J Mascis, Billy Corgan, Frank Zappa, and many others have a huge impact on why I’m so drawn to Big Muffs. The Mascis sound is undeniably the ’76 Ram’s Head Big Muff. Such a huge, open, and lush tone coming from those records that used them. That said, Mascis’s tone is not solely coming from a single stompbox. There are several pretty essential pieces of gear that, when combined, get you the various Dinosaur Jr sounds.
There are several videos and interviews out there where Mascis walks through what he uses. Essentially to capture the sound of Dinosaur Jr you need at least one 100w Marshall amp (he uses three full stacks on stage at once and a fourth amp for monitoring), a Fender Jazzmaster with good pickups that lean more towards a p90 sound, a ’76 Ram’s Head (or Stomp Under Foot clone), a tube style drive, and some modulation and delay effects for taste. Not so bad right?
Mascis actually used a vintage Deluxe Big Muff on the early Dinosaur Jr. albums. Claiming that he may have purchased it at the mall! I hate to make myself sound so young, but this sounds absurd. I can’t imagine purchasing fuzz units in a shopping mall. The Deluxe Muff was used on the debut Dinosaur record as well as their second record, You’re Living All Over Me. Unfortunately his first Deluxe Muff was stolen and he ended up trading an unfavored amp for another Deluxe and instantly noticed a difference. The first one may have been a “Blend On” version and the second may have been a “Parallel/Series.” It’s also entirely possible that there was just inconsistency with the unit builds. During the first Dinosaur US tour in ‘87, Mascis picked up his first Ram’s Head in Arizona that he still uses on his board today.
He used both the Deluxe and Ram’s Head at first for variation, the Deluxe was eventually ditched in favor of the Ram’s Head’s obvious incredibleness. But what about that Ram’s Head? Does J Mascis have a special, rare, and unique version of the ’76 that defines his fuzz tone? Not really, no. Mascis uses a very typical version of the ’76 Ram’s Head that many other players use. In general, the ’76 Ram’s Heads have a big and open sound with lots of gain to give it a more distortion-like characteristic complete with more mids. This is due to the transition from FS36999 to 2N5088, 2N5087, and BC239C transistors as well as some new caps and part placement variation. The ’76 Ram’s Head quickly became a hot item, that many still favor today.
According to Matt Pasquerella’s categorizing system, there are fourteen versions of the 1976 Big Muff Ram’s Head. That doesn’t mean that there are not other versions out there (because there very likely are more), but that Pasquerella has traced at least fourteen ’76 schematics. They are not in chronological order but more so in order of discovery. The fourteenth of those schematics is the J Mascis version and uses 2N5088 transistors. Pasquerella makes a Stomp Under Foot Amherst ’76 Ram’s Head pedal cloning the same version of the ’76 that J uses. According the SUF site: “the pedal has a huge, biting, gritty fuzz and the tone of the pedal is very open with a bit more mids than a typical muff circuit.” The Amherst ’76 is an exclusive with Carlsbad, California based Coast Sonic Pedal Providers. Very cool shop with a lot to offer including other SUF exclusives.
Starting his collection during early Dinosaur tours, Mascis would pick up vintage effects in the music shops around town. Over the course of thirty-five years he hass collected around forty Big Muffs. Not just Ram’s Heads though. In his collection you will find Triangle, Muff Fuzz, Marveltone, Wabash, and Guild units. No wonder it’s so hard to find any vintage pedals these days! With such a big collection and I assume he’s picky in the studio for tone. That said, his special sauce is the combination of the Muff, guitars, amps, and his ability to compose and perform with incredibly high action.
It’s obvious for most folks that J’s guitar of choice is the Jazzmaster. However, as I’ve learned more about Mascis’s work I’ve realized that the guy uses such a variety of guitars to achieve the massive sound, especially the 90’s major label releases. For a lot of the studio work he’ll use Telecasters and Gibson guitars with P90s like SG and LP juniors. Kind of a debunking bummer in a way because everyone is so used to seeing him play Jazzmasters on stage. In recent years he can been seen playing a ’63 Fender Jazzmaster,’65 Jazzmaster, and a prototype Fender of his signature Squier. Mascis’s first Jazzmaster purchase was at a place called Slimy Bob’s Guitar Emporium. What’s very cool about this instrument is that the original owner installed a Gibson style tun-o-matic bridge which made for a much more manageable instrument. Usually he’ll go for a re-fret job with jumbo frets which also helps with huge bends.
I mentioned above that there are fourteen ’76 Muffs in Pasquerella’s database, well he just added a fifteenth. I have a unique Ram’s Head Big Muff and it took a while to figure out exactly which version it is. According to the pots it was made in 1975… but we should know by now that doesn’t necessarily prove anything. The knobs are small round radio style with a red line indicator and D shafts. Since the ’76 Ram’s Heads widely used Daka style, this points to the unit being late ’75 or early ’76, however the pedal’s graphics suggests a typical ’76.
The circuit is where things get quite interesting because this pedal uses rare Fairchild Semiconductor FS3700 transistors that were primarily found in Triangle Muffs. Although this is rare, the FS3700 transistor is actually just a 2N5133 in disguise: Fairchild and Electro-Harmonix‘s way of serializing. My pedal follows the schematic of Pasquerella’s version 7 of the ’76 but instead of using 5088 it has the aforementioned 5133 transistors.
The 76 Muffs are the last year of production for Ram’s Head models. Next up was the red and black Muff that also became instantly iconic and considered “classic” in many ways. The style of the Ram’s Head and Triangle enclosures were unfortunately never used again for Electro-Harmonix Big Muffs.