REVIEW: Roger Mayer Voodoo-Axe

Roger Mayer’s Axis Fuzz pedal was developed in 1967 for one Jimi Hendrix, and was famously used on the title track of ‘Axis Bold As Love,’ as well as ‘Band Of Gypsies.’ One of its strengths is its ability to handle chords as brilliantly as single notes while retaining the guitar’s own voice. The Voodoo-Axe is based on the Axis but comes with several handy modifications and refinements which increase its tonal sculptability while making it more friendly to modern players’ gear needs.

The Voodoo-Axe has three controls: output, drive and fatness. The first two function much like the original Axis while the third gives you a huge range of control over the low end. There’s a sturdy stomp switch, eye-catching graphic, and a very handy sliding battery door. Like all pedals in the Voodoo series, Mayer has included several handy player-friendly features, one of the most revolutionary being the option of hardwire or buffered bypass. If you’ve seen my previous reviews of Mayer’s pedals you know the score: choose the hardwire bypass to completely switch the pedal out of the signal chain when you’re not using it (not recommended if you use long guitar cables), or select the buffered outputs (yes, there are two so you can drive two amps) to drive longer cable runs. You’ll notice a slightly fatter tone with more headroom in the buffered mode, no doubt as a result of the signal getting that extra dose of TLC from the buffering, versus the tone-sucking problem that builds up with every foot of guitar cable you add to your rig. You can’t use the hardwire and buffered outputs at the same time but there’s still lots of fun to be had with the twin buffered outs if you need to hear your guitar coming at you from multiple angles at once.

I tested the Voodoo-Axe with a couple of valve heads (my Marshall DSL50 50 and an Orange Dual Terror) through a Marshall 1960A cabinet with Celestion V30 speakers. I pretty quickly found two particularly great sounds lurking within the Voodoo-Axe. Interestingly, they were pretty much opposites of each other. Sometimes it’s hard to get one distinctive and sound-defining tone out of one pedal, so I was pretty psyched to find two in there that were so different yet so usable. The first was with the output level at around 5, then gain and fatness both at 4. At these settings chords took on a very musical softness, somewhat at odds with the angular, jagged edges one often expects when playing through a fuzz box as opposed to an overdrive or distortion pedal. I was able to play voicings with suspended fourths and major sixths without inducing a chaotic free-for-all of dissonance – no mean feat when you start introducing piles of gain. If you’ve ever heard Lyle Workman’s track ‘Inhale,’ that’s the type of tone I’m talking about (and I couldn’t resist running the fuzz through an analog delay to really take advantage of the warmth and expansiveness of the sound). Then, switching to single notes, the sound seemed to become cleaner and brighter, making it great for dry, vintage-toned single note riffage and solo work.

The other setting involved cranking both the gain and fatness controls up to 6 and pushing the output up to 8 (10 squashed the headroom too much). In this configuration the Voodoo-Axe took on a thick, sustaining, dominating lead tone which worked especially well with neck pickups for a big round growl. Using the output control to beef up the signal to the amp’s input no doubt played a part, but even reeling back the output to unity volume resulted in much of the same fatness and detail. By the way, on the bridge pickup I noticed that between the C note on the 3rd fret of the A string and the C on the 5th fret of the G string something quite unusual happened: The note would start with a kind of bassy, muffled attack before blossoming with treble and clarity. It was almost like stepping on a wah wah which, rather than sweeping from low to high, instead faded down one while fading up the other. If you don’t dig this effect it can be tamed somewhat by turning the gain down a touch, but it adds a huge amount of expression to what is already an extremely reactive pedal.

No matter where you set the controls (unless you crank them all the way and get some wild and not altogether un-useful squeals), the Voodoo-Axe responds to the input signal in a way that few fuzz pedals do. A very clear distinction was heard between different pickup selections, and the neck-plus-bridge single coil mode on my Ibanez Talman in particular sounded entertainingly quacky and strident despite layers of fuzz. The same goes for variations in picking and fretting techniques.

The Voodoo-Axe is particularly at home with lower tunings, so I tried it out both in drop D and with one of my Ibanez 7 strings. The results were thick and chewy, with some cool upper midrange squonk with the fatness control set at about 2 o’clock. With low tunings you could have an awful lot of fun using the Voodoo-Axe through two amps with one of them set for more gain than the other.

There are lots of pedals in Mayer’s Voodoo range, and the decision of which one is for you depends largely on what nuances you like. It’s almost like wine tasting. What I like most about the Voodoo-Axe is that it nicely balances some of Roger Mayer’s warmer, more sonorous tones with some of the ruder, brasher ones if you want to push it that far. It’s equally happy with chords and single notes, which makes it a great contender for the basis of your sound rather than an occasional effect.