roger mayer on Jimi Hen­drix

Fa­mous for his cut­ting-edge stu­dio gear and ef­fects, Roger Mayer played a piv­otal role in help­ing Jimi Hen­drix re­alise his mu­si­cal vi­sions on the sem­i­nal al­bum Axis: Bold As Love, which cel­e­brates its 50th an­niver­sary this year

Guitarist - - Contents - Words Rod Brakes

Sci­en­tist Roger Mayer is one of the few orig­i­nal in­no­va­tors of rock ’n’ roll from the 1960s who is still at the cut­ting edge of sound re­search and de­sign. Af­ter ac­quir­ing his first guitar (a good old Hofner Sen­a­tor), it wasn’t long be­fore the in­stru­ment was in bits and un­der close scru­tiny in or­der to be re­built with his own up­grades and mod­i­fi­ca­tions. While work­ing for the UK gov­ern­ment in acous­tic anal­y­sis in his teens, he turned his hand to de­vel­op­ing and in­vent­ing rev­o­lu­tion­ary guitar tones with the likes of Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page for 60s hit records, and later struck up a close friend­ship with new kid on the block, Jimi Hen­drix.

Roger first ap­proached Jimi with his lat­est in­ven­tion, the Oc­tavia pedal (as de­buted on Hen­drix’s Pur­ple Haze), and he soon be­came known as the gui­tarist’s “se­cret weapon”. The pair im­me­di­ately hit it off and be­gan dis­cussing the cre­ative po­ten­tial of guitar ef­fects and record­ing stu­dios. Roger and Jimi (at the ten­der ages of 21 and 25, re­spec­tively) would ul­ti­mately break new mu­si­cal ground on Jimi’s sub­lime 1967 al­bum, Axis: Bold As Love, as they then set about cre­at­ing a time­less psy­che­delic mas­ter­piece that is still blow­ing minds to this day.

To­day, Gui­tarist talks to Mayer about what went on be­hind the scenes with Jimi dur­ing one of rock’s most mon­u­men­tal sonic voy­ages of dis­cov­ery… In what ca­pac­ity did you and Jimi work to­gether on Axis: Bold As Love? “I was there as a friend to help him and ex­plain av­enues that we could go down re­gard­ing the pos­si­bil­i­ties. Know­ing the pos­si­bil­i­ties of where we could break new ground in­flu­enced the way he wrote the songs and the way he imag­ined the songs in his head. Most peo­ple that work to­gether de­velop their own kind of lan­guage to talk about what they want to do. We would dis­cuss the vi­sion of the song and the end re­sult that he wanted to achieve.” So it was all about ex­pand­ing the cre­ative po­ten­tial with re­gards to sound? “Ba­si­cally, yeah. And also, how to make peo­ple get a dif­fer­ent emo­tion from the sound. We had to imag­ine what the sound would be. Jimi and I had an idea of how the sounds were trav­el­ling – we had to paint a mov­ing pic­ture. Axis: Bold As Love is sup­posed to take you on a jour­ney, but it was about how the au­di­ence would re­act to the mu­sic. What’s the story? What’s the emo­tion as the story is told? “As you take the peo­ple on the jour­ney, son­i­cally, are we div­ing them into an elec­tronic cave as the gui­tars start to emerge? Are we zoom­ing up into the sky then rolling over and div­ing again? All these kinds of mo­tions – we were think­ing in 3D.” How did Jimi con­vey these ideas for you to trans­late into new sounds? “If Jimi had an idea, we would talk about the vi­sion or the con­cept of the sound. The Oc­tavia, for in­stance: vis­ually, it’s like what you see when you hold two mir­rors in front of each other. What was hap­pen­ing elec­tron­i­cally was very so­phis­ti­cated and sim­i­lar in con­cept where we got mul­ti­ple mir­ror images of the sig­nal. I used all these dif­fer­ent elec­tronic tech­niques to work out these ideas. We had all these jux­ta­po­si­tions in mind. For ex­am­ple, if you’ve got two dif­fer­ent sounds you could say, ‘They sound dif­fer­ent.’ Well, elec­tron­i­cally you could take the two sounds and math­e­mat­i­cally work out what’s dif­fer­ent be­tween the two. And then what hap­pens if we am­plify the dif­fer­ence be­tween the two? What does that mean? Does that mean they’re su­per dif­fer­ent? Or does it mean they’ve jumped to an­other plane?” It sounds as though there was a strong philo­soph­i­cal con­nec­tion be­tween you and Jimi… “Yeah, in a fun way. Some of the most pro­foundly dif­fer­ent sci­en­tific dis­cov­er­ies have been made just be­cause some­body’s said, ‘Let’s do it an­other way.’ The more we un­der­stood, the more fun it was and the eas­ier it was to re­alise some­thing. Both Jimi and I had a synaes­the­sia, where we would see colours in sound – why is that? We found that fas­ci­nat­ing. It’s a use­ful abil­ity

