In 1968 Sam Ash Music became the very first Electro-Harmonix customer in the world when Jerry Ash bought 6 LPB-1 pedals; recently Jerry’s grandson Ben sat down with Electro-Harmonix founder Mike Matthews to look back on half a century of music, pedals and the MI Industry.
Ben: What got you into the pedal business?
Mike: I was working for IBM at the time, but ever since I was kid, 5 years old I’ve always been into business. Also, I was a keyboard player in college and I really dug rock and roll and I wanted to quit IBM and go out and see if I could make it but I had a conservative wife so I figured, “Well, I gotta make a little stash of money so she felt secure with me quitting, you know, a nice, steady job.”
Back then everyone wanted a fuzz tone so they could sound like Keith Richards on “Satisfaction”, which was the biggest hit in the music scene. Maestro who made those pedals couldn’t make them fast enough.
There was a guy Bill Berker who was working on 48th Street, in NYC, Music Row, he was making these fuzz tones one at a time. He invited me to work with him and build
the pedals together and I said ok. Bill didn’t do anything, he dropped out and I was left making fuzz tones. I took them to an electronic contractor who made them and Guild guitars found out and wanted to buy all of them. By this time, Hendrix was hot, he used to be a pal of mine, and they decided to name them “Foxy Ladies”. Now that Hendrix was hot, everybody wanted to sound like him; he could hold his finger on the guitar, slightly vibrate it and sustain a note indefinitely. So I brought in a guy named Bob Meyers to design a distortion-free sustainer. The problem back then was, you would hit a note and it’s loud as hell and you get clicks and pops. When we tested out the prototype, there was a little box plugged into the sustainer box, he told me, “Well, I didn’t know the guitar put out such little volume needed for the sustainer to work properly so I built this little booster.” So I plugged in, hit the switch and all of the sudden the amp was loud as hell. I turned it up and the amp went into overdrive. I said “Wow that’s a product!”
I sold them mail order at first but I knew we had to go to a music store in order to get distribution. I wanted to go to Manny’s Music; they were the biggest store in those days on 48th Street. I figured I would test it with the second biggest store in the city, Sam Ash Music. I prepared this special poster on hardboard, I had one of these East Village psychedelic artists paint some stuff in the background. You reminded me earlier that the design was flowers and that your grandfather hung it in his room for years, and had poked in twelve holes and then had six elastic bands so I’d deliver it to his with six LPB-1’s and I said “Here: this is what the cost is…”, demonstrated one, and he bought them! So Sam Ash Music was the very first customer of Electro-Harmonix, very first store in the whole world and we’re still rock ‘n’ rollin’!
B: Thank you for your business! Do you happen to remember the pitch?
M: I showed them the board and the product spoke for itself. It was a nice presentation and your grandfather recognized this had potential, they weren’t that expensive and he was only buying six pieces.
B: So just six?
M: Well initially he bought the six I brought out with me and then quickly reordered some.
B: And we haven’t stopped ordering since!
M: We’re still selling LPB-1’s! We sell shy of a thousand a month!
B: Wow! Don’t’ fix what ain’t broke!
B: So how did you get into the industry of tubes alongside of pedals?
M: I was in a hurry to build a scientific empire quick because I wanted to use the money to fund an industrial tank that would defeat death itself. You figure if mankind now is living 30 years longer than they were living 100 years ago and that trend was going to continue eventually mankind would be living long enough to defeat death and I said, maybe in a thousand years if we don’t destroy ourselves, which is a big if I could try to bring that thousand years into my own lifetime so I became obsessed and I forced the company to grow fast.
Back in 1979, I got an invitation to exhibit at the first trade show in Russia open to western companies; a consumer trade show. At the time, we were selling to a lot of the communist socialist countries like Hungary, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and Poland. I thought, “Russia is the heart of communism. I’ve got to go there! They’ve got a bigger population!” I got carried away. Usually I’d go to a trade show with just one guitar player and an assistant but I ended up going with a whole rock and roll band! If you look on the Electro-Harmonix website www.ehx.com you can read about our story about when we went to Russia.
On my first trip back to Russia in 1988, at that time, everything was centrally controlled, at the Ministry of Electronics I saw vacuum tubes hanging on the wall. I said, “Vacuum tubes! Those are used in guitar amps!” so I brought some vacuum tubes back, brought them to my friend Jesse Oliver, who designed some of the most famous Ampeg amps, and asked him if the tubes were any good. He tested them and said, “Yeah, these are good tubes!” and that’s how I got into vacuum tubes. People in the industry knew me so when I called them up, I was working alone at this time, it was much easier to sell vacuum tubes than integrated circuits. Now we own 100% of the factory, we design and manufacture the premium brands like Tungsol, Genelex Gold Lion, Svetlana, Mullard, EH, and Sovtek. We are far and away number one in the resale market.
