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The Emperor of Electro-Harmonix

Back in the late 1970s, I worked in the diamond district of of NYC. At first it seemed exotic. Then daily tedium set in so badly I found myself taking lunch breaks a block down on 48th street to save my sanity--the music street as its known. At the time Electro- Harmonix had a great showroom. Cool and dark on blistering Manhattan days, it was like stepping into a time portal with untold treasures of guitar effx boxes.

I still have and use my very first E-H box--a Guitar Micro Synth that turned 32 years old this winter. The rest is history. Back then I never could have conceived of talking with the man behind all this--or that someday he would be a special guest on an eclectic radio show called The Electric Croude during IGM (International Guitar Month). If Mike Matthews didn’t exist, someone would probably have to invent him. Entrepreneur, visionary, musician, promotor... he’s all of these. And more. Guitarists know him best for inventing some of the best stomp boxes ever made--even though he’s a keyboard player. For those who don’t play... stomp boxes, or pedals, modify a guitar signal in various fashions by way of time delay, overdrive, compression and limitless colors. Google the Electric Mistress pedal for a mini-education. While there are dozens of companies a generation after 1968 that make pedals, Mike was at the head of the pack with his classic fuzz box. Then the family of pedals sprang into the guitarist’s vocabulary overnight like proverbial tone processing mushrooms.

Decades after I bought my first E-H pedal, my latest acqisition is the Ravish Sitar. Quite simply, plug your guitar into it and out comes scintillating tones from the East a la great Sitar tones with accompanying droning scales. I could spend years and thousands of $$$ buying the real thing and taking lessons--provided I could find someone to teach me. Or, Mike’s latest box that lets me realize music I already have in my head. Check out the demo:

Mike is best know for his pedals. This is part of what the industry and players know best, but did you have any idea that Mike also worked for IBM, has multiple degrees, was a successful promoter of 60’s acts, and one of the first to book a man who played with his teeth called Jimmy James? That Jimmy James much better known, as Jimi Hendrix. On the show this week, you will hear great examples of electric playing from Jimi and others and a rare glimpse of a special friendship that developed between the two. 

Mike didn’t stop with pedals. If you treasure the warm intimate sound that only tube amps can give, chances are the bottles in your box are made by Mike. If all this sounds Greek to you, fear not. Mike is as colloquial as he is savvy. Players will no doubt drool in hearing this legend, for the rest, an education in sound modification--there is seldom a contemporary song that floats by that doesn’t have a guitarist using some kind of a pedal.

More than anything you have a rare opportunity to peek inside an industry often veiled to the public. As Mike is prone to say, Rock and Roll!

The Electric Croude, now 27 years young, airs every late Saturday at Midnight on WCVE Public Radio. Also simul streaming at ideastations.org/radio.

Next week: International Guitar Month continues with guitar/amp author Dave Hunter.