Some pedals have gone down in the history books. The Electro-Harmonix Green Russian Big Muff Distortion/Sustainer Pedal is one of them. However, it was a pedal that evolved and didn’t just arrive one day.
The first inklings that something good was being created was with the ‘Foxey Lady’ (sic). Manufactured by EHX for Guild, it was a simple two transistor overdrive. Then came the ‘Muff Fuzz’ in 1969, which was described by Electro-Harmonix as a mild overdrive and distortion unit.
It was mild compared to what came later, and guitarists wanted more. A bigger pedal with more sustain and a silkier overdrive sound. The Big Muff arrived. It became a staple sound of Pink Floyd, Santana, Thin Lizzy, and many, many more.
The Russian connection…
Sovtek was set up by Mike Matthews to manufacture vacuum tubes. They made clones of most of the big-name valves from days gone past. But they also manufactured a few amps and pedals. The ‘Russian Big Muff’ was just one of them.
It arrived in the mid-90s and immediately gained a large user base. It doesn’t sound exactly like the original New York pedals. But there are a lot of guitarists and bass players who prefer it. It has this strange military green color and is built like what it most resembles. A tank.
But how on earth did this happen? A ‘mad professor like’ character, he had created something very special in New York. But he ended up doing his stuff in Russia of all places.
With success comes attention. And with attention comes those that think they can ride on the back of it and make some profit of their own. Mike was offered “a deal” to join the Plastic, Molders, and Novelty Workers Union. He and all his staff also “must” join.
You know the sort of people. Ne’er do wells, pretend ‘big’ men who use violence and intimidation to achieve their wants. Haven’t got a brain cell between them. And this is the 1980s we are talking about. Similar people were at work in the UK with the Thatcher government’s confrontation with the Miners. In the US, Mike told them to shove it. Quite right.
Things get nasty…
But then the intimidation against him and his staff started, and it turned violent. The latter name used for these actions was ‘Labour Racketeering.’ Could you call out for protection from the New York City police? You could, but they didn’t and wouldn’t help. We wonder why? But we are going to say no more on that subject.
Glad you are still with us. There is a reason for all this history. Sovtek was born after New York was forced to close. The new company halfway around the world and an opponent to the US were now producing the goods. Quite ironic. This period gave us the Electro Harmonix Green Russian Big Muff.
He returned to New York in the late 90s. Mainly because he saw how popular his original EHX pedals were, and he started to make them and others again. Let’s hope he turned round to those at all levels of society who hassled him and stuck his finger up and said, “I’m Back!”
Electro-Harmonix are back to full production and a force to be reckoned with once again. Sometimes crazy, sometimes brilliant, always creative and adventurous, Mike Matthews and his pedals have made their mark. So, let’s have a look at one of the most iconic guitar pedals borne out of all this.
As we have just seen, the Big Muff has seen a variety of incarnations over the years. Perhaps the rather military look of the Russian version is the starkest visibly. But looks aside, it has always been one of the most popular distortion pedals ever produced.
It has a defining style that appealed in the early days to those wanting a ‘grungy’ sound. And not only to guitarists, but bass guitarists as well. It has become one of the most sought-after vintage pedals, just like many of its Big Muff predecessors.
The Electro-Harmonix Green Russian Big Muff reissue has all the magic and noise of the original. But this time in a compact size to fit on a tour pedalboard. So, let’s take a closer look and see if they have got it right?
There is always the opportunity to take an original pedal and then maybe add a few newer innovations. That is what Electro-Harmonix has done here.
If you want to recreate a pedal a thoroughbred original, the appearance is vital. No mistakes in that department here. This Russian Big Muff has that vintage army green body of the original. And as we said earlier, it is built like a tank.
So, the critical area is satisfied. It has the same internal electronics as the original from Sovtek. Therefore you are going to get the same sound.
There are some changes, though. We mentioned that it is smaller than the original. The 4.5 by 2.75 by 2 inches size makes it much more compact and pedalboard-friendly.
On the new model, there is a jack socket for an optional power supply. It still runs off a nine-volt battery as well. The output and input jacks are now made from metal, before they weren’t. Likewise, the jack sockets are still ¼-inch in size, and the footswitch is still rugged and tough. And it has true bypass.
