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The Sunday Papers

American Fuzz and the Iron Curtain: The Place of the Sovtek Big Muff in the Electro-Harmonix Story

By Andy Perrin | September 08, 2017

Riff City Sunday Papers - Vol. 1 No. 5

Few stompboxes make history for being produced in less than stellar conditions, created out of often subpar and ever-changing components, or for offering up varied sounds depending on which time of day they rolled off the production line. But that’s the proud resume of the army green Sovtek Big Muff. This famed pedal has found its way onto the rigs of some major players, not least Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys or the tandem guns of Sonic Youth, Lee Mark Ronaldo and Thurston Moore. However, not only because of its sound, the Sovtek Big Muff deserves a spot in the stompbox hall of fame for what it signifies at a critical moment in gear culture and global history.

In many ways, Mike Matthews is the grand daddy of the boutique stompbox movement. He was well ahead of the curve pushing out early guitar effect innovations starting in the 1960s and ever since has remained the mastermind behind New York’s own Electro-Harmonix. At the helm of this company Matthews continuously pushes the bounds of what an effect pedal can be. He also boasts the singularly unique achievement of having some of his creations manufactured on Russian soil as the Cold War thawed.

What would eventually become the Big Muff started in experimenting with creating a sustained-distortion effect in 1967 while Matthews held a day job as an IBM salesman. It was not until 1968 that he pulled the plug on the computer industry and plugged away at the startup of Electro-Harmonix. By 1969, the first Big Muff was born and offered fans of Hendrix’ sound an alternate for the classic Fuzz Face he made famous. Times were good until 1984 when the company when bankrupt.

At this point, one of the ventures Matthews turned his attention to was the vacuum tube market in Russia. In fact, as early as 1979 Matthews had already been working out business agreements in a few communist countries, like Poland and Hungary. Due to increasing economic challenges in Russia and military contracts becoming fewer and farther between, Matthews jumped at the opportunity to acquire circuits and vacuum tubes for resale from Soviet makers. It also didn’t hurt that around this time early Electro-Harmonix pedals were fetching big money behind the iron curtain. Quite unexpectedly, there was a market, an interest, and a way back into the pedal game. By 1989, the Sovtek company (a mashup of the words “Soviet” and “technology”) was open for business in Saratov, Russia. As Matthews recalled in a 2007 interview with Guitar Amplifier Magazine, “I was the first American allowed to visit some Russian all military cities... And [the] first foreigner to sign direct contracts with Russian tube factories.” 

Not only were the pedals that came out under the Sovtek imprint historic, so was the business tactic and achievement that went along with them. While managing and maintaining the business venture in Russia was no easy task—just check out the New York Times piece from a few years back the profiled Matthews’ experience with the Sovtek saga—the results for gear heads were certainly worth it. While Electro-Harmonix now resides entirely state-side, the Sovtek experience and products are without a doubt one of a kind in the world of guitar pedals.

Whether your Sunday involves a ferocious Big Muff or a warm clean tube tone, enjoy your #RiffCitySunday and don’t forget to share a picture of your rig with us on Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter.