An Interview With Roger Mayer — Jimi Hendrix’s ‘mystery man’

Roger Mayer is a maker and inventor of electronic sound effects, some of which have proved hugely influential. He’s worked with Bob Marley, Stevie Wonder, Stevie Ray Vaughan, the Isley Brothers and countless other greats over the years, but it’s his celebrated alliance with Jimi Hendrix that’s sealed his reputation.

They met two days after Roger’s twenty-first birthday, at the Bag O’ Nails club in central London during January 1967. Located just around the corner from Carnaby Street, the Bag O’ Nails was a regular haunt of the capital’s rock elite. Pete Townshend and Eric Clapton were in the audience that night and like Roger, couldn’t believe their eyes. “It was like everything I had ever imagined,” he says. “I just went up to him and started talking, telling him what I did. I had been in electronics since 1963 and was totally into avant-garde sounds…”

Although born in Surrey, Roger had spent several years of his childhood in Africa, where his father ran an engineering firm. His interest in electronics started early, and by the age of fifteen he’d built his first treble booster. Local friends Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page provided initial encouragement and then in 1964, Page and Big Jim Sullivan introduced the Roger Mayer sound to the UK Top 10 after using his devices on hits by P. J Proby.

By the time he met Jimi, Roger was working for the Royal Navy at the Admiralty Research Laboratories in Teddington. By day he held down a responsible government post, researching into vibrational and acoustics analysis associated with submarine warfare. By night, he was furthering his love of soul and rhythm and blues and especially the sound of electric guitar, which he dreamt of taking into new directions.

After their encounter at the Bag O’ Nails, Jimi invited him to a gig at Chislehurst Caves on January 27th. Roger took a variety of devices with him that night including his latest invention, the Octavia — a pedal that adds an identical line and harmonics to what’s being played, only an octave higher. The impact it had on Jimi is best measured by how quickly he replaced the solo on Purple Haze — which he’d started recording already — using the Octavia.

“Jimi had only released Hey Joe by then, but Purple Haze was completely different,” he says. “In fact it’s probably true to say that it was different from anything else people had ever heard! That was like an opening salvo to the rest of the music business really. He was telling them that they’d better duck down because this is what’s coming your way…”

Purple Haze was released in May 1967. Keith Shadwick called it “the wildest and most frenetic 45 rpm disc made to date, eclipsing even The Who’s My Generation.” The follow-up single The Wind Cries Mary — written for Jimi’s girlfriend, Kathy Etchingham — was a cool breeze by comparison.

“That was in response to Purple Haze… Jimi’s manager sensed the possibilities, but thought we should ease up on the throttle and come up with something completely different for the follow-up. A ballad maybe, but with a nice guitar solo and a bit of wah wah, which was new at the time. That’s when Jimi wrote Burning Of The Midnight Lamp and The Wind Cries Mary but the first wah pedal was made by an organ company, and it was designed to be used whilst sitting down. That meant when you stood up and used it, it threw your hip off and affected your balance.

“Jimi found it physically awkward to use and also from an artistic standpoint, if you didn’t actually tune the wah or the sweep of the sound to the song, then the tone wouldn’t have the correct character. We realised that immediately and so I redesigned it to make it more organic. Then we set about getting to grips with tuning it, because you don’t want to use the same tone for every song, otherwise you’ll end up sounding like everyone else.

“I’d started by evolving customising versions of the Octavia for Jimi, and then we worked on various other projects after that. For instance we soon realised that to get a wide tapestry of sound, we couldn’t just use a Marshall amplifier. We also used Sound City and Fender as well and that meant building equalisers and other circuits to drive them, so that Jimi could get the correct tones he wanted. That was down to me and these devices weren’t fuzz boxes per se, but they contributed a lot towards the sound.”

When Roger entered their lives, Jimi and Kathy were sharing a flat with Jimi’s manager Chas Chandler and his girlfriend at 34 Montagu Square in Marylebone, near Marble Arch. Within a short time they would move to another flat at 43 Upper Berkeley Street. Roger would regularly visit Jimi at both places, and also accompany him to many studio sessions, concerts and after-hours jams over the coming months. As a trusted and highly skilled accomplice, he had considerable influence on the way Jimi’s music was recorded, and the sounds that came from his guitar.

“We realised what we were capable of from very early on, and were very aware of what we were doing. It was carefully orchestrated and of course we had some very good publicists who worked with the major newspapers. Jimi invited me to go with him to some of the interviews to talk about what we were trying to achieve. He’d say, ‘speak to this man. He’s the man who takes care of the sound and helps me,’ but that was Jimi’s way of making it all a bit more mysterious. I started being mentioned in the music press as ‘Hendrix’s mystery man’ and things like that. I was like his secret weapon at that time.”