as a sound de­signer. I was very in­ter­ested in new sounds for gui­tars.”

Was Jimi aware of the psy­choa­cous­tics thing? And is it safe to say that he had a sci­en­tific mind? “Very much so. He was re­ally into science fic­tion, too. We used to read the same books: Kurt Von­negut, Arthur C Clarke, Frank Her­bert… He liked their imag­i­na­tions, that things weren’t nec­es­sar­ily how you thought they were go­ing to be. We used to say, ‘If you can imag­ine it, why can’t it be? Is your imag­i­na­tion any less valid than what you call re­al­ity?’ I don’t know. It’s one of those deep philo­soph­i­cal ques­tions…”

How im­por­tant was it for you to un­der­stand Jimi’s lyri­cal im­agery? “Very. Lit­tle Wing was a psy­che­delic story about a spirit and the car­ni­val vibe you’re get­ting from a fes­ti­val or a circus. Cas­tles Made Of Sand was partly in­spired by some of the science fic­tion books we were read­ing, like Dune [Frank Her­bert, 1965]. It’s a science fic­tion kind of fan­tasy, but re­ally down to earth in a way. Jimi was very good at de­pict­ing im­agery that peo­ple could re­late to, but with a bit of a cos­mic twist to it, y’know? The vi­sion of that song was re­ally im­por­tant – about things go­ing around and time. The re­la­tion­ship in any chord se­quence sounds cor­rect go­ing back­wards or for­wards, which is where the idea for the back­wards solo in that song came from. It’s that free-form flow that makes sense.” Did Jimi of­ten talk about mu­si­cal ideas in a visual con­text? “Oh yeah, he was very cin­e­matic. You can paint a visual pic­ture of how a song can be. The sounds of the record could be thought of as bunch of disks float­ing in space in front of you, like fly­ing saucers with sounds com­ing from them and they’re mov­ing around. And what’s the en­vi­ron­ment they’re mov­ing around in? Now, I’m not inside his head, but in the stu­dio I can help be­cause it’s just be­ing able to think of it that way, y’know?”

How did the emo­tional con­tent of the song in­flu­ence the guitar tones? “What the song had to do and what the so­los had to do would de­ter­mine the emo­tion we needed to con­vey in the guitar tone. We knew what sounds to go for be­cause we knew what the end re­sult needed to be. In the stu­dio, I would sit down with head­phones on with Jimi as he played and ad­just the tone un­til we found the sweet spot for it. It takes two peo­ple to do that.”

So it was about cap­tur­ing a unique mo­ment in time? “Ahh, that’s why they call it ‘record­ing’! It’s not re­hearsal. It’s a pri­mary mo­ment in time of cre­ation. It’s like the birth of a star. The birth of a nova. It’s the birth of some­thing and it has to feel like that. It has to feel re­ally, re­ally fresh and re­ally, re­ally ex­cit­ing and colour­ful. It’s no good if you can’t dig it or you think ev­ery­one else thinks you’re crazy. It was about be­ing privy to what Jimi was think­ing and what he wanted to cre­ate.”

What lengths did you go to in or­der to get the de­sired re­sults? “We did what­ever was nec­es­sary on that day, at that time to get the job done, with no pre­con­ceived no­tions about what had to be done. It was a team ef­fort – I was help­ing Jimi be­cause I had the ca­pa­bil­ity to make it hap­pen. Once I had the idea or the vi­sion of the sound I could fig­ure out what I had to do to get that sound, whether Jimi needed a bit of pre-EQ be­fore the dis­tor­tion or an­other bit of EQ af­ter it; how we were go­ing to drive it; how the amps are set; how many amps we’re go­ing to use; how we’re go­ing to mic the amps; what kind of re­verb we’re go­ing to use; if we are go­ing to use a di­rect out­put; how we were go­ing to phase align the two am­pli­fiers… I mean, it’s very com­plex, but if you don’t have a vi­sion of what you want to achieve, how could you pos­si­bly achieve it?”