The Big Muffs of the 70s had three controls, so does this. Using these, you can easily dial in the distortion and the sustain sounds that made this pedal a legend.
It was the combination of these three controls that produced those sounds. With some pedals, you needed a lot of work to get sounds right. Not with this one.
All you need is three…
The Tone control will give you a range of sounds and is one of the reasons this pedal is so appealing. You can dial in a huge bottom-end, and bass players who are into that heavyweight sound love it. But it will also give you a screaming treble at the top-end. All the bases are covered then. Pardon the pun.
The volume is quite self-explanatory and adjusts the output level. Be careful; it bites!
But one of the most memorable things about this pedal is its sustain. But not only the sustain, the harmonic distortion that went along with it. The sustain control will give you whatever you want, from angry and aggressive to a sound that has a warm feel and edge to it. And all the time, it applies just the right amount of harmonic distortion.
And there are no sudden inflections as you rotate the dial. The changes between the sounds are measured and smooth. That allows you to get the sound just right. No leap of sound. No instant surge from smooth to nasty. It takes you there gradually. Just like the original did.
There will, of course, be people who find this pedal to have too much. We have tried to paint a picture of what this pedal offers. But until you hear it, you won’t really know. For some, it will be a formidable pedal. For others, as we say, just too much.
This is not a pedal for the faint-hearted. The fact that it was so highly thought of amongst grunge bands gives you an idea. And at that time, you didn’t get much ‘grungier’ than some of them. Right from the start, you get a thick and powerful bottom-end with grinding distortion.
However, if you pull it back a little on the volume control, it will calm down a little. That is what the best distortion pedals should do. It allows you to create dynamics. Something that many pedal manufacturers seem to have forgotten.
Even though the bass is very prominent, it never seems to muddy the sound. And as you go round the tone control, it starts to add that treble bite we have already talked about.
It’s the Sustain…
Of course, as we have already mentioned, it’s all about the sustain. Sustain with just the right amount of harmonic distortion. That is what sets this pedal apart. Other pedals can do the tones, and that will give you the output. But this might be the only one that gives you the sound of that sustain.
And is it expensive? One thing you can usually say about Electro-Harmonix pedals is they are well-priced; this is no exception. One of the best budget guitar pedals? You’d better believe it.
Electro-Harmonix Green Russian Big Muff Distortion/Sustainer Pedal – Pros and Cons
- Tough build with metal jack sockets and rugged footswitch.
- Same military green color as the original.
- Same excellent controls.
- A nice compact size, easy to fit on a pedalboard.
- Virtually the same internal electronics as the original.
- Great tones, including a big bottom end and screaming highs.
- Still has the sustain and harmonic distortion it is renowned for.
- Excellent price point.
- Some might find it just a bit too much.
Looking for Something Else?
Get the sound you have always wanted. Check out our in-depth reviews of the Best Fuzz Pedals, the Best Guitar Pedals For Blues, the Best Reverb Pedal, the Best Flanger Pedal, and the Best Analog Delay Pedals you can buy in 2021.
Also, take a look at our comprehensive Electro-Harmonix MEL9 Review, our MXR M133 Micro Amp review, our Zoom G3Xn Guitar Multi-Effects Processor Review, our Electro Harmonix Oceans 11 Review, and our MXR M234 Analog Chorus Pedal Review for more superb pedal choices currently on the market.
Electro-Harmonix Green Russian Big Muff Distortion/Sustainer Pedal – Final Thoughts
This is one of those pedals that people will buy for two reasons. The first is because the sound is a must-have. The second is because they want a piece of rock music history.
This pedal fits into both categories. It is superlative in every way. Even people that don’t like their distortion too heavy, like ourselves, appreciate this pedal. You cannot help but think great things about it. It has everything.
And sacrilegious as it might be to say it when you pull it back and rely on the more gentle sustain and distortion that you hear something special. It sings like a bird, and there aren’t any other pedals that sound anything like it. If you like pedals that give you an edge, then this does that. Another Mike Matthews/Electro-Harmonix masterpiece.
Until next time, don’t stop the music, comrade.