It recently dawned upon me that something I thought was normal all my life is not. For as long as I can remember I’ve always had music playing in my head – during literally every waking moment and frequently in dreams too. I’m not talking about ear worms (when one gets a song stuck in their head, although I get that too). I mean like a constant soundtrack that only you can hear.
In my case it’s often about three quarters of a bar looping over and over, changing gradually. Often it will start as a longer phrase but will progressively narrow into just a handful of notes, often looping around at an odd point. Or the next bar will fade in over the top of the previous one while it’s still playing.
I’m aware that it’s in my head rather than a real sound occurring in the room. The timbre is usually somewhere between humming and breathing mixed with an orchestra. It gets extremely vivid when I’m tired or stressed, to the point where it can keep me awake. Sometimes at moments of extreme emotions (positive or negative ones) I start to perceive colours too, in the same way that anyone can see anything in their mind, but it’s always the same colour (a neon green on a background of very pure white and black).
I also have synesthesia – the sensation of perceiving colours and textures in relation to music. I wrote about it for Guitar World here.
I know I’m not alone with this stuff, but I know that not everybody has it either. There’s a book called Musicophilia: Tales Of Music And The Brain by Oliver Sacks which talks about a lot of these topics. You can order it here. It includes a lot of case studies of people with various music-related problems, quirks or sensations.
I don’t really consider this stuff to be a problem, although it can be kind of annoying when I’m stressed out and need to focus my mind but instead there’s this constant and ever-strengthening stream of sound happening in my head. But for the most part it’s just a welcome little companion. It’s kind of nice to have your own internal soundtrack.
Last week in my Cool Preamps They Don’t Make Any More post I mentioned the very first Guitar World I ever got – the March 1991 edition with ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons and Dusty Hill on the cover. That magazine was hugely influential to me – I’d just begun high school and had got an electric guitar for Christmas 1990. I was not yet 13 and I felt like a whole new world had opened up within those pages. It was time to put aside Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Dino Riders and Voltron, and to instead devote my excitement towards Valley Arts, Hamer and Seymour Duncan.
My guitar rig at the time consisted of a Status Stratocaster copy (no, I don’t think it’s the same Status that makes those awesome headless basses – but if anyone knows something about this brand, please share!) and a Marathon MX3 amp. The amp had two controls: Volume and Tone. The only time I got anything close to distortion was when I turned the amp up all the way – certainly not gig volume, but louder than could be permitted in a crowded house despite the amp’s paltry three watts.
I’d seen effects pedals here and there, but somehow I’d got it into my head that amps needed to have special circuitry in order to ‘take’ effect pedals. I saw a Dean Markley amp in a music store catalogue and it had a lot of jacks on the front that I couldn’t quite read since the picture was so tiny, but I’d convinced myself that they said ‘Chorus,’ ‘Digital Delay,’ ‘Reverb’ and ‘Distortion.’ (Now thanks to Google I know it was a Dean Markley K-50 and the jacks were actually ‘Phones,’ ‘Footswitch,’ ‘Line In’ and ‘Line Out’). However, I remember reading Denny Laine’s Guitar Book when I was about 10, and in it he mentioned something about fuzz and wah wah pedals that could be connected between a guitar and an amp. I filed that away for later use (not realising of course that this is how every effect pedal hooks up, not just wah and fuzz. Oops).
So anyway, somewhere near the end of that first Guitar World magazine there was a little black and white ad for the Jim Dunlop ‘Jimi Hendrix System’ Octave Fuzz. “Fuzz, you say?” was my immediate reaction. “You mean that effect you can hook up without needing a special jack for that effect? Hot damn!” I remember taking the magazine to my dad and being all like, “Hey dad, can you buy me this?” I thought if it was good enough for Jimi Hendrix, it was good enough for me. Little did I realise it was actually never used by Hendrix in his lifetime, but was inspired by Roger Mayer’s Octavia octave fuzz. Dad said no, but through a little more Guitar World reading I figured out that you could use any pedal with any amp, and for my birthday that July he took me to a few local guitar stores to find my very first distortion pedal (an Arion Metal Plus – damn I loved that thing! CLICK HERE to see Arion pedals on eBay.). The Jim Dunlop Jimi Hendrix Octave Fuzz slipped to the back of my mind as I spent subsequent birthdays cluttering my bedroom floor with a wah wah, flanger, phaser, digital delay, another distortion when my Arion finally packed it in… and it wasn’t until 2008 that it finally dawned upon me that I should track down that first pedal I ever got really, really excited about.
I was ensnared in a bit of an eBay bidding war for one and I missed out. It was in used condition but still went for somewhere around 70 bucks, if I recall correctly. A few weeks later another one popped up, complete with the box. It was used but appeared to be completely blemish-free. I placed a bid and ended up getting it for a mere $40 USD plus about ten bucks postage, at a time when the Australian dollar was up around 98c US. Score! CLICK HERE to see the Jimi Hendrix Octave Fuzz on eBay.
So what’s the pedal sound like? Gloriously ratty. It takes a bit of trial and error to get the octave overtone effect happening like in Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Purple Haze’ solo. The trick is to pick lightly, kinda squeeze the note with your fretting hand as soon as you pick it, and to use the neck pickup. It also helps to wind back the guitar volume a little bit. Switch to the bridge pickup and this toothy, sharp fuzz sound all but obliterates any hint of the octave overtone. Pile it on top of an already distorted amp tone and you get this great dirty edge to the notes, and lots of great-sounding sustain. It’s not a pedal that I would use in every song, but it’s earned a permanent place on my ever-fickle pedalboard, and whenever I stomp on it I kind of feel like I’m engaging a covert secret weapon.
Today the Jim Dunlop Jimi Hendrix Octave Fuzz is no more, at least in that incarnation. Instead you can buy the Jimi Hendrix Octavio, an exact clone of the pedal Jimi actually used on ‘Purple Haze.’ Roger Mayer also still makes the Octavia as well as the Vision Octavia, both of which are further evolutions of the original design, rather than straight reproductions like the exactly-what-Jimi-used Dunlop.