B: You guys have a lot of unique names for pedals, such as Small Stone, Big Muff, Wiggler, was there any inspiration for those names?
M: What happened is our first product was the LPB-1 with a box and the first thing I thought of was, “what other stuff can I fit in a box?” We had a bass booster called “The Mole” because it’s underground and implies a low sound. Then we had a treble booster with a filter and the copy said “The Screaming Bird will make your axe sound like a harpsichord whose strings are whipped!” rather than “plucked”. For a distortion unit, I brought out the “Muff” because it had a muffled sound. We have a pedal called the “Cock Fight” the name comes from people who leave wah-wah pedals in the fixed “cocked” position. I just wanted a slight bit of dirt.
B: Other people might disagree that’s the reason but it’s good to know that’s the true reason.
M: Later on, when we came out with the Big Muff in 1969 I wanted the name to play off of The Muff. I always liked to have unusual names. Back in those days, everyone would have a very simple name like the D-123 or the B-456 and we tried to have different names. We were the first with a lot of stuff: the first company with a low cost flange, our original Electric Mistress, an analog delay that could be sold to the masses the Memory Man, and a low cost 2-second digital delay.
When we were listening to the 2-second digital delay, and two seconds is a long time, I wondered “what if it was 16 seconds, like a mini recording?” so we built a 16 second digital delay and wondered “Can we record on top of it? Can we play it at half speed? Can we record on top of the half speed?” and answered “yes” to all those questions and created the first looper in 1984 called the 16 Second Digital Delay! We were first on a lot of other stuff. We were the first with the POG, Micro POG, Nano POG and the Hog that can add harmonics polyphonically with no glitches up and down. I can go on and on but we make about 125 different pedals so I can’t talk about all of them now.
B: What goes into the process of creating a pedal?
M: Originally, I would decide the whole thing myself, including all the features. Now, John Pisani who’s our chief engineer, I tell him what product I want to make. Then, I let the engineers come up with the features. We keep a balance. My philosophy is to make stuff that we can come out with and have a mix of development between analog and digital and a mix between simple products and more complex products.
B: How do you manage to keep your products so affordable, as a US company?
M: Electro-Harmonix has a good market share so we buy in volume, so that lowers costs. We assemble our products in New York and our printed circuit boards and chassis are made overseas. We bring them in, assemble them, test them on the oscilloscopes, and then test every single one with guitar to test the quality. We control the quality. If you make the stuff overseas, you’re gonna have to have a QC staff and it can be easy for something to get messed up. Although labor costs are a lot higher in the USA compared to China, we prefer to control the quality. Since we make over 140 different pedals, we can have the stocks of the printed circuit boards and chassis but just keep building small runs for what we need for the next month. Whether you’re screwing together a Soul Pog, a Soul Preacher or a Stereo Electric Mistress, that operation is pretty similar. Most boutique companies have difficulty because they don’t make enough, and start out with high prices to make a profit but those high prices give them lower volume. We have about 5 million big competitors and want to keep getting more and more market share.
B: Do you have any stories or unique pieces of advice you have experienced in this industry you can share?
M: I’ve got hundreds of stories. You can read most of them on our website at www.ehx.com. Whether we were battling racketeers in the US or twice battling them in Russia, or solving a problem that comes up in a design, we stick with it until we solve the problem because we want to win! We’re winners!
B: Lastly, they always ask “If you could take one book on a desert island…” and I know it’s impossible to take one PEDAL but if you had the perfect EHX pedalboard for your sound, which pedals would be on it?
M: God, I don’t know. First of all, I’m a keyboard player. I can’t answer that because if you look on Premier Guitar for example, almost every day they’re showing different pedalboards. There are literally a thousand people making overdrives and distortions, a hundred different models of tremolos and phase shifters. Musicians today like to have small pedals and mix them together the way they want. That’s the other reason the LPB-1 is still a seller is because periodically when you mix together different chains of pedals, if and when there are impedance mismatches, you lose some volume. Inserting an LPB-1 into a pedal chain can liven it up. I can’t tell you my ideal pedalboard. To me, what’s ideal is what sells because basically I’m an entrepreneur businessman and I want to see success and what sells so that’s what I’d take on my island.
B: If that’s the case, I have no other questions and thank you so much!
M: Rock N Roll and congratulations to Sam Ash! The very first Electro-Harmonix customer back in 1968 from your grandpops Jerry Ash!