Since our beginning, over half a century ago, Electro-Harmonix has led the way as an innovator in the world of music. Our founder, Mike Matthews, wasn’t striving to become a worldwide influence. He simply wanted to break barriers, and allow freedom of sound.
Electro-Harmonix liberated musicians of yesterday and this culture of change continues to produce innovations that rock the world to this day. We are honored to carry on this legacy; pushing boundaries aside, empowering musicians of every level, and changing the way music is made, forever.
FREEDOM OF SOUND
Once upon a time, there was no such thing as overdrive. In the early days of live amplified music, distortion was avoided. Back then, amplifiers were designed to limit the ability to explore sounds ‘outside’ of conventional boundaries.
From our very beginning, we have sought to provide musicians with the freedom to experiment. Freedom to try something new and access a vast spectrum of sound. Freedom to create without constraints; freedom of sound.
THE EHX STORY.
Genesis, 1941 – 1967
You can’t tell the story of Electro-Harmonix without sharing Mike Matthew’s life story, too. They’re intertwined and part of the same rich tapestry.
As a child, Mike had a tenacious entrepreneurial spirit. In his own words, “Ever since I was five years old, I was into business. I always knew I wanted to start my own business. I grew up in The Bronx (NYC) in the 1940s. I used to fish balls out of the sewers with hangers and sell them. I bought a guy’s inventory who’d been making binoculars during World War II. It included all his prisms and lenses. I sold them in junior high school, creating a big fad with prisms. There were rainbows all over the school. Teachers didn’t know where they were coming from. When I went to camp and kids were playing golf, I’d be in the pond looking for golf balls to sell.
“As far as music is concerned, when I was very young my mother gave me piano lessons. I was five. I had a formal, classical teacher a year later. When I was seven, I started doing concerts at elementary school. In the fourth grade I was rambunctious and I climbed up the rafters in the classroom. To punish me, the teacher canceled my upcoming concert, so I got pissed off and quit playing. But in high school, when rock and roll was first evolving, I started getting involved in boogie-woogie on the piano and I got pretty good at it.
“At college at Cornell I saw my first live concert, an R&B band called the Sawyer Brothers. They had this incredibly funky sound which really influenced me. I formed a band and played a Hammond M3 organ and a Wurlitzer electric piano in the R&B style of the Sawyer Brothers. I really got into playing music and I was booking all our gigs. While in college at Cornell and in the summer on Long Island, I would also promote rock and roll bands. I hired The Coasters, The Isley Brothers, The Drifters, The Rascals, The Byrds, The Lovin’ Spoonful and dozens more.
Mike graduated Cornell with undergraduate and master’s degrees in Electrical Engineering and an MBA in Business Management. He joined IBM as a computer salesman in 1965 but continued promoting concerts. One of those concerts included a young guitarist who would go on to superstardom.
As Mike recalls, “I also became good friends with Jimmy James who eventually went back to using the name Jimi Hendrix. Here’s how it happened. During the summer of ’65 I booked Chuck Berry at the Highway Inn in Freeport, Long Island for $1000 a night for two nights and I had to get the backup band. The promoter who sold him to me called about a week before the gig and pleaded with me to hire this other band, Curtis Knight and the Squires. He said they had an amazing guitarist who played with his teeth. I didn’t want to make this investment because the people were coming to see Chuck Berry. The agent was originally asking $600 for three nights and then said you can have them for $500 so I finally agreed figuring he’d owe me a favor. I had Chuck Berry go on first ‘cause I didn’t have any idea how the Curtis band sounded. I was in counting the money from the gig when, Steve Knapp, the guitar player for the band I’d put together to backup Berry came running in and said to me: ‘Hey, you’ve got to see this guy playing guitar!’ That was Jimmy James. He had a really fluid R&B style at the time and we hit it off.
I began hanging out with Jimmy James at his hotel room during my lunch breaks at IBM. He was living in a fleabag hotel in Times Square with no bathroom. There was just a bed and nothing else. We would just have band talks about this player, that player. One night, Curtis Knight and the Squires were playing at a club on the west side and on break Jimmy was telling me how he wanted to quit and have his own band and be the headliner. I said, ‘If you do that, you’ll have to sing.’ He said, ‘I know. That’s the problem… I can’t sing!’ And I said, ‘Well, if you work on it, you can do it. Look at Mick Jagger, look at Bob Dylan, they don’t really sing, they just phrase stuff and they’re great.’ He said, ‘Yeah, you got a point.’ And I think my encouragement helped him to start singing. He had that same style of soulful phrasing. Later on, when he made it big as Jimi Hendrix and came back to New York City to record, he’d always invite me down to his recording sessions to hang out and dig the process.