Jimi’s debut album Are You Experienced had been recorded at sessions shoehorned into a relentless touring schedule. It was released around the same time as the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper and still sounds electrifying more than forty years later thanks to the title track and songs like Third Stone From The Sun and May This Be Love, which push at rock music’s boundaries. Yet it was the follow-up album Axis: Bold As Love that would reveal the full extent of their innovations.

“We knew the scope available to us was immense and we were always talking about that, whether it came from the blues, or the emotions that John Coltrane or Roland Kirk put into their music. We were also listening to a lot of classical music and trying to create the moods and dynamics it has but more importantly, we were just trying to paint an interesting picture. And we were focussed on the total picture, because the background was just as interesting. We’d always ask the question, ‘what’s this track about? What’s the story?’

“That would give us the starting point, then we’d let our minds wander and think about what to do next. For instance when we did that song One Rainy Wish, I asked Jimi what it was about and he said, ‘you might be in the forest and then you see a waterfall, and then you go on a space journey after that.’ That’s what influenced all those different sounds. It’s all about having an idea, and everything else follows after.”

He and Jimi were inseparable during the making of Axis: Bold As Love, both in and out of the studio. The combination of Jimi’s intuitive genius and Roger’s understanding of electronics — allied to a lifelong passion for guitar — led to the creation of sound vistas that audiences in the late 60s had never heard before, or even imagined. Both men wanted to extend the boundaries of what was possible and on a deeper level, explore how sound could affect consciousness. There was a philosophical element to their experimentations and in pursuing such aims, Jimi and Roger added immeasurably to the language of electric guitar.

“Jimi was an artist in the truest sense of the word. He was using a very broad palette of tone colours, of technique and also life experiences because he’d taken what lots of other people had done, and made it his own. His music was an original invention — something new and exciting, which is why you can still hear the freshness in that music all these years later. Today’s audiences recognise the supreme creativity of his music and even if you’ve heard it many times before, you’re still going to hear something different.

“What’s interesting is that Jimi never practised. He liked to have fun with the guitar, and he played it a lot. Remember the word “play,” because a musician doesn’t work at an instrument, they play it. When you’re playing the guitar and someone’s there and you’re bouncing ideas off of them, you might find a little pattern or riff that you want to show them. Like Jimi might play me something and say, ‘what do you think of that?’ I’d say that we could do this or that with it, to get it sounding different or I might start suggesting how to use the various fuzz boxes. That’s how a sound might develop but then Jimi was playing all the time. He was always having fun with his fingers, although he wasn’t necessarily remembering anything note for note. The way he played was freeform, like jazz, and so he never had to worry about what to play next.

“What you are concerned about when you’re that accomplished is how you feel and the expression that you’re bringing to it. It’s the mindset that proves so important. What might tip the balance is whether Jimi’s enjoyed the Chinese food we had on the way to the studio… It could be any number of things but once we’d get there, then we’d just focus on finding those moments of pure magic, and we have to feel really great to do that. That’s what it was about. We all knew Jimi could play, and we never had to worry about things like that. The problem is whether it’s in his brain or not. Has he got the mental picture of the sound he wants to create? That’s something else, and that’s what we used to discuss together. We’d talk about the movement of the sound and what emotion he was going to create and how that was just as important as anything else.”

Roger credits Chas Chandler for having the foresight — and also the patience — to allow him and Jimi to explore fresh avenues of expression.

“Yes, because Chas put his heart and soul into it. He was a hundred percent committed to the project but when it came to Jimi’s working methods, Chas used to laugh at him. He’d say, ‘that’s really exciting but we’ve only got so much money and we’ve got to get something out.’ Jimi would say, ‘okay. I’ll just do this one more time’ and Chas would just groan but if we’d decided to do something, he would get right behind it. The only question was, ‘can we do it?’ It was never a case of ‘how much will it cost?’ The next question was, ‘when?’ We were like a Formula One team. The driver has an idea as to how he can go faster, the engineer comes up with a solution and says, ‘yes, we can get it done,’ and the manager makes sure that it happens. But the most important thing before we went to the studio was mental preparation, because we’d go knowing just what we wanted to achieve…”

Whereas Are You Experienced was transitional, Axis: Bold As Love was conceived as a whole and stands as one of the greatest psychedelic albums of all time, if not the greatest. Recorded throughout the Summer of Love, it showed Jimi at his most versatile since it’s a smorgasbord of upfront rockers, ballads, cosmic explorations and intricate, jazz style rhythm patterns, all woven together in one stunning package.

“Jimi was acutely aware of what he wanted,” says Roger. “He was always ready to experiment but he wanted to make hit records that sounded great on the radio as well. That was very important to him, but then so was performing. Back then, producing a record for airplay was completely different to playing live and we always talked about the distinction between the two. Playing live involved a very limited palette by comparison. We had to keep it as simple as possible because anywhere you perform, you’ve got the acoustics of the hall to deal with and that’s why it’s impossible to recreate the sounds of a record on stage. It’s just a waste of time trying and so there’s a big difference between Jimi performing and making records.

