The Big Muff Guide

A Brief Look at the Origins of The Big Muff

(credit: Adam Miller)

A piece of musical hardware the sounds as striking as its name suggests, the Big Muff has played a pivotal part in guitar music throughout the decades.

Offering the hard distortion you’ll find on records like ‘Search and Destroy’ by the Stooges coupled with the fuzzed-up warmth of the guitar lines in Santana’s ‘Soul Sacrifice’, the Big Muff hits hard while offering the warmth of a wool blanket. It has the capability of being loud, punchy, heavy,  and soothing – all at the same time.

It’s one versatile pedal – which is probably why it’s stood the test of time.

Humble Beginnings

Manufactured by Electro Harmonix, the Big Muff started its life at New York’s Cornell University. Mike Matthews, an electrical engineering student and local music promoter, began playing with sound during his studies. After he graduated, he set up shop.

As a promoter, Matthews worked with some genuine music royalty. The likes of the Byrds, the Isley Brothers and Lovin’ Spoonful all part of his stable. It was also during this period that Matthews met a certain Jimi Hendrix, claiming he turned down the chance to form a band with the great man.

Whether that’s true it’s impossible to say. What is clear is that Jimi’s heavily distorted guitar sound formed the early blueprints for the sound of the original Big Muff – The Triangle Big Muff PI.

Armed with a mix of business savvy and technical knowhow, Matthews formed Electro Harmonix with a view of pushing sonic boundaries. Soon after that, the aforementioned Big Muff PI was born.

While forming the bones of Electro Harmonix, Matthews worked at IBM. Leveraging the skills and resources of his colleagues, along with the help of Bell Labs inventor, Bob Myer, he made the prototype of the PI using transistor circuits for military applications.

The Big Muff PI was released to the music loving public in the late 60’s, and it took off, almost instantly. The sound, pushing distortion to its sonic limits while offering a certain level of warmth, captured the essence of the time.

It’s said that in 1968, Jimi Hendrix bought one from Manny’s Music shop during a trip to the Big Apple and never looked back. Next, Carlos Santana wrote Matthews a personal check for a Big Muff Pi.

Then things really took off. Many more legendary musicians added to the Big Muff legacy, and more models were developed. Today it’s used by musicians of all levels the world over.

And it all started from a little room in Cornell University.

Dawson’s top Big Muff picks

Looking to invest in a Big Muff of your own? We don’t blame you. Here are our three top picks…

Big Muff NYC guitar effects pedal

Sound like: Experimental Detroit guitar slinger and former furniture upholsterer, Jack White.

The Big Muff NYC is a modern remodelling of the original Big Apple PI that was immortalized by the likes of Hendrix and in more recent times, six-string artists like Mr Jack White. If you’re looking for crushing distortion with bundles of output, coupled with superior sustain and warmth at the bottom end, this is the one for you.

Deluxe Big Muff

Sound like: Charismatic Black Keys bluesman and sonic deviator Dan Auerbach.

Without doubt, Dan Auerbach has one of the most recognisable yet diverse guitar sounds in the world today. To achieve such a feat, he has a complex rig. At the heart of that rig, lies two Big Muffs. For slightly more skilled guitarists looking for an experimental bluesy depth, the Big Muff Deluxe is perfect. Why? Well, because it has the grunt of a Big Muff NYC but with attack, gate and bass boost controls. This means you can tailor your sound a lot more without losing any punch.

Bass Big Muff

Sound like: Distortion soaked Muse bass Colossus and all round nice guy, Chris Wolstenholme.

You didn’t think we were going to leave out the bass players, did you? No, of course not. The Bass Big Muff will complement your grooves and cut through the bottom end with thunderous glory. Chris W often uses a Big Bass Muff to produce his face shattering sound, and you should too. With boost, tone and sustain options, you can tailor your distortion to suit the sound of your band. Perfect for creating a host of sweet yet heavy tones. Also, if you crank everything up, you’ll sound like Lemmy.

We hope you enjoyed our glimpse into the world of the Big Muff and for more musical insights, check out Gear DNA: Buddy Holly By Weezer.