Tinnily-made, battery-sucking Electro-Harmonix pedals are the secret weapons of the hippest pickers. Phil Harris knows why
Being honest, as a teenager in the late ’60s my first take on Electro-Harmonix was ‘You can’t call something a Big Muff!” Not that I knew what the phrase meant, you understand.
When I passed through the seamy delights of London’s Soho on the way to Denmark Street to look at guitars, I quickened my step and looked only at the pavement and the holes in the road. Promise.
But it wasn’t just the wacky names that got Electro-Harmonix established – it was the fact that their pedals had an individual identity to them. For example, when they brought out the Small Stone it revolutionised the use of phase.
When you hear the solo on Summer Breeze, you know it’s a Big Muff. In the same way as guitars like Les Pauls and Strats, you could tell an E-H pedal when you heard one, but that didn’t stop the musician from making it their own.
However, the popularity of E-H pedals dipped in the ’80s – they weren’t old enough to be vintage, but they were old enough to be seen as old hat.
The Boss invasion had started, and no one wanted a big lump of tin. They were seen as being as useful as a chocolate amplifier. This is good news for collectors, though, as plenty of them barely made it out of the box, so a lot of them are still in good condition.
The resurgence of pedals since the ’90s has seen a lot of the old E-H models being reissued. But they’re not the same; if you have an original and the chip in them goes, replacing it with the same chip is very expensive… and that’s if you can find one. So is it worth getting an old Electro-Harmonix pedal? Of course.
Because, and I’ll narrow this down to everything in life, the original is always the best.
1974 Screaming Bird
I bought this in ’74, probably for about eight florins and a farthing (probably closer to £10) because I bought a standard AC30 without the boost. As with Brian May’s Rangemaster, you put this treble booster into the Normal Channel and you sound fabulous. It also works on the floor as part of your pedal chain. What’s it’s secret? Maybe it’s the tin, because when you open it up there’s nothing there. There’s not much call for treble boosters on modern amps, but nothing has the soul of this one. It’s worth £30,000 to me – but about £50 to anyone else
1976 Black Finger
This is a sustainer/compressor. Basically, if you hit a note it’ll go on for the rest of your life. Remember Boston’s More Than A Feeling? That’s the sound it delivers. I’ve never used it for recording or live, but I’ve mucked about with this pedal at home and it’s really good fun. And in all the times it’s been hired out no one’s ever told me it’s rubbish, and if you know my clients, you’ll know that they wouldn’t be shy about breaking that kind of news to me. It’s not a Electro-Harmonix mainstay like the Memory Man or Electric Mistress, but it’s popular these days with producers who want to put a bizarre guitar through it – something that’s technically rubbish – and the guitar gets the sustaining properties associated with quality wood and pickups. So get a Futurama amp and a Teisco guitar, spend £150, and have fun
1975 Screaming Tree
This is the big brother to the Screaming Bird. Rory Gallagher may have turned me on to using treble boosters through AC30s, but Rangemaster Treble Boosters like his were –and still are – always difficult to obtain, so this pedal was real find for me. It’s got all the character of the Screaming Bird, but it has a bit more frequency; not just cut, but more mid and bottom. But there’s often not a lot of call for it in rock music – if you’re playing a Les Paul that’s screaming its arse off, it’s a waste of time. If you’re used to modern amplifiers this might be hard to believe, but in the old days a lot of amps had trouble with treble and had no front-end sensitivity. The Screaming Tree gave you a much higher threshold for sustain and distortion… and it boosted the signal. Simply put, you plug your Strat in and you can go from Hank Marvin to Jimi Hendrix at the flick of a switch. Due to its rarity, this is worth £200 all day long
1977 Soul Preacher
I wanted this in here because I thought this column was lacking some Starsky and Hutch. So the word on the street with this pedal is that it’s a strict compressor/sustain.
At the time this pedal came out there were enough guitar players out there who were down for a bit of funk. This has got it by the bucketload. In fact, forget Huggy Bear… I swear that this contains the DNA of both Isaac Hayes and Curtis Mayfield. I saw Curtis once hit a clean note on a Strat and it went on forever; that’s what this pedal can do. This is still a popular hire pedal for us. We’ve got a collection of pedals that we describe to producers and musicians as ‘the collection from Mars’. They don’t have your flange, phase, fuzz or wah, but little off-beat gems like the Soul Preacher. They are hard to find and I would pay £250 for a sniff of one. However, as I already have two, keep yours, and watch how it turns your jacket to velvet and makes flares out your trousers
1976 Full Double Tracking Effect
Does the name give it away at all? For those that don’t know, double tracking was a big thing in the ’70s for singers who either couldn’t sing or wanted a ballsier vocal. It came in handy for guitar players who wanted to make their sound beefier; if you were doing a session with a Strat and you were asked for a sound only the fattest Les Paul could deliver, help was at hand in the shape of this box. As well as boosting and widening the sound, this also gave you a slight delay. Now this came in handy for getting a bigger sound, but if you put too much delay on, the effect was that it sounded like you were playing along with yourself and getting it wrong. One of the most famous instances of this is the solo of Hi Ho Silver Lining, and Jeff Beck – an amazing guitar player – must cringe and want therapy every time he realises that someone convinced him double tracking it was a good idea. Worth £200, maybe £250 on a good day
1979 Dr Q Envelope Follower
And we’re back to the funk once again. The first person I knew who used one of these was the legendary bass player Larry Graham. This pedal allows you to chop the note up or down. Guitar players started off using this, but bass players were the reason this is one of the few Electro-Harmonix pedals that never went out of fashion. I paid about £50 for this, but it’s now worth £150 to £200. Get yourself a white Jazz Bass and a big hat, and away you go. Like all the E-H units, the cheap design is part of the beauty of it. Modern effects can keep the integrity of your guitar, but if you’ve got a boring guitar, you’ll end up with a boring sound. However, the circuitry on old E-H pedals is so archaic that it can’t leave your guitar alone. The young guitar brains of 2008 that are like mine was back in 1968 should try and get hold of whatever old E-H pedals they can find. Get a few of them and you can travel the width and breadth of your guitar and your brain cells without resorting to drugs. The reissues are made to perfection, but the ’70s ones weren’t – and there’s something wonderful about the imperfections