Whether you’re set on nailing David Gilmour’s huge lead tones or just want something that will make your listeners jump in their seats, you got to love the Big Muff. In this feature you’ll learn how to choose the right Big Muff model for your setup and how to achieve those killer tones.
The Big Muff is a moody beast. Nothing sounds quite like it and it’s certainly not for everyone or every musical style. It’s actually quite limited in its use and having a Big Muff paired with the “wrong” guitar and amp can sound pretty horrible. Still, the pedal has put its familiar stamp on countless recordings, including perhaps the greatest solo of all time, – Comfortably Numb.
The Big Muff was designed by Mike Matthews, who in the late 60s formed Electro Harmonix and went on to produce some of the most iconic pedals in the business. The initial goal was to create a sustain pedal, which would sound different from contemporary fuzz circuits. The Big Muff has gone through many changes since then, with the so-called “triangle” and “ram’s head” models as the most recognisable.
After closing doors in the mid 80s, Matthews moved to Russia and founded Sovtek, which produced tubes and a new version of the Big Muff housed in huge tank-like boxes. Today, Electro Harmonix, with Matthews in charge, is as successful as ever and the Big Muff is surely one of the most popular pedals of all time. See the Big Muff Pi Page for a complete history on the Big Muff.
Back in the digital era of the 1980s, the old Big Muff pedals were considered very uncool and was either thrown away or stashed away in an attic somewhere. When the grunge bands appeared in the early 90s, the Big Muff was back in favour and since then they’ve pretty much been some of the hottest items on the vintage market. Especially those pre 1980 models but the prices on the Sovtek models are also rising fast.
Common for the pedals Electro Harmonix produced in the 1970s was they were often inconsistent with their designs. New models would sometimes feature old parts and there were a lot of so-called transition models. They also used parts of varying quality, which often meant that the pedals often sounded different and couldn’t handle much abuse. Add 40 years of ageing in different climates and you have a very fragile circuit.
In most cases you never know what you get when buying a vintage Big Muff and you may end up being very disappointed and broke. Unless you’re very sure of what you’re doing, my best tip is to stay away from EBay and the whole vintage hype.
Few pedals has been as much cloned as the Big Muff. Literally every brand has at least one clone in their portfolio. Some try to nail the classic design, while others are offering something new, with varying success. While owning an original early 70s Big Muff might be a dream come true I would say that it’s a much better investment tonewise to go for a clone. The size is smaller. The construction and parts much better. The noise is much lower. And the pedal is considerably more reliable. If you can’t find the exact specs you’re looking for you can even ask nicely and most builders will accommodate your needs.
The current reissues from Electro Harmonix has little in common with the original models. It’s understandable, as Electro Harmonix has always been about evolving and coming up with new designs. They have a wast line of different models that may not be ideal for replicating David Gilmour’s tones but then again, the Big Muff appeals to many different guitarists.
It may be hard to tell the difference between a fuzz and Muff especially in terms of David’s tones because his fuzz tones on Live at Pompeii and Dark Side of the Moon are almost as smooth and sustained as a Muff. The difference, apart from the circuit, is that Big Muffs generally has a more saturated tone, more sustain and a tad more compression.
Although most Muff models will cover David’s Pompeii and Dark Side tones, the “triangle” and “ram’s head” are closer to the silicon transistor fuzz, with much of the same edgy and raw fuzz tones. However a Muff is far too aggressive and saturated for the 1968-70 tones so for authenticity you might want to consider a germanium fuzz or simply an overdrive.
There are no rules on how you should operate or use a Big Muff. Obviously, it depends on what tones you want. It terms of David Gilmour’s tones, to achieve those silky smooth sustained notes, you need volume and lots of it. The secret to David’s huge tones are his loud Hiwatt amps. They can play incredibly loud, while maintaining a rich headroom. The hot tubes creates compression and the speakers gets pushed hard, which makes a Big Muff sound smooth and dynamic.
