. All of them were made in long production runs. For some I have only seen 4-5 identical variants, for others I have seen dozens that are identical. About 3-4 years ago I reached the point where I stopped seeing anything different, but I'm sure there are still a few unknowns out there.”
After only a few minutes rummaging through the insane documentation of one manufacturer's fuzz pedal, one can’t help but wonder “why, man, why?” while simultaneously feeling a debt of gratitude to such an obsessive website.
"I'm sure Mike Matthews laughs at the level of detail some of us EHX collectors go to. There are probably only a dozen people on the planet who would even care to know that much," admits Kit, but I’d argue that interest in the documentation of vintage gear has grown steadily over the years.
The Golden Age Of Fuzz
When it comes to fuzz, the '60s and '70s are the prime years of development, the years when our ears were first opened to the gnarly sound of the Stones’ "I Can’t Get No" the Kinks’ "You Really Got Me" when Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Pete Townshend and Jimmy Page first started experimenting with the muddy and the mushy and shrill. Kit takes us back to the beginning on bigmuffpage.com when engineers were literally grabbing circuits out of electronics text books and plugging guitars into them to see what it would sound like, and how it all led to the iconic Big Muff.
"There is a certain romance to the music gear all those famous bands used from the '60s and '70s. When it comes to effects, the mid 1960s to the mid 1970s was the golden age of development. That is when all of these devices were first being created and put on the market. I built a timeline on the website just to trace the chronology of the US and UK fuzz development... While there is still a lot of creativity in the effects industry going on today, a lot of the core guitar effects circuit creation happened in that 10 year period, around 1965-1975. Most of what is being made today is still based on those traditional effect designs, with updates or mods, but a lot of it is simply the old designs rehashed and re-marketed as something new.”
Everyone here at Reverb can agree that there is novelty and quality to aging instruments. From effects pedals to pedal steels, when you feel an old work-horse that's settled into itself it's hard to put your finger on what makes it better, but more often than not you just know that it is. Whether it's curiosity-driven research by collectors or players simply wanting to know how something works, or what something’s made of, to technicians shaking their heads at ancient circuit boards and burned up components that are impossible to identify, or resellers wondering what the heck they just bought at a garage sale, documenters like Kit Rae and sites like bigmuffpage.com will be precious resources to those that need to know more.