Review: Electro-Harmonix Big Muff Pi Distortion Pedal

A well-known classic

A well-known classic

Back in ’69, the Electro-Harmonix guys hit on something huge when they developed their first Big Muff prototypes. Based on the concept of long sustain with creamy distortion – a ‘violin’ tone – some of the very first units were sold to big-name artists like Carlos Santana and Jimi Hendrix. Over the years, the Big Muff (so called because of its larger size compared to the previous ‘Muff Fuzz’ pedal) proceeded to dominate distortion in rock music. The company have come a long way since then, with an impressive range of products available to buy from distributors world-wide including envelope filters, chorus pedals, flangers, overdrives, distortions, delays and fuzz pedals among others. With the Big Muff, EHX raised the bar on distortion effects pedals, and even today still inspires countless boutique clones. A simple pedal, the Big Muff has three knobs for tone, sustain and volume, and between the input and output jacks the guitar signal passes through cascading sections, each providing an amount of clipping which eventually results in their signature tone. There are a number of different incarnations of this classic effects pedal, and the one that this review is focussed on is the NYC reissue, currently advertised on EXH’s official website.

Sound Quality:

The thing about classic pedal reissues is that they are coming from companies which are usually a lot bigger nowadays than they were when they first started to produce the original versions. EHX started off as a kind of boutique effects company in the ’60s, but is now a much bigger international manufacturer which has proven its worth over fifty years. As with any well-known company, success and market demand can sometimes have an effect on the overall quality of the finished product. This is, unfortunately, very much the case with this newest version of the Big Muff. Component changes and modifications mean that the pedal is a little easier and cheaper to mass produce, but the quality of the tone suffers as a result.

I’ll start with the positives. The pedal actually sounds wonderful when you listen to it by itself and don’t compare it to previous muffs. It delivers that wonderfully thick and creamy distortion tone we’ve come to expect from an EHX distortion, and the control knobs – in particular the tone pot – have an amazing range. The tone goes all of the way from thick bass to bright treble, making this pedal a pretty versatile effect. The tone range actually means that this distortion can be used on bass guitar as well; it sounds pretty good for those metallica bass riffs. The pedal also works well with other effects in a chain, and plays nicely both in front of a pre amp and in the effects loop. Deep chorus and long tailed delay after the Big Muff in particular offer a great tone for solos and bring you into David Gilmour territory. Bringing down the sustain control provides a suitable tone for choppy Jack White-esque rhythm guitar and taking it to the max is great for low end power chords which ring out until tomorrow.

Issues do however arise when the pedal is compared to olded versions of the Muff. And why not compare? The 70s original Muffs – and the DIY clones which pedal enthusiasts and boutique builders have produced – are proof of just how great EHX can make this pedal sound. The latest reissues just don’t quite live upto expectations on this front. One wonderful thing about the older Big Muff circuit design is that it creates a tone which is incredibly rich in harmonics. With the sustain cranked and volume and tone in just the right sweet spot, a chord or note will not only ring out for a very long time, but will also fade into beautiful natural-sounding musical feedback under certain conditions. With the reissue, the distorted sustain has more of a tendency to just break up at the end of the note, and the sustain is not near as long as it could be. The tone control, while still providing that fantastic range, seems to be all one way or all the other way; it has lost the gradual sweep that it used to have. Its like choosing between muddy bass tones and ear-splittingly piercing trebles.

Build Quality:

As usual with boutique units like the Big Muff, the metal case is built pretty well and can withstand a fair bit of punishment. This is definitely a pedal which can be taken on the road. One thing which lessens the build quality a little is the fact that the paint job chips a little easily, so you need to be a little careful when installing in your rig, transporting and switching between active and bypass modes. The pedal also has a fair amount of background hum when used; so much so that if clarity is your thing, I’d highly recommend setting it up with a good noise gate!

Overall:

7/10
EHX have given us a great looking remake of a wonderful classic. The Big Muff Pi lives on as one of the most important effects in the history of the electric guitar and it is great that this effect is still available for any guitarist to buy easily. The tone of the distortion is out of this world and really adds a lot to both lead and rhythm guitar, and it is a worthy addition to any effects rig; whether you are a touring guitar player or a studio session guitarist. Tonally, the pedal does however suffer a little when compared to previous Big Muff versions. Distortion has more of a tendency to break up rather than swell into feedback when long sustain is needed, and the tone pot is all bass or all treble; great range but in reality this Big Muff has two main tones, very high or very low.

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