It can be hard to achieve the same smoothness on smaller amps and typical bedroom volume levels and in many cases a Big Muff might not be the pedal you need or should choose. Still, as described in this feature, there are ways to compensate for the lower volume and the physics created by a loud tube amp.
The volume control on the pedal it self also determine what sound you’ll get. Unity gain, meaning no raise or lowering of the volume when the pedal is on, is usually a good starting point and it will often be the truest tone in terms of the circuit design. The more you turn the volume up, the more you’re pushing the amp and the more compressed the tone will get. This can compensate for the lower amp volume on bedroom setups but it will also change the character of the pedal and roll off the harmonics and other characteristics you want to maintain.
Rolling back the pedal’s volume will often reveal more harmonics in the tone and making the Muff sound more like a fuzz. Again, rolling back too much will make the Muff sound thin and you’ll also lose much of the sustain. Personally I prefer the volume just a hair below unity, to get a bit more of those harmonics but still maintain the characteristics of the pedal.
Like most of the vintage pedal circuits, the Big Muff has a so-called “scooped” tone, meaning that there’s very little mid range present but lots of bass and treble. This is the nature of the pedal but it can also result in your guitar drowning behind the bass and cymbals on stage or on a recording. Our ears are focusing on the mid range and the lack of it makes it harder to detect the sound.
Hiwatt amps has a good portion of mid range, which is essential to David’s tones and the smooth character he gets from his Big Muff. Vox, Fenders and similar amps has very little mid range and are therefore not ideal for a Muff. At least not in terms of David’s tones.
You can compensate for any lack of mid range with different pickups, like the EMG DG20s, an EQ pedal boosting the mids or using Big Muff models that either has more mid range in the tone, like the Sovtek models, or a clone with a mids boost.
See the Buyer’s Gear Guide for recommended Big Muff models based on different setups.
Most Big Muffs has a considerable amount of low end so adding too much bass into the setup, can often make the pedal sound both saggy and a bit spiky depending on the amp. Don’t be tempted to crank the bass on your bedroom amp but keep it at a moderate level or even roll it off a bit. This will make your cleans sound smoother and your Big Muff more open and tighter.
Boosting is nothing new. When the first pedals arrived, the treble boosters and fuzz pedals, guitarists used these to get more gain from their amps. EQ pedals can also be used to boost (and cut) certain frequencies like one does in a studio.
Contrary to Hendrix, who cranked his Marshalls and kicked in a fuzz on top of that, David’s amps are always clean and he’s often using a combination of pedals to get his tones. Sometimes three gain pedals at once – compressor, distortion and overdrive.
Here’s a clip showing an early 70’s ram’s head Big Muff being boosted by a Colorsound Powerbooster (9V reissue with master volume). The Powerbooster is place AFTER the Big Muff. As you can hear, the effect is very subtle but that’s the point. The Powerbooster acts as an EQ adding a bit more presence and enhances the sustain and attack or click when picking the string.
Big Muff: Volume set slightly below unity level, tone 40%, gain 60%.
Powerbooster: treble 35%, bass 25%, gain/volume 25%, master volume at unity level.
During the 1973-75 Dark Side of the Moon tour David used a Colorsound Powerbooster for overdrive but for the solo on Time he would add a (silicon) Fuzz Face on top of the already overdriven Powerbooster that were used for the rhythms.
Later, on the 1977 Animals tour, David’s new pedalboard featured both a Powerbooster and Big Muff. It is not documented whether he actually paired the two pedals. The ram’s head Big Muff that he used at the time could very well operate on its own and most of the time it probably did so. However, live recordings from the tour reveal that the combination was often used on Dogs, Pigs and also during the jam section on Shine On You Crazy Diamond 6-9.
For the 1994 Division Bell tour, he would often combine a Sovtek Big Muff and a Tube Driver for the solos.
David rarely boost the gain and volume but rather uses the overdrive/booster pedal much like an EQ, enhancing certain frequencies and adding character to the tone. It also rolls off any harsh overtones from the Muff, enhances the sustain and also adds a bit of compression and mid range.
