The Innovators: Electro-Harmonix's Mike Matthews

November 10, 2017

If you’ve ever plugged your bass into an effect pedal, chances are good that the pedal was conceived, designed, manufactured, or distributed by Mike Matthews of Electro-Harmonix. Since he started his company in 1968, Mike has been one of the leaders in producing effect units for bass and guitar, a job he continues to relish today at age 75.

After graduating from Cornell University with degrees in electrical engineering and business management, Mike went to work for IBM as a salesman. Unhappy with that line of work, he felt drawn to a career connected to music, recalling his student days as the keyboardist in an R&B band and a concert promoter. Seeing an opportunity, he started Electro-Harmonix with an initial investment of $1,000. “When I came out with our first product, the LPB-1 power booster, there was almost nothing else on the market,” Mike says. “Now there’s over a thousand people making effects—but it’s worked out fine for me.”

Electro-Harmonix grew quickly in the ’70s, as thousands of musicians latched onto the LPB-1 and other tone-shifting stomp boxes like the Big Muff fuzztone, the Small Stone phase shifter, and the Bassballs envelope filter, the company’s first dedicated bass product. The business grew fast—too fast, as it turned out. “I thought I could do everything,” Mike says. “I was stretched to the limit, and I went bankrupt in the early ’80s.”

Not one to give up easily, Mike bounced back by importing and selling vacuum tubes made in Russia. Before long, he had expanded his line to include Sovtek amplifiers and a new line of effect pedals. “Bass players liked it when we came out with our Russian version of the Big Muff. The circuit was the same, but with the Russian components there were lots of little differences with the transistors, diodes, all the parts. That became very popular with both bassists and guitarists.”

Electro-Harmonix rebounded strongly in the ’90s, after demand for the company’s units from the ’70s drove up prices in the vintage market and Mike started to manufacture pedals again. As the political and economic situation in Russia shifted, he decided to bring production back to the U.S. The company now has a 90,000-square-foot facility in New York City that turns out more than 120 different effect units, including 14 for bass. These include updated versions of classic Electro-Harmonix pedals, including the Deluxe Bass Big Muff π, the Bass Clone chorus, and the still-popular Bassballs.

The company’s latest bass product is the Battalion, an analog multi-function unit that combines 4-band EQ with a MOSFET distortion circuit, compressor, noise gate, and a balanced XLR output for use as a direct box. Mike is enthusiastic about it. “There’s a lot of DI stuff out there,” he says, “but what I like about the Battalion is the tone when you blend in just a bit of distortion. I like the smooth, rich, subtle sound of that.”

Because of his lengthy career, Mike has a unique perspective on the changes in the effects market. “When we started out, pretty much everything we did was analog, although we were the first to bring out an inexpensive digital delay. Now, as a business, we have to mix it up. We have some simple analog products and some more complicated ones; we have some simple digital products and some more exotic digital products. We have to bring out a variety of products to have a good chance of being successful in today’s market.”

Never content to stand pat, Mike always has something new in the works, although he’s reluctant to talk about what’s coming up next for bass players. (“I don’t need to give any hints to our competitors,” he says with a chuckle.) Given his track record, you can be sure it will be innovative—and coming from the man who give us the Big Muff and the Small Stone, it will have a memorable name.

For more about Electro-Harmonix, go to www.ehx.com.

Jim Roberts was the founding editor of Bass Player and also served as the magazine’s publisher and group publisher. He is the author of How the Fender Bass Changed the World and American Basses: An Illustrated History & Player’s Guide (both published by Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard).

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