“While I was still at IBM, I had a growing urge to quit and go out and play with a band full time. In those days, “Satisfaction” with Keith Richards’ fuzz-tone guitar riff was the longest running No.1 hit of all time and Maestro couldn’t make their fuzz pedals fast enough. All the music stores in New York City were on West 48th Street and there was a repair guy there named Bill Berko who was making fuzz tones one at a time. He said, ‘Hey Mike, why don’t you come in with me? We can make these much faster.’ At that time I was married and my wife was kind of conservative. I wanted to make some quick money so I could say, ‘Here’s twenty-five grand, I’m going out playing, and you got a little security.’ I said, ‘OK.’ I figured I’d make enough so I could quit IBM and go out on the road. But it turns out he didn’t do any work, and I ended up doing that myself with a contractor in Long Island City. Al Dronge, the founder of Guild Guitars, wanted to buy them all so every couple of weeks I’d bring a few hundred pedals out to Guild in Hoboken, N.J. They would write me out a check, and I would go back to work at IBM. Al Dronge wanted to call them Foxey Lady pedals ‘cause Jimi was huge by then and everyone wanted to sound like him!”
HIGHLIGHTS & MILESTONES
Becoming an Icon, 1968 – 1981
Twenty-six-year-old Mike Matthews started Electro-Harmonix in 1968 with just $1000. That was when EHX’s first product, the LPB-1 Linear Power Booster, was born. It’s a device which helped usher in the Age of Overdrive, a phenomenon that profoundly affected the sound of modern music. Mike describes it like this: “The first pedal that I built under Electro-Harmonix was in late 1968 and it was the LPB-1 Linear Power Booster. I hooked up with Bob Meyer, an award-winning inventor from Bell Labs. I contracted with him to design a distortion-free sustainer and when I went to check out the prototype, I saw a little box plugged into the front of the sustainer prototype. I asked him, ‘What’s that?’ and he said, ‘Well, I didn’t realize that guitar put out such a low signal, so I just built a simple one-transistor booster to stick in the front.’ When I hit the switch, all of a sudden, the amp was so loud! I said, ‘Wow! That’s a product!’ In those days, amplifiers were designed with a lot of headroom. There was no such thing as overdrive. So, you would turn them up to 10 and they would still be clean and loud. But with this device, you could make the amp much louder, but then overdrive it. I called it the Linear Power Booster, or the LPB-1, and started selling them mail order and then in stores. We still sell tons of LPB-1s today.
”The sound and appeal of the LPB1 is so powerful that it has been imitated and copied by almost every pedal company on the planet.
Just one year later, in 1969, Mike introduced the Big Muff Pi. It’s the pedal Electro-Harmonix is probably best known for — a game-changer with a roster of users that reads like a who’s who of popular music. Prominent Big Muff players include Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour, Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins, The Isley Brothers’ Ernie Isley, J Mascis of Dinosaur Jr., Jack White of the White Stripes and many more. Mike relates, “We plunged into production and I brought the very first units up to Henry (Henry Goldrich, the son of Manny’s founder, Manny Goldrich), the boss at Manny’s Music on West 48th Street in New York City. About a week later, I stopped at Manny’s to buy some cables and Henry yelled out to me, ‘Hey, Mike, I sold one of those new Big Muffs to Jimi Hendrix!’ Shortly thereafter at one of Jimi’s recording sessions I saw the Big Muff on the floor and plugged into his amp.
In 1968, first year sales for EHX amounted to $50,000. By ten years later they’d reached $5 million and the company employed over 250 people from many diverse backgrounds. Most began as unskilled workers and Mike gave unlimited opportunities for advancement. EHX’s VP of Sales was an African American fellow named Willie Magee; he’d played guitar on the Chitlin’ Circuit. Manny Zapata, the Director of Foreign Marketing, was an immigrant from Columbia. Both had started out with the company as unskilled laborers and worked their way up. Mike’s philosophy was that workers could advance based on merit, rather than seniority. In 1978 Electro-Harmonix was flying high and Mike Matthews was named New York State’s Small Business Person of the Year.