There are very few details from any of the Pink Floyd and solo recording sessions but it’s almost certain that the Muff would be used alone, without a booster. Too much gain would only cause noise and feedback and in a controlled environment, like a studio, you can crank the amps and set the gain on the Muff higher for the desired tones. Studio compression and heavy use of delays would also make the tone sound bigger.
As a rule (or guideline) I would say that the early Muffs, the ram’s head and triangle, could do with a bit of boosting to open up the tone and even compress it, making it sound tighter. The Sovtek Muffs and similar clones does not need boosting unless you’re aiming at a specific effect or tone.
I also strongly recommend using a transparent booster with as much headroom as possible, like a clean booster, the Boss BD2, TC Electronic Spark Booster, Powerbooster etc. Pedals with lots of gain and mid range, like the TS808, OCD and similar, will make the Muff sound dark and muddy. I also recommend placing the booster after the Muff. This way the Muff will dominate the signal and the booster act like an EQ.
I know there is a bit of debate on this – what booster to use and where to place it but the fact is that David has his boosters after the fuzz and Muff. It makes sense, since the booster acts like an EQ and not a dominating effect. Whether or not this works for your setup is a different matter and also down to taste. Experiment and decide what sounds best for you.
Above anything it’s important that you find yourself a Big Muff that suits your guitar and amp and your playing environment. It doesn’t matter what I recommend or what David Gilmour is using if it doesn’t sound good on your setup.
Amps with little mid range, would require a Big Muff with boosted mid range, like a Sovtek or similar clones. An amp with a pronounced mid range, is better suited for the majority of the Big Muff models. If you’re using humbuckers or an amp with little headroom, then you might want to consider a more versatile distortion like the RAT, Boss DS1 or similar clones.
Distortion or fuzz isn’t just noise but the tone has a distinct character and rich harmonics. Perhaps much more so than a modern distortion. Allow your Big Muff to shine through and don’t overdo any settings or pedal combinations. Spend some time using only the Big Muff and familiarise with its character and nuances before you add any booster, EQ or compressor.
It’s easy to think that the sustain, the crisp attack and the throaty voice of David’s Big Muffs comes from a huge setup but it’s really just the guitar, pedal and the amp in most of the cases.
Always start by plugging the guitar straight into your amp when you’re setting up a new tone. Adjust your ears to the tone and experiment with the settings until you have the right basis for your pedals.
David Gilmour’s 2006 Hiwatt setup
Linked inputs (guitar plugged into the upper bright, with a short patch cable linking the lower bright and upper normal).
Normal 2:00, brilliance 1:00, bass 11:00, treble 10:00, middle 1:30, presence 3:00, master 9:00.
Most amps have a neutral setting with the controls around noon but you might want to tweak the controls to taste. Keep in mind that the settings on David’s Hiwatts are for his rig and taste. These settings may not apply to amps with a very different character, like a Fender, so always trust your ears rather that trying to duplicate someone else’s setup.
See this feature for tips on setting up your amp in a bedroom.
Animals – The Wall
David’s typical setup for the period covering Animals, his 1978 solo album, The Wall and Final Cut was based on the Black Strat (DiMarzio FS1 bridge pickup 1976-79 and a custom wound Duncan SSL1 bridge pickup 1980-present) and the Pete Cornish 1976 pedal board split into a Hiwatt/WEM rig and Yamaha RA200 rotating speaker cabinets (he used a smaller Cornish board for the recording of The Wall). The Yamahas were mixed lower than the Hiwatts for a mild chorusy tone.
Pink Floyd performing Mother at London’s Earl’s Court in 1980. David’s tone is bright, with an unmistakable Big Muff character cutting through the layers of rotating Yamaha cabinets and the Electric Mistress flanger. The Mistress might be hard to detect on this clip but the liquidy character of the ’76 model is there, blending with the rotary cabs.
