Mike Matthews of Electro Harmonix
Meet the Man Who Changed Guitar Music Forever
Today, Matthews, 76, continues to push the boundaries of pedal design. The company’s latest release, the 95000 Performance Loop Laboratory ($550), was awarded Best in Show at the 2018 National Association of Music Merchants trade show. The rugged aluminum-body pedal can record up to 375 minutes and 100 loops, and has a range of features including two-octave speed adjustment, overdubbing and reverse playback, among others. This pedal unlocks a wealth of creative potential for live looping performances and its ability to build complex arrangements is ideal for everyone from vocalists to electronic artists to acoustic musicians (see Reggie Watts demo it here).
Though Electro Harmonix is a half-century old, it remains one of the most important brands in electric music. To put the brand’s latest release in perspective, we caught up with Matthews who shared the story behind his brand, memories of Jimi Hendrix and his favorite pedals.
And later, we were first with analog delays with echoes: our Memory Man series. Also, we were the first digital delay pedal. In those days, the only digital delays were the expensive Lexicon rack-mount studio units. And with that, we had a long delay which was two seconds which is really a long time. So when we came out with that with the long delay, I started thinking, “Wow, I wonder what would happen if you could stretch this out to 16 seconds.” With the technology at that time, we could go to 16 seconds but the frequency response was pretty low (down to about 1000 cycles), but with the shorter delays of about eight seconds, it was about 2500/3000 cycles. That was so long, you could play something and then it would play again — so that led to the first looper, the 16 Second Digital Delay.
At that time the company went belly up in ‘84. I was bankrupt, but then I got involved in vacuum tubes from Russia. While I was building up the vacuum tube business, I noticed that all the pedals I sold in the ‘70s were selling for much more money than they were in the ‘70s — and we built a lot of pedals, hundreds-of-thousands of them. So this new vintage market developed.
At the same time — it was the very early ‘90s — the Soviet Union collapsed. Everything in Russia was a military factory, and so I hooked up with a small military factory in St. Petersburg that made test equipment. I just gave them the circuit diagram of the Big Muff, which we brought out in 1969. So, they made the Big Muff and made it with Russian parts and built a big box and used Russian transistors. At first, I called it the Red Army Overdrive because it took me a while to get my trademark back, and it had a slightly different sound than the original Big Muff which a lot of people preferred, especially on bass. Eventually, we brought out two more products that were made in Russia. Then I started to re-issue a lot of stuff, and come out with a lot of new gear built in New York.
Again, we came out with a lot of innovated pedals, but one of them was our POG series which could take polyphonic notes — chords and stuff — and move it up an octave, move it up two octaves, put it down one or two octaves. You could take a guitar and make it sound like a bass guitar or add high harmonics to it. And then we came out with the HOG, which instead of octaves could add thirds and fifths. Nobody’s been able to copy our technology, so we still dominate that. During that time, a lot of other companies came out with loopers, so I was determined to get back and get our rightful share of the market. So we brought out a number of inexpensive loopers — our 360 and our 720 — and more recently, we came out with the top-of-the-line 95000 looper which is six tracks plus a seventh mix-down track. It has a lot of features and MIDI, and you can gang them together. It has built-in drum sounds or you can attach a drum machine to it. Just recently, Justin Timberlake’s tech called us up and said he wanted one to use on his current tour. And now, we’re working on still more advanced ones for the future.
When he went to England, his whole style changed. But whenever he’d come to New York and record in New York, he’d invite me down to his recording sessions, and I dug the way he recorded. Most groups would make a song — practice it and practice it and practice it — and then go into the studio and cut it. If something was fucked up, they’d redo it. And after a while, they’d keep redoing things and by the time they’d get it perfect, it lost some natural groove.
What Jimi would do: he would go into the studio and have his sidemen — his drummer and bass player — just jam. When he felt it, he’d start jamming with them, and then when he felt the groove, he would just turn around and signal the recording engineer to record. And then he would just come up with something dynamite, and that was it — real natural. That’s one of the secrets, aside from his innovative playing, to all the soul that’s in his recordings.
As far as music was concerned, my mother started teaching me piano when I was five and then when I was six or seven she got me formal classical lessons. I used to give concerts in elementary school, but I was a rambunctious kid. I was scheduled to do a concert in the fourth grade and I was climbing up the rafters in the classroom, and the teacher, to punish me, canceled my concert. So I said, “Fuck it,” and quit playing. But then rock and roll was becoming popular and in high school, I started playing around with boogie-woogie and piano. When I went to college — I went to Cornell — I was studying electrical engineering, not because I had any desire to become an electrical engineer, but because my father said I had to get a profession. So I just picked electrical engineering because I did well in high school in physics.
When I went to Cornell, I saw my first rock and roll band live. After that, I got a Wurlitzer electric piano and then a Hammond organ, and then I started playing that style. I was promoting all these rock and roll shows, and I was a real good player back in the early ‘60s. When I promoted groups like the Isley Brothers — that was my style — they would just travel with their guitar player, and the promoter would put together the band. So, I played and had a great bass player and a really dynamite drummer. After the gig, they begged me to quit college and go on the road with them. But in those days, this is around ‘62 or ‘63, I always knew I was going to go into business.
I run things now much more conservatively and I have a balanced approach. When we’re designing new products we always have a mix of some simple new analog products, some complex analog ones, some simple digital, and we’re always working on something innovative and new, but nothing that’s going to take more than a year to bring out. Once we decide on what’s going to be in the product and start designing it, we stick with that. If we have some good new ideas, we save that for a follow-up product.
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