Electro-Harmonix Civil War Big Muff
Greetings, cabineteers. Today’s pull concerns one of the most notorious circuits in pedal canon, one that spans continents and involves the beating back of Russian racketeers as well as a complete and total redemption arc. Our subject today falls square in the middle of this hullabaloo—it’s the Electro-Harmonix “Civil War” Big Muff.
Before digging into what makes this particular model special, an abridged history; Cornell graduate Mike Matthews quit his job at IBM to pursue the passion project of building guitar pedals (and keyboard pedals too, as Matthews was an avid keyboardist). He built pedals for Guild (Foxey Lady) before releasing his own version. Later came the LPB-1 and the Muff Fuzz plug-in effects. The Big Muff came shortly thereafter and cemented Matthews’s name in the effects pantheon.
After selling the rights to the Electro-Harmonix trademark in 1984, Matthews fell back on a side business in Russia, and after seeing his older pedals trade hands for exorbitant prices on the used market, Matthews enlisted the help of two ex-military colonels and utilized former military factories to produce over-engineered boxes with serious Eastern appeal. Rumors swirled that the Russian Electro-Harmonix pedals were built with old tank and landmine parts; rumors that Matthews wasn’t in a rush to dispel.
The first of these units was known as the Red Army Overdrive and released in 1991, with the “Civil War” version following just a year later. Of course, the enclosure bore no mention of war of any kind, with the name presumably inspired by the color scheme and font. Ours is the “green and gray” variant, one of the rarest.
If you’ve ever seen any of the early Russian Big Muffs, you might think they were built in the ‘70s just like the old ones; pristine specimens are exceedingly rare, with most of them looking like they survived real civil wars. Despite being stoutly built, the printing was of poor quality and the enclosures prone to dings and gouges.
Eventually, Russian racketeers tried to blackmail Matthews into giving them a cut of the money, which culminated with threatening to turn the lights out at EHX Russia, along with the harassment of its nearly-thousand workers. Matthews called on old friends at adjacent music gear companies and the goon squad fell back on the hush-hush orders of the Russian legislative body.
Like almost every Muff pedal in existence, the Civil War version was played by David Gilmour and saw its value increase exponentially. Despite relatively high production numbers, those who are holding aren’t selling, and those who are selling are asking quite a pretty penny for models that look like they’ve been run through the spin cycle with a cinder block. The Cold War-era aesthetics do nothing to quell the price inflation—no other pedal really looks like one inside or out; the components used differ from unit to unit, with some examples having some truly otherworldly-looking Soviet tech inside.
The circuit itself is nearly identical to the Muffs that EHX was producing before it went under in the ‘80s, with one major difference and a couple minor ones. The biggest change was the difference in the clipping capacitors—the pre-Russia muffs use 1uF caps while the early Russian models used 0.047uF caps. This value tweak affects the frequencies clipped: the higher the value, the lower the frequency band clipped. The Russian Muffs clip the highs while retaining low end, which is why the Russian units are so popular among bass guitarists.
Minor differences include lower collector resistors for increased crunch and unorthodox feedback capacitors, using two film caps in series for all three stages rather than a single ceramic capacitor. And that’s it! However, if you believe in mojo (or component tolerance drift, dealer’s choice) in any way, these old Muffs and their funky components are an amazing addition to any fuzz lover’s collection.