Electro Harmonix “ram’s head” Big Muff
sustain 50-60%, tone 40%, volume 50-60%
The pedal was mostly used as a dedicated overdrive. For boosting set the volume to unity level or slightly higher, keep the bass moderate and adjust the treble and gain as desired. Depending on how hot your pickups are and how much gain your Big Muff has, you probably want the Powerbooster just at the edge of break up.
Electro Harmonix Electric Mistress V2 18V 1976
rate 60%, range 40%, color 60-70%.
Note that these settings are based on the 1976 model. David’s actual settings would depend on whether the pedal was modified and how the trim pots were set. On a more recent Deluxe model you probably want to set the rate and colour at 10:00 and roll the range all the way off. The Mooer ElecLady should be set with the colour at 9:30, rate 2:30 and the range off.
MXR Digital Delay
These were typical time settings for the era, with varying feedback and level settings depending on the song.
David’s setup was based on the red Stratocaster, with the EMG SA pickups and the SPC and EXG tone boosters, an extensive pedal and effect rack setup and the amp rig, consisting of a split between the Hiwatts and the Doppola custom rotating speakers. These were mixed lower than the Hiwatts for a mild chorusy tone.
Pink Floyd performing Sorrow in London’s Earl’s Court 1994. David’s huge tone is drenched in modulation and spread out in lush stereo. It’s much smoother and darker sounding, compared to the 2006 tones but apart from all the rotating speaker cabinets and chorusy stereo, the essence of the tone is the red Strat with EMG SA pickups, Sovtek Big Muff, Chanlder Tube Driver and delay.
level 2:00, attack 11:00, sustain 11:30.
You don’t need to use a compressor to achieve these tones. In most cases you’re better off without one, avoiding noise and feedback.
Sovtek Big Muff Pi “Civil War”
gain 50-60%, tone 40%, level 50-60%
Chandler Tube Driver
level 2:00, hi 2:00, low 2:00, drive 8:00
David had two of these in the rig. One for overdrive and one for boosting. The one dedicated for boosting was often used in combination with the Sovtek Big Muff. Depending on how hot your pickups are and the voicing of your amp, you probably won’t need to boost your Sovtek model or similar clone, as these has enough gain and mid range to operate alone.
speed 11:00, depth 1:00
TC2290 Digital Delay
A typical time setting used on most of the Big Muff solos, with feedback and level settings based on each song.
2006 Live in Gdansk
David’s setup was based on the Black Strat with a custom Seymour Duncan SSL1 bridge pickup, the Pete Cornish (2006) all tubes pedalboard and the Hiwatt amplifiers.
David Gilmour performing Comfortably Numb in Gdansk, Poland in 2006. His tone is stripped to the bone, with only a Pete Cornish P1, BK Butler Tube Driver for boosting and delay.
Pete Cornish P1
sustain 1:00, tone 10:00, volume 11:00
The P1 is a clone of David’s first Big Muff, a “ram’s head” model, that he acquired around 1975 and has used on just about every Floyd and solo album since. Read more about David Gilmour’s different Big Muff models here.
BK Butler Tube Driver
level 2:00, hi 2:00, low 2:00, drive 8:00
Delay time 650ms
A typical time setting used on most of the Big Muff solos, with feedback and level settings based on each song.
Being on a tight budget doesn’t mean that you have to compromise on the tone. Given that you have a decent sounding guitar and amp, there are tons of great sounding pedals out there that doesn’t cost a fortune.
Having a bunch of pricy pedals is great but it doesn’t get you far if you don’t know how to set up your rig for the tones you want. The budget range, whether it’s guitars, amps or effects, has come a long way in recent years and most companies are putting a lot of effort into this segment because they’ve finally realised that most people don’t really have that much to spend these days.
Get the best guitar, amp and pedals you can afford and no matter what that is or how much it costs, learn how everything works and how you can get the most from it. That’ll save you a lot of hard earned bucks in the long run.
If you need to prioritise, then I suggest that you try not to focus too much on a specific tone. That will only limit your options. Go for something versatile that will cover as much ground as possible.
