Big Q I can’t answer: “The EHX Big Muff Pi is conspicuous for its very ubiquity. But does it really deserve its exclusive status as the “fuzz of all fuzzes”?’
Few if any axe-grinders have taken to the concert stage without the giant silver wedge of an Electro-Harmonix Big Muff Pi at their feet at one time or another. My first was an army-green Sovtek that I picked up at the local music store/pawnshop I frequented in my teens. I remember being fascinated by the Cyrillic lettering on the pedal’s wooden box, both amazed and confused that this piece of Soviet engineering had found its way to me, in Morristown, Tennessee. I knew nothing of the Big Muff’s long history, or that Sovtek was really just Electro-Harmonix (builder of my first stomp box: a red and black “Small Stone” phase shifter) in exile. That big green wedge was gateway to a whole new universe of tones — and volume — and it was a mainstay at my feet for the better part of twenty-five years. When I sold ‘Big Green’ in order to finance some new gear I coveted, I almost immediately regretted it; despite there being countless new, different, and even ‘fuzzier’ options available, I missed the tried-and-true sound of my BMP. After a flirtation with going fuzz-less, I was soon pulled back toward the furry side with the EHX’s Big Muff Pi w/ Tone Wicker, which found a home on my board until, lo and behold, I happened upon the Nano Big Muff Pi — the most unintentionally oxymoronic pedal of all time. How can it be ‘nano’ and ‘big’ at the same time?
Not being a wizard myself, I can’t tell you what kind of spell Mike Matthews and his Brooklyn-based coven slapped on this Lego-brick of a stomp box. What I can tell you is that they somehow shrunk all the best parts of the Big Muff Pi into a teeny enclosure that somehow generates its own unique brand of fairy dust. I have both a newish, big-ass-silver-box “NYC” BMP and a newish Nano BMP, and the Nano stands shoulder to shoulder in terms of in-your-face hairiness, and outshines the full-size BMP in clarity. Maybe my ears are biased, but the Nano actually sounds better to me: just a little bit sharper, letting just a wee bit more of my pick attack come through.
Now, if EHX could just get with the program and start using center-negative 9V inputs like everyone else does, we could really get down to business!
I’ve spent the past year or so trying out various tremolo pedals, in search of “the one” that can both suit my gigging needs and give me that little ‘something extra’ to spark the creation of new songs, sounds, riffs and licks. Tall order, I know. From high-priced, high-tech and boutique offerings to plain-jane no-names, quite a few contenders have spent quality time on my pedalboard. I’m not going to rank them (because ‘different strokes for different folks’), but these effects are all worthy of mention as gig-worthy Tremolos that spent considerable gigging and playing/writing time on my board:
- VHT Melo-Verb
- Black Cat Mini-Trem
- CMATmods Tremoglo
- Catalinbread Valcoder
- SolidGoldFX Stutterbox (V.1)
Note: I acquired almost all but one of these pedals second or third-hand via Reverb; I’ve also turned around and sold many of them via Reverb, once I’d decided to move on. I’ve found that this is a better and, in the end, more affordable way to “audition” pedals than using a Netflix-style effect rental service because 1) I can usually find the pedal I want when I want it, and 2) if I’m patient I can make $5-$20 per sale, beyond the initial cost of the pedal — or at least break even.
Now, I can finally declare a winner in the ‘Tournament of Tremolos’ — it’s the Empress Tremolo2. I’ve had it for about a month, now and have used it on two 3-hour gigs and for lots of at-home fiddling around. The T2 is both gig-worthy and musically inspiring, my main criteria, but it also shines in some very specific ways.
Ease of Use? — What a Concept!
The T2 has a digital heart hiding beneath its analog trappings. The Empress site describes the pedal as having an all-analog signal path with the tremolo effect “controlled digitally via opto technology.” Whatever digi-log voodoo mojo they performed works for me, because my ears don’t detect even a hint of artificiality in the tones the pedal produces.
However, the combination of technologies does explain how the T2 is able to save multiple presets (I used 4 — with some additional fiddling around, you can set up to 8!) that allow you to tweak and save all of the manual settings you make for each sound/speed/rhythm you need. I liked the four presets that came with the pedal (I have no idea if they were the factory settings or had been set by the previous owner), but ended up tweaking them to my liking and to the needs of the songs I’d be playing. After adjusting a mellow Blackface Fender-tone in preset 1, and a faster, deeper version of that in preset 2, I made preset 3 a hard, choppy Valco-style trem for a couple of more garage-y songs, and gave preset 4 a less choppy, but rhythmically unusual, flavor of the same.
Changing between presets is a breeze, even for a stone-cold idiot like me. Set the switch to “Presets” then click the bypass button — you are in preset 1 (blue LED). To switch presets, hold the tap tempo button down until the LED changes color, and there you are!
On top of all that, you can tweak each preset on the fly with the knobs on the pedal’s face. Has the drummer counted off that ballad too quickly? Then adjust your preset with the speed knob. These tweaks aren’t saved, unless you go to the trouble of saving them, but making adjustments like this quickly, without having to go through screens or menus on a digital pedal, can be a song-saver.
Go Deep — Seriously, Even Deeper!
Some boutique pedals are difficult to use right out of the box — you probably know which ones I’m talking about — because they offer so many options from the get-go that you have to read the full manual before you can even summon a tone as basic as Link Wray’s “Rumble” tremolo.
The T2 is not only is good-to-go right out of the box (note: the manual is available online and is written to get you started playing ASAP), there are features a-plenty under the hood. Yes, the T2 is gig-ready, but there are enough unique features (e.g. three wave forms, eight rhythm patters) and control options (external tap, expression, control voltage, MIDI.) to inspire you to continue deepening your knowledge of the pedal’s creative possibilities.
If you are interested in some audible samples of what the T2 can do, check out the Empress site; they have numerous sound clips showing off many of the features I’ve mentioned, and much much more.
If you are looking to purchase a T2, new or used, check out Reverb.
If you have any questions, comments, or thoughts on Tremolo pedals (or guitar effects in general), post a comment below.
While the extended weekend/ice-enforced stay-cation of this past week has not been a boon to my songwriting and recording, as I’d hoped (my fault for lack of focus; the kids’ fault for, well, being kids and not leaving me alone!), it has helped me make a bit of a dent in my extraneous musical gear inventory. In the past three months or so I’ve been going through a serious gear acquisition syndrome (GAS) phase. While it was always with the stated intention of finding deals on gear I could refurbish, play and tinker with, then re-sell, I’d been doing more playing than I had re-selling. Along the way I’ve learned a good deal more about guitars and electronic effects, what tools I need in order to fix them, and the importance of reading user manuals. (Maybe one day I will write a piece about all the ‘for parts or repair’ gear I’ve encountered for which ‘repairing’ meant ‘reading the damn manual and following directions.’)
In any case, my Reverb “shop” is fairly well stocked right now. Check it out, if you are curious.