It was during this period, the late ‘70s, that Mike would do two things that show how unconventional, how “outside the box”, even visionary his approach to business is. The first was opening the Electro-Harmonix Hall of Science at 150 West 48th Street in New York City. At the time, West 48th Street was Music Row, the absolute epicenter for music gear. The block was filled with music stores… one next to the other that lined both sides of the street. Every musician that passed through New York City made a pilgrimage to West 48th Street and at any given moment it would not be unusual to see anyone from Stevie Wonder to Buddy Rich making the rounds. It was in the middle of all this that Mike opened the EH Hall of Science, a product and brand exhibition center complete with a stage where Electro-Harmonix product experts demonstrated, self-demo kiosks where musicians could try products and a cool, open, inviting vibe where musicians, musician wannabees and tourists could groove on all things Electro-Harmonix. One of the most striking aspects of the Hall of Science was its dazzling array of innovative electronic art displays. While direct sales were not part of the package, it was easy for interested parties to simply walk out the door to buy at their favorite music store down the street.
The second was taking the Electro-Harmonix Work Band, a group of five other musicians and himself, to perform in Russia over a ten-day period. In 1979 the U.S.S.R. Chamber of Commerce and Industry opened its Consumer Goods Exhibition in Moscow to international participants for the first time. The event took place in Moscow’s Sokolniki Park and Electro-Harmonix was one of only two exhibitors from the U.S.A.— the other was Levi Strauss. Several dozen exhibitors from Japan and Germany shared the same pavilion. The Work Band, totally equipped with the latest EHX pedals, played to packed crowds and rocked the appreciative audience who couldn’t get enough of the band’s brand of rock and roll. The Work Band went on three times a day and whenever they did it could be heard throughout Sokolniki Park. People would hear it and they’d leave the other exhibits and pavilions in droves to catch the show. It was a celebration of American culture and music with Electro-Harmonix at the fore, and the seeds sowed on that trip would bear incredible fruit for Mike and Electro-Harmonix in years to come. More about that later.
”Currently, Electro-Harmonix has a product line of over 150 pedals ranging from the essential to the exotic. Electro-Harmonix brings players imaginative products that fan the flames of creativity at prices a working musician can afford.
HIGHLIGHTS & MILESTONES
The Death of a Dream, 1980s
Success doesn’t always come easy and in 1981 Electro-Harmonix attracted the attention of the Plastic, Moulders’ and Novelty Worker’s Union, Local 132, a branch of the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union. They offered Mike a “sweet-heart deal” to make Electro-Harmonix a union shop in which all workers would have to join Local 132. ‘It won’t cost you a dime. In fact, you can save money,’ he was told, but Mike rejected their overtures.
On the morning of Monday, August 10, 1981, a raucous crowd of outside agitators assembled in front of Electro-Harmonix. As Mike approached the building’s entrance he was accosted by several toughs. His adrenaline kicked in and he managed to hold them off, but an employee named Erasmo who jumped to his aid had his front teeth knocked out. As employees emerged from the subways they were confronted and asked to sign union cards. When they refused, they were pelted with eggs, and threatened with fists and clubs. Workers trying to enter the building had to run a gauntlet of kicking, punching and screaming outside thugs the union had hired.
Late that Monday morning, Mike reached out to NBC news reporter, Jim Van Sickle, who he knew from a story the reporter had done about Electro-Harmonix several months earlier. Mike told him what was happening and, as he says, “Jim told me it sounded newsworthy, but he only reported the news… the stories that ran were decided by the desk editor. I’ll relay your comments to him.” On Wednesday afternoon Mike received a call from Van Sickle who told him that NBC had hidden crews at the nearby Flatiron Building and in unmarked vans, and that they’d filmed the organizer’s strong-arm tactics. Mike explains, “This ongoing story was aired on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday on Channel 4 News and I was invited to appear on Friday’s NBC Live At 5 television show where I castigated labor racketeering across the country!”
During the picketing, United Parcel Service, the NYC police and others refused to cross the “picket line.” One interesting anecdote involves Mike and a friend named Charles Everett whose nickname was Chango. Chango was an African American, a street savvy Brooklyn native, and a popular drummer around New York City who Mike had hired to help out temporarily. Here’s how Mike tells it, “I rented a truck to take packed orders to the central UPS facility in Manhattan and Chango came along riding shotgun. When we arrived back at Electro-Harmonix headquarters on West 23rd Street I stopped to let Chango off before parking the truck. All of a sudden, several of the union goons yelled out at Chango, ‘Hey N-word!’ Chango went berserk, ran out of the truck and flew into these thugs throwing punches. They scattered and that was the last time any of them had anything to say to Chango!” Mike and Chango remained friends until the drummer’s passing in late 2018 and at company parties Mike would often hire Chango and his band to perform.