With David Gilmour’s Big Muff tones in mind – you don’t need a compressor, no EQ and not even a booster. A distortion, overdrive and delay will allow you to cover most of the rhythm and lead tones. If your budget allows it, then you might want to throw in a modulation pedal like a flanger for the late 70s tones or a chorus for the 80s and 90s. If you do want to boost the Muff, then go for a transparent overdrive that can double as a booster as shown in the booster section above.
This setup is based on my Stratocatser with a Seymour Duncan SSL5 bridge pickup into a Reeves Custom 50, with a 4×12″ cabinet loaded with Weber Thames 80w speakers. The tone is inspired by David’s Animals live setup in particular but applies to the whole 1976-83 period.
Airbag performing White Walls (All Rights Removed 2011) in our former rehearsal studio back in late 2010. My tone on the solo is heavily influenced by David Gilmour’s Animals and The Wall live tones, with the Electronic Orange Pig Hoof (red), ThroBak Overdriveboost and EHX Deluxe Electric Mistress.
The combination of the Reeves amp and the Weber Thames speakers, is a close resemblance to David’s Hiwatt amps and Fane Crescendo speakers. Both the Reeves/Hiwatt and Weber/Fane has a bright tone, with slight boost in upper mid range, which makes the Big Muff sound open and focused.
The SSL5 bridge pickup has a high output, rolled off highs and pronounced mid range, which fits a Big Muff perfectly. I usually roll down the guitar volume to about 9, to smooth out any harshness in the tone and bring out the harmonics of the Big Muff. I also use a heavy gauge 1.14 pick, which adds to the attack of the tone.
In this clip I’m only using an Effectrode PC-2A compressor, Vick Audio ’73 Ram’s Head, Mooer ElecLady flanger and delay. No boosting. The Big Muff has almost a fuzz character to it, with the attack and sustain of a Big Muff.
Electronic Orange Pig Hoof (red)
level 10:30, tone 11:00 and gain 1:00
The pedal is a clone of the mid 70s “violet” ram’s head, which has a bit more gain and brightness compared to the earlier ram’s heads. The Pig Hoof is also very loud, so unity level is around 11:00. I’ve set mine just a tad lower to bring out as much of the harmonics in the tone as possible. I’m using a booster to compensate for the slight volume drop.
Buffalo FX Powerbooster
bass 9:00, drive 2:00, level 1:00, treble 10:30
This is a clone of the 18V Colorsound Powerbooster, with an additional master volume control. The pedal has a lot of headroom, so I’ve bumped up the gain quite a lot but it’s still just at the edge of breakup. The bass is rolled down considerably to avoid the Muff sounding boomy.
Electro Harmonix Deluxe Electric Mistress V4 1999
rate 9:00, range off, colour 10:00
The Deluxe model has a bit more of that “jet” character compared to the late 70s model. I’ve rolled the range all the way down for a more subtle effect but you might want to turn it up to around 10:00 for a more authentic The Wall tone.
Boss DD-2 digital delay
level 11:00, feedback 12:00 (aprox 7 repeats), time 1:30 (440ms), mode L
The DD-2 sounds similar to the MXR DDL, with a typically digital accuracy but a warm analog touch to it. These units are old and I’ve had pedals that differ in the time settings so use a reference delay or metronome to get the right time.
So, to sum it up my best tip is to find a Big Muff that sounds great with your setup, regardless of what David Gilmour or any other guitarist might be using. A Big Muff is a Big Muff, true, but it’s the fine nuances between each model, your guitar and amp, your playing and how you set up everything that makes the magic. I think that once you realise that the Big Muff is so much more than just the pedal David Gilmour used on Comfortably Numb, a whole new world of tone and inspiration will emerge.
Please feel free to use the comments field below and share your setup tips and favourite Big Muff models!
A big thanks to Big Muff guru Kit Rae for the inspiration! Visit the Big Muff Pi Page for a wealth of information on the various Big Muff models.