Did you mod­ify the cir­cuits in ef­fects units for spe­cific tracks? “Yeah, I mean, if Jimi needed me to I could spend five min­utes with a fuzz cir­cuit sol­der­ing in a few com­po­nents and make it sound dif­fer­ent. Back in the day when wah-wahs first came out, we made a ma­jor dif­fer­ence to the sound by putting an­other cir­cuit up ahead of the wah-wah, be­cause the in­put im­ped­ance of the pedal wasn’t that great. And by play­ing around with the

pot you can change how it works or feels. By putting re­sis­tors across the wiper of the pot you can change the sweep of the wah – the fre­quency ver­sus an­gle. Then you can tune the ac­tion peak of the wah by play­ing with the ca­pac­i­tors or the coil.”

Did you work quickly in the stu­dio? “It had to be quick be­cause back then Olympic Stu­dios was £38 an hour. As a frame of ref­er­ence, beer cost 12p a pint, so well over 300 pints of beer an hour! Chas [Chan­dler] was watch­ing the bud­get ’cos it was ex­pen­sive! We re­ally worked as a team. We wanted it to be done pretty quickly to keep the mo­men­tum go­ing. There’s an op­ti­mum win­dow for record­ing that’s about four or five hours, and if you do more than that you’re just wast­ing your time and it’s not pro­duc­tive. You’ve got to keep it fresh, oth­er­wise you’d bore your­self to death!”

Was Jimi gen­er­ally open-minded with the peo­ple around him in the stu­dio? “Ab­so­lutely. But he had a good team around him. Jimi al­ways wanted fresh ideas and to con­tin­u­ously move for­ward. If some­thing wasn’t work­ing, then the de­ci­sion would be made very quickly. He al­ways wanted to be work­ing to the max­i­mum po­ten­tial. It was about find­ing the sweet spot quickly.”

How did you ap­proach mix­ing the al­bum? “Well, the whole point of record­ing some­thing cor­rectly is that the mix is al­most done. You can’t ‘fix it in the mix’ be­cause there are things that math­e­mat­i­cally stop you do­ing that. Once you’ve got the phase wrong, for ex­am­ple, that sound will never sit in the mix; it’ll sound alien. Jimi lost some of the mix in a taxi, but it didn’t re­ally mat­ter – it was quickly done again, no prob­lem. We fin­ished record­ing the al­bum through Oc­to­ber [1967] and it came out a cou­ple of months later. We had to work faster then be­cause of the cost of the stu­dio!

“The sound sources were right at the time. They had to be right be­cause we didn’t have the lux­ury of post­pon­ing the evil mo­ment un­til we mixed the track. The prob­lem with hav­ing too many choices is that it stops peo­ple from per­form­ing. Peo­ple think they don’t have to make a choice un­til later, but by the time they’ve fin­ished they re­alise they didn’t make the right sound to be­gin with be­cause they’re not hear­ing it in con­text. I mean, you can’t put a wah-wah ef­fect on af­ter you’ve played the guitar, for ex­am­ple – you can’t do it af­ter­wards and this is the whole thing about try­ing to paste to­gether a per­for­mance from too many dif­fer­ent parts: by def­i­ni­tion, it’s not a per­for­mance.”

Axis: Bold As Love still sounds fresh and in many ways it hasn’t been sur­passed… “The first thing we did was to iden­tify what we wanted to achieve. I re­mem­ber say­ing to Jimi, ‘Jimi, we want to do stuff that no-one else has ever done be­fore. We can’t think like any­one else. It might be a lonely path, but it’s go­ing to be a lot of fun!’”

Roger in March 1968 tend­ing to one of Jimi’s Stra­to­cast­ers back­stage while on tour with the band

A shot from the early 70s of the first Roger Mayer Elec­tron­ics In­cor­po­rated record­ing con­sole at Sun­dragon Stu­dios in New York

Fe­bru­ary 1968 on the road be­tween Tempe and Tuc­son, Ari­zona, fol­low­ing the re­lease of Axis: Bold As Love

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