“The performance side of Jimi Hendrix was deliberately designed to entertain. Jimi had years of experience playing the chitlin circuit and crowds down South didn’t work all week, get dressed up in their finest threads and then go out with their main squeeze on their arms to be disappointed. They wanted to have a good time but Jimi never set out to dazzle you with ridiculous technique, because what could be more boring than that? The main thing is to have the humility and experience to play what is appropriate but watching him perform was a bit like watching football in Brazil. We’re talking about audiences who pay to see something special. They want to see some magical piece of ball control or something they’ve never seen before and it was the same thing with the fans that used to go and see Jimi.”

Jim was one hell of a rhythm player… “Yes, because what’s the point of playing the notes if they’re not in time? The rhythm comes first, second and third, and that’s what rhythm and blues is all about. It’s about getting the people off their chairs and dancing and having a good time, and if you can’t make the crowd swing then you’re nothing, y‘ know? Also Jimi could sing and play at the same time. There was no apparent difference between the virtuosity of his playing when he was singing and that’s almost unheard of, because most guitar players come off the accelerator when they do that.”

“He didn’t like singing in the studio though. We’d say, ‘okay Jimi. You don’t think that you can sing but have a go. Our opinion is that if you don’t like it and you really can’t sing, then we’ll have to get someone else to do it.’ He wouldn’t like that so what choice was there? I used to tell him that, ‘no one can sing your songs like you can’ but he was always a bit reluctant. We’d have to turn the lights off in the studio, and then he’d turn his back to the control room before giving it a try. To be fair, you’re really under the microscope when you’re voicing in the studio. It’s therefore a lot more daunting than going on stage with a lot of audience noise and singing into a microphone.”

Roger was now a key member of Jimi’s team, which is why he was invited along on the Experience’s first proper tour of the US. Their lengthy trek across the US began on February 1st 1968 with an appearance at the Fillmore West in San Francisco, where they shared a bill with John Mayall and Albert King.

“That tour was Jimi’s present to me for helping him out on Axis: Bold As Love. I remember saying to him, ‘Look I’m a scientist, not a roadie, because that’s not my job. My job is to help you’ and he agreed. That was the kind of relationship we had. I was someone he could turn to in private and who’d give him the real deal but that tour turned out to be hard work!

“We didn’t travel with all that many people, and Jimi and I had to handle seven guitars between us. The equipment wasn’t great, and the state of the PA systems was a bit hit and miss… There was no sound engineer and we didn’t have stage monitors so the acoustics were never all that good. I remember we used some big Fender amps but they really didn’t cut it with Jimi for some reason. Then we had some Sunn amplifiers, but they didn’t last all that long either and then we had problems with the Marshalls as well. The amplifiers performed better on 240 volts than they did on 110, but none of them were all that reliable.”

The tour lasted several weeks, and brought its share of ups and down. Roger was with Jimi the night after Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated, during an appearance at the Symphony Hall in Newark, New Jersey.

“We were staying in New York and we had a concert scheduled right where the riots were happening. There was confusion over whether the gig was going to be pulled or not but I remember going with Jimi in a limousine to the concert hall and the National Guard were out in the streets, having running battles with the rioters. We got to the auditorium and all the lights were on and they stayed on even during the show, which was really spooky. Jimi played a really short set and said he wanted to leave straight after the concert. He didn’t want to stay one minute longer because he was afraid of getting shot. It was a horrible gig, with really bad vibes. I mean the audience just couldn’t get into the spirit of it at all — not with armed police stood in the aisles. As soon as Jimi finished I grabbed the guitars and pedals and then we ran for the car. An hour later and we were at this club in New York where Jimi used to jam a lot…”

Jamming was one of Jimi’s favourite pastimes. His regular haunts included the Speakeasy in London, and either the Generation or Scene Club in New York. Roger was present at many of these late night encounters, but denies that Jimi was ever competitive. “It was the absolute reverse. Jimi was so gracious and accommodating towards whoever wanted to play with him. He’d say, ‘just play whatever you want, and I’ll join in,’ but they’d get frightened sometimes. He’d say, ‘what’s wrong with these people? They don’t want to play with me.’ He just wanted to jam, and never cared too much about what you did. The reason for him being up there was to enjoy himself; pure and simple, but he was always racing to get back to the club after a gig. That happened all the time. We’d drive back from somewhere and go straight down the Speakeasy. We’d get there at two in the morning when the club was really getting hot and have two or three hours there.”

