The boutique pedal boom of today could very well be traced back to one man: Roger Mayer. Mayer was building unique pedals for players like Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck and Jimi Hendrix back when those venerable players were shaping the future of the guitar. Once upon a time his pedals were the exclusive domain of a select few. Now, though, Mayer’s pedals are readily available, and they build on the legacy and sound of his classic work, updating them for the future while still paying tribute to the past.
How did you meet Jimi Hendrix?
I met Jimi a few days after my 21st birthday at a club called the Bag of Nails in London. He was playing there and I went to him after the performance, introduced myself and said ‘I’ve got this new sound you might be interested in.’ I also told him I’d been working with Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck over the years and produced some very different fuzz boxes. Jimi was very interested and invited me to come down in a few weeks to a gig at the Chiselhurst Caves where he was performing, and that’s where I first showed him a prototype of the Octavia, which was the new sound. Jimi tried it out in the dressing room and was very interested in the new sound. He also mentioned he was going to be making a new single. He invited me down to another gig in about a week’s time, and he said that after the gig we were gonna go back to Olympic Studios. So that all happened and after the gig we went back to Olympic Studios and that’s when we recorded the solos to Purple Haze and Fire. After that we became close friends and started hanging out, and as they say, the rest is history!
What was he like to work with? How did his mind work when it came to sound?
Well basically what we used to do was we were both interested in science fiction and everything, so we would talk about the vision for the song. Jimi was very free-form and he liked to improvise an awful lot, so the actual structure of the songs was very free-form. But once we knew what the song was about and the vision for the song, that would dictate the kind of sounds that we might use, or the various effects we would use, from studio effects to panning to various echoes. That was really how it worked. The actual vocabulary of audio is visual. People say a bright sound, a dark sound, and so on. So we thought in colours and about the actual way the sounds were moving around, and that’s how we worked, really.
I understand you would tweak circuits right there in the studio depending on what he needed?
Oh absolutely, yeah. You can have a rough idea, but there’s a big difference between the actual sound produced in the recording studio and the control room, so I guess I was running backwards and forwards between the control room and the actual studio to treat the sound and adjust the amplifiers and so-forth.
What about Jimi’s guitars? This was long before people could buy aftermarket pickups and stuff like that.
Yeah, but when I was working for the government we had access to certain kinds of equipment, and we were encouraged to have a hobby, and I went through all the different number of turns you could have on the pickup very quickly, right from square one. I wound up a whole range of pickups. We were making our own pickups in the government anyway for our own scientific purposes. But what became very apparent with the pickups is exactly what I thought before we started: that they really don’t make much difference! I would say they’re one of the most vastly overrated parts of the guitar itself. If you understand electronics you understand that as the inductance of the pickup increases, or the number of turns on the pickup increases, all that happens is you get a larger output but you effectively get less high frequency response due to the fact that the inductance of the pickup also rises. It’s a trade-off. And after making several experiments, which probably cover all the number of pickup turns that are available now, we came to the conclusion that Leo probably had it about right, y’know? There wasn’t much to be gained by deviating from the 7,000 or so standard turns that are on a regular pickup.
I find it interesting that you can get entire guitars that are basically left-handed guitars flipped over so righties and get the same feel Jimi had.
When you flip the guitar, the actual cavities in the guitar now appear on the bass strings, right? Because the volume control and all that is facing towards your head. So the actual resonances of the cavity do change. But the string length, what happens then of course is that now you’re faced with the fact that the actual string length on the bass string is now the other way around and conversely, on the treble strings. So yeah, that will make the guitar feel slightly different because the actual string length affects the kind of strength needed to bend the strings. That’s one of the reasons we used to tune the guitar down a little bit. But the main reason the guitar was tuned down a bit. But the guitar was also tuned down because if you’re playing in Eb or Bb, it was more like the actual tuning for Eb and Bb, not the equal tempered one. There was a big difference. If you were gonna make an R&B record and you were using horns and you actually tuned the guitar using a guitar tuner to Eb or Bb it wouldn’t sound right with the horns. You would actually have to flatten it to bring it in line with the just temperament. You do have to be careful with that, and you’ve gotta realise that back then we didn’t have guitar tuners.
You told me once that during gigs you tuned Jimi’s guitars by placing the headstock up to your ear.
Yeah, you had to do that because you have to remember that in those days electronic tuners didn’t exist. The only thing you possibly had was a tuning fork, which really, when you consider if you go on stage and a red spotlight might hit you, that’s going to put the guitar out of tune. The blue one, not so much, but if they hit you with a powerful red, that’s going to pull the guitar out!
How did Jimi set up his guitars?
First of all, we weren’t using a flat radius fretboard. We were using the normal one – not the very high radius but definitely curvy. The actual strings we used were not what people would expect. The string gauges would run 10, 13, 15, 26, 32, 38. The big difference there is that you’re using the 15 for the third, because if you use the 17 for the third the actual sound of the guitar is very G-heavy. And the electrical output of the strings is dependent on the square of the diameter. If you square all the diameters and look at them you can get much more of an idea about the balance of the guitar. You should always remember that, because many, many times people use a set of strings that are completely imbalanced and they just don’t sound that good.