The Big Muff. Anyone whoâ€™s stomped one knows its power and tone and when you hear one you nod and go â€œyeah, thatâ€™s a Big Muffâ€. The larger than life tone is as mythical as the pedal it self. Letâ€™s dip into the wonderful world of the coolest sounding pedal of all time!
â€¨â€¨I got my first Big Muff in 1996. I had played guitar for some time but never really cared much for effects. Well, I did care for tone but this was before the internet revolution, or at least at the very beginning of it, and the local guitar stores only offered Boss and Ibanez pedals. I remember asking if they had Big Muffs, never really knowing what it was, but they just waved me off. Anyway, by 1996 the whole grunge era was almost gone. Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden etc was past their peak but they left a legacy – the music and their guitar tone. The grunge guitarist didnâ€™t care for DS1 or chorus. They wanted an old school nasty tone and the Muff saw its comeback. Electro Harmonix founder Mike Matthews had just moved to Russia and started Sovtek. The timing couldnâ€™t have been better as a new generation was eager to buy their first Big Muff.
Finally, my local store had gotten a green Sovtek Big Muff Pi. I remember trying the pedal in the store and thinking â€œwhat the fuckâ€¦â€ It sounded like shit. Of course, now I know that a Music Man Wolfgang into a Marshall stack is hardly the best combo for a Muff and certainly not for replicating Davidâ€™s tones. Luckily, I was so determined to get this pedal that I bought it. I never figured out the settings so the first year or so I hardly used it.
One day, probably around 1998, I found some settings on the net. A guy recommended something that would fit Davidâ€™s PULSE tones. I plugged the Muff into my old Sound City 50w stack, maxed the volume as usual, stomped the green beast and â€œwhoa!â€ I felt like Marty McFly almost being thrown to the other side of the room. The tone was so powerful that I almost fainted. After some tweaking around and adding a delay I was soon fooling around with Sorrow, Echoes, Comfortably Numb etc. Iâ€™m sure it sounded horrible but I never forget that day and I still have the pedal.
Iâ€™m sure David didnâ€™t feel the same when Phil Taylor presented the Big Muff to him around 1975. After all, he was used to standing in front of a wall of speakers and the sound of his Hiwatts being violated by a screaming Fuzz Face. Apparently, David didnâ€™t care much for the Big Muff at first but he did end up using it for most of his lead tones on Animals and the pedal has been with him ever since.
Itâ€™s hard to say just why David settled with the Big Muff. I mean, no matter how much we love the pedal we must admit that itâ€™s quiteâ€¦ uniqueâ€¦ in lack of a better word. Itâ€™s a perfect match for Floyd, Santana, grunge or Sabbath but hardly for Bon Jovi or a mellow jazz improv. The Big Muff is a nasty beast that can sound quite out of place if you donâ€™t appreciate its limits. But, this was 1975-76 and still a couple of years before the classic distortion appeared, like the Boss DS1, ProCo RAT and MXR Distortion +. Guitarist didnâ€™t have that much to chose from so a Big Muff must have sounded quite sophisticated compared with the fuzz theyâ€™d been struggling with for some years.
Davidâ€™s first Big Muff was a so-called ramâ€™s head model (named after the ram head logo on the pedal). The pedal has the unmistakable saturated gain, scooped mid range and thunderous lows. The pedal became his main distortion for well over three decades. He also got Pete Cornish to make him a clone that would fit his new pedal boards – the P1.
But all this praise and admiration doesnâ€™t mean shit when you sit at home with your little amp while trying to get your newly purchased Big Muff to sound like Davidâ€™s guitar on PULSE. How can this be? Have I been fooled? You toss the pedal out the window while you demand to know what NASA shit heâ€™s put into his amps to get that tone. Well, this isnâ€™t really about gear or how much money you spend but about physics.
To get that silky smooth sustain and growling bite you need power. Lots of power. And with power I mean volume. People often ask me why Davidâ€™s Muff tones almost sound as if heâ€™s playing with a clean tone. Thatâ€™s the essence of a Big Muff. It was designed to boost the clean tone for a smooth sustain. The â€œbonusâ€ was that to achieve this it needed to clip or distort. Thatâ€™s why a Muff is often referred to as a booster or sustainer. All you need is a guitar a loud tube amp and a Big Muff. Davidâ€™s 100w Hiwatts and 200w WEM cabinets are furiously loud and he can set these almost as loud as he wants without them distorting. What he gets is this incredibly powerful clean tone thatâ€™s just on the very edge of tube breakup. This is the perfect combo for the Muff. The louder youâ€™re able to play the smoother the Muff gets and the more it opens up.
To understand how a pedal works and how to get the tones you want, you need to understand how the pedal was designed and how it was intended to be used. The Big Muff was designed at a time when guitarists used loud amp stacks on stage as their only source of monitoring. These amps could distort to some point but for most this wasnâ€™t enough. Treble boosters and fuzz pedals were designed to take these amps over the edge. The Big Muff was designed to offer something more. Something louder and nastier. Now guitarists could make their overdriven Marshalls and even their clean Hiwatts sound like some beast from hell. The louder you played the more the pedal reacted with the tubes and the more compressed the tone got but equally important, the speakers reached their limit and sent out sound waves that would get your ears to cut the high frequencies. This loudness, the bass, the compression and clipping is the secret of Davidâ€™s Big Muff tones. Sadly, this is almost impossible to recreate on a smaller amp in your bedroom.
So what do you do? Well most of you I guess, have already gotten a clone thatâ€™s tweaked for smaller amps or perhaps found ways to combine the Muff with other pedals to simulate a cranked tube amp. The distortions that started to appear in the late 70s were designed to capture the tone of a cranked Marshall and a fuzz. This meant that you could use a RAT or Tube Screamer to make your small solid state amp sound like a huge stack. Of course these wonâ€™t recreate the sonics and physics of an amp thatâ€™s about to blow but it will be a far better option than forcing a Big Muff to be something which it ainâ€™t.
But why is David always using a Big Muff with a booster or overdrive? well, heâ€™s using the booster just like an EQ. Itâ€™s not needed to get that smooth tone but it allows you to emphasise some frequencies depending on the nature of the booster and you can also make the amp slightly hotter by adding more volume and gain. This is important to understand and not just go ahead and crank both pedals for an insane amount of gain. That will only add noise. Weâ€™ll look at ways to combine the Big Muff with booster later.
The first Pink Floyd album I got was Animals. It must have been in the late 80â€™s. It forever changed my life and after hearing Dogs for the millionth time I realised that David Gilmour was the greatest guitarist in the world. Tonewise I didnâ€™t have a clue. It was until I heard Delicate Sound of Thunder some years later that I knew that I wanted THE tone. The soaring, thunderous opening on Sorrow and the silky smooth sustain on Time and Comfortably numb had me completely mesmerised. Now I prefer Davidâ€™s 70s tones but I still get goosebupms when I put on Delicate and I still canâ€™t quite believe how he managed to get that tone. The Big Muff operates in mysterious ways.
Check out Big Muff guru Kit Rae’s Big Muff site for details on just about every Muff ever existed.
Please feel free to share your favorite Big Muff moments!