Mike was factoring the company’s accounts receivables through the Philadelphia National Bank and Electro-Harmonix’s financial problems grew, accelerated by the union’s disruptive tactics. Then, convinced that the company couldn’t survive, the bank immediately halted its financing, crippling the company’s cash flow. It was a savage blow.
Electricity was cut off and Mike brought a gas generator in to provide limited electric power. He and his work force maintained high morale in the face of these hardships, but recalls, “We fought for our rights but could not overcome the financial setbacks and afterwards were forced to liquidate.” Mike had to close down the factory and file for bankruptcy.”
Ultimately, the National Labor Relations Board ordered the union to “cease and desist.” Unfortunately, it was too little, too late.
Rising from the Ashes, 1990s
Mike’s trip to the U.S.S.R. with the Work Band sowed the seeds by which he was able to rebuild Electro-Harmonix and grow it back into a thriving business. He realized that the Russians couldn’t buy products from him—they didn’t have hard currency—but they were very eager for U.S. dollars. With his finely tuned entrepreneurial instincts, he thought about what he could buy from Russia. Mike recalls, “I got the idea to buy cheap integrated circuits which we called jellybean ICs from Russia. At Electro-Harmonix I’d seen these cycles every three years or so where, when manufacturers came out with a new series of integrated series that were hot, they’d stop making these cheap jellybean fill-ins and they’d end up costing a lot or you couldn’t get them. So, I figured if the Russian quality was good, when these cycles hit, I could fill a void and make a bundle! So, I started developing that business.
“In those days everything was centrally controlled and one day, in 1988, when I went over to the Ministry of Electronics, I saw vacuum tubes hanging on the wall. I thought to myself, ‘Vacuum tubes? Those are used in guitar amps!’ So, I said ‘Let me get some samples of these’ and they sent them over to me in wooden boxes. I took them out to Long Island to my friend Jesse Oliver who’d designed most of the early Ampeg amps and asked him to check them out. He said, ‘Mike, these tubes are good’ so I switched from the ICs into the vacuum tubes. I was working alone, out of my apartment, and the tubes would be up to the ceiling. I was doing it all by myself. People in the industry knew me. I’d call up the service shops around the country and orders built. It grew to where I was the first American invited to the city where the biggest vacuum tube factory in the world was, it was part of a military factory, and now, we own 100% of the factory!” Mike bought the factory, in Saratov’s Reflektor industrial complex, in 1998 and grew it into arguably the largest vacuum-tube supplier in the world with a customer list that included guitar-amp makers Marshall, Fender, Vox and Peavey, as well as audiophile manufacturers such as McIntosh and Audio Research.
Looking back, he says, “Russia collapsed in the early ‘90s and the factory that made these tubes was a conglomerate, they made integrated circuits, clocks, optical devices… and they broke up their factory into several parts, and I was continuing to sell the tubes. But they borrowed a lot of money from a Russian bank, and they couldn’t repay it, and they came to me, and said, ‘We’ve got to either close or sell the company to you or Groove Tubes. At that time, selling vacuum tubes was by far the biggest part of my business, so I bought the factory!”
Later, Mike observed that there was a flourishing market for vintage music gear. He says, “In the early ‘90s I noticed that all the Electro-Harmonix pedals that I was making in the ‘70s were selling at big markups. In the ‘70s there was nothing called the vintage market, the vintage market developed. So, I started making Electro-Harmonix pedals again. I gave the circuit diagram for the Big Muff and a sample to a small military factory in St. Petersburg that was desperate for work. They laid out the pc board, designed a new housing, and they made them for me. Later on, I expanded and added the Bass Balls and Small Stone phaser. Then I started reissuing all the popular Electro-Harmonix pedals and making them in New York City. Eventually, I put together an expanding development team to design totally new pedals.
HIGHLIGHTS & MILESTONES
This is the third installment of the Mike Matthews and EHX story, more to come. Check back soon.
Electro-Harmonix Today, 2000 – Current