Their partnership would be missed on much of Electric Ladyland, which Roger likens to “a patchwork quilt”, however brilliant in places.

“As a body of work it didn’t resolve itself. That album wasn’t made in the same spirit as the previous ones were and I think it shows. It reflects Jimi’s state of mind at the time, because management was keeping him in a strange place and even Chas and Kathy couldn’t get near him…

“I spoke to him quite a bit when he was in California, Woodstock and places like that, and then I’d see him whenever he was in the Village but he had a bunch of ne’er-do-well people around him by then, and they didn’t exactly help him produce the greatest music of his life, did they? Even when he went in the studio he was surrounded by lots of people and that’s enough to make anyone go mad. Strictly speaking, by not having a proper manager like Chas around he was left to fend for himself, which he couldn’t do. He needed people around him who could sort things out for him, so he could have a creative environment where he could enjoy himself and allow his work to prosper.

“An awful lot of the recording that Jimi was doing then was done at Record Plant with Gary Kellgren. Other engineers have subsequently claimed the credit for work on Jimi’s material but it didn’t really happen like that. In the end, Jimi lost concentration and that was the difference. From my perspective Electric Ladyland was a bit laboured. It was cobbled together and lacked a distinct album focus compared to Axis: Bold As Love, which was the only one of his albums apart from Band Of Gypsys that had a really strong focus to it. I think that comes through in the actual recording.”

After returning home from America, Roger left the Admiralty and worked for a time at Olympic studios in Barnes, where he and Jimi had recorded extensively in the past, most notably on Axis: Bold As Love. Jimi also returned to London briefly, and reunited with Kathy Etchingham at their apartment in Brook Street. He and Roger remained good friends, but wouldn’t work so closely together in future.

In May 1969, Roger moved to New York and settled into an apartment on 57th Street. He’d decided to go into business for himself designing studio equipment, and would become a familiar figure in New York’s vibrant record industry. He made sure to keep in touch with Jimi, and supplied some of the sound devices used in the Band Of Gypsys’ epochal performance at the Fillmore East.

Soon, Jimi would complete work on his own studio Electric Lady, which Roger describes as “quite advanced for the time. It was very nice looking. I wouldn’t say the recording desk was anything special or the technology especially cutting-edge. It was top-of-the-line, but it wasn’t a standout kind of place. People wanted to record there because it had a great ambience and it was in Greenwich Village.

“I got called there to help with the first multi-voiced analogue synthesiser that Stevie Wonder used on his albums Music Of My Mind,Talking Book and Innervisions. I must have built about a third of that and did an awful lot of the interface work but I got on well with Stevie and he appreciated having an additional pair of ears around him. I was there to ensure that the studio equipment was indeed operating at peak performance and to assist with any technical problems. In fact I was at Media Sound with Stevie Wonder when I heard that Jimi had died…”

Over ensuing years, Roger would design and supply limiters, equalisers and state-of-the-art recording equipment for a range of other well-known studios such as A & R, Media Sound, Record Plant, the Hit Factory and Columbia. The first recording console he designed and built was at Sundragon studios in New York. The Andrea True Connection used it for their international chart hit More, More, More in the summer of 1976. By then he’d begun collaborating with Jimi’s old employers the Isley Brothers, who wanted to expand outside of their core market. Roger worked on songs like Fight The PowerThe Heat Is On before transferring his attentions to George Clinton (of Parliament and Funkadelic fame), Robert Palmer, the Meters’ Leo Nocentelli and Rick James, whom he describes as “totally nuts.”

“After that I got introduced to Junior Marvin. This was before he joined the Wailers. I came to England to record an album with him but then ended up working with Bob Marley on the Exodus and Kaya albums. I asked Bob what he wanted to do and he said, ‘can you make me sound international?’ I had to literally strip the band down and go through all of the instruments and make sure they were perfectly in tune and then go from there. I think that gave Bob a lot of confidence and his sound changed immediately. It was like night and day.”

It was those two albums that made Marley into a superstar. Exodus would be nominated as Album Of The Century whilst the BBC voted One Love as their Song Of The Millennium in 2000. That same year Roger was nominated for a Technical Grammy for services to the music industry. Due to popular demand, he’d returned to designing and producing sound devices by then. His current range of products is now acclaimed the world over and includes upgrades of pedals like the Octavia, which he’d first developed for Jimi Hendrix.

Whilst Roger is delighted that Jimi is still revered as both a guitarist and innovator, he’s concerned that today’s audiences aren’t hearing quite the same music they created back in the late 60s.

“Are the albums on sale now the original mixes as approved by Jimi and released in his lifetime?” he asks. “Because how many versions of these records are there now? And which is the original? The fact is, there’s only one original and that was the one approved by the man himself. Anything else is historically incorrect and that’s the end of it.”

Interview by John Masouri, October 2013

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