For decades the equipment of the most-influential guitarist of all time has been something of a Holy Grail. What did Jimi Hendrix use to achieve his legendary sounds? Speculation and myths abound, which is why I took the bull by the horns to lay this all to rest.
After spending weeks and weeks studying the guitar icon’s set-ups, one of the most surprising revelations was how few effects Jimi actually used. The legend of the guitarist with plenty of effect pedals is actually based on a rather restricted palette of options. Most of today’s guitarist’s use a significantly wider array of stompboxes. This article takes us back in time to when effect pedals were in their infancy, and gives a detailed look at Hendrix’ gear throughout his short career.
Jimi got his first taste of fuzz in New York in May 1966. He was playing in Curtis Knight’s band, and managed to borrow a Maestro Fuzz Tone pedal off an acquaintance for two weeks. He experimented with fuzz-induced feedback, which didn’t make his bandmates happy. In those days, guitar feedback was seen purely as a technical fault. Jimi tried to harness feedback for musical purposes even back then, laying the foundation for some of his signature techniques later on.
After moving to England in autumn ’66 Jimi bought a British Dallas Arbiter Fuzz Face. This was the second fuzz pedal to appear on the market after the Maestro.
November 8th to 11th he played Munich’s “Big Apple Club” with his band, using the Fuzz Face live for the first time. The audience went wild over his exotic guitar sound, storming the stage in their frenzy.
Because Jimi’s guitar got damaged in the heat of the moment, he proceeded to smash his Strat on stage for the first time in his career. Below is the first known picture of Jimi and the Fuzz Face.
About two weeks later Jimi used the Fuzz Face in the studio for the first time on the track Love or Confusion. A song would be released on the "Are You Experienced" debut album more than six months later.
The germanium transistor-driven Dallas Arbiter Fuzz Face is a living legend among pedals. On the other hand, there wasn’t a lot of choice in the late 60s. Availability was a major factor in the choice of effect pedals. This was Jimi Hendrix’ first proper pedal, after his first experiments with the borrowed Maestro.
Jimi first met Roger Mayer in January 1967. Jimi called his new technician “the secret of my sound”, which says quite a lot. Purple Haze, recorded in four hours on January 11th, was their first session together. In terms of sounds this track was a giant leap forward. The duo put their heads together to create a number of high-gain tones. Roger Mayer brought his Octavia pedal to this session for the first time. Jimi was instantly smitten. The Octavia made the guitar play one octave up, turning the guitar – in Jimi’s words – into a “whistle” or a “flute”. Below is the original Mayer Octavia, later copied by Tycobrahe.
Jimi also tried to use the Octavia on other songs, apart from Purple Haze. These experiments were “a bit too much” for Hendrix’ manager Chas Chandler in light of the hippie movement and Flower Power. Chandler didn’t want to take the music recorded in these self-financed sessions too far out.
Roger Mayer once said: “We had a number of different fuzz boxes built into the same enclosures as the Octavia. Soon we started to dissect several Fuzz Faces, trying to find out, which ones were sounding good, and which weren’t.”
Roger started to attend some of the band’s gigs, often turning up with new stompboxes. Security at the venues was often non-existent, which is why some pedals were stolen. At the start of the band’s career, Mayer’s main job was to collect the band’s effect pedals right after the set, and carry them to safety. They didn’t want to loose any more of Roger’s effect pedals and prototypes. Due to Roger Mayer’s day job for the British military, he wasn’t able to come to all gigs. For the shows he couldn’t attend, he kept the prototypes under lock, and gave Jimi only such pedals that he deemed finished. The Octavia wasn’t there, yet.
Jimi Hendrix and Roger Mayer both agreed that the studio and live appearances were two different sonic battlefields, which is why they approached the scenarios differently. At a gig you have to take the venue’s own acoustic fingerprint into account. If the room has a lot of natural reverb, you won’t be able to reign it in. A fuzz effect will sound differently with different amounts and types of reverb and reflections. A studio, on the other hand, offers a controlled situation.
“In the studio we wanted to use different tones for different tracks, which is why we used different effects and amp set-ups depending on each song.” Mayer reminisces. Every song was given its own, recognisable sonic fingerprint, but the number of effects per song was kept carefully in check.
Deeply frustrated by the unreliable and uneven quality of germanium transistors, Roger Mayer started working on his own distortion circuits, which would be somewhat different compared to the Fuzz Face. To this day you can hear a certain pained admiration for these early components in his voice.
Both wanted a less temperamental and more even fuzz sound, and Mayer succeeded in tweaking the effects into Jimi’s preferred direction. Both wanted the upper harmonic components of the signal to sound mathematically correct and pleasing to the ear. In Roger’s words “the decay characteristics of a fuzz are the most important factor in the choice of transistor, and in the tweaking process.”
Back in the late Sixties aftermarket effect enclosures weren’t available, and Mayer hadn’t yet acquired the necessary machinery and expertise for producing his own boxes. But because their experiments had left them with a heap of disemboweled Fuzz Faces, the pair simply chose to install their own circuits in the Fuzz Face shells. So, do beware: Just because a picture seems to show a Fuzz Face on stage with Jimi, it doesn’t necessarily mean the pedal’s original circuit was still inside.
Over time these experiments crystallised into a new fuzz pedal for Jimi. The resulting effect was Roger Mayer’s Axis Fuzz, which Jimi first used during the sessions for the album "Axis: Bold as Love". As it turned out, this would be Jimi’s fuzz of choice for the remainder of his career, even though there were a few modifications along the way.
The studio walls were shaking again. On February 20th the band recorded I Don’t Live Today. This was the first time that Hendrix used his famous vocal-style wah-effect. For this session the wah was in fact produced “by hand”, and not with a floor effect. Wah-style effects had been produced using the tone controls on a guitar for some time already, but a dedicated effect pedal was still around the corner.
March 1st, 1967, was a watershed in Rock guitar history. Purple Haze was released as a single, and Rock music would never be the same again. This song, built on heavy fuzz guitar tones, was a trailblazer, blasting open the doors to another universe. The use of a second effect, the Octavia, during the solo, only gave additional weight to the notion that Hendrix was a guitarist descended from another galaxy.
The band spent most of the spring in London finishing their debut album. In London’s guitar Mecca – Charing Cross Road – Jimi got hold of his first, spanking-new wah pedal. The band used to hang out in the area’s instrument stores during recording breaks, and when Noel Redding (Hendrix’ bassist) heard of a new pedal, called the Crybaby, he and Jimi went to check it out. After Jimi took the pedal through its paces, the shop’s owner gave the wah-wah to him free of charge, which was almost unheard of in those days.
On May 5th Jimi recorded guitar effects for what would become his second album’s opening track. The song, which would become known as EXP (experiment), featured Jimi’s signature feedback and groaning guitar, which he achieved by using fuzz and wah-wah in tandem. This was the first time he used these effects simultaneously.
The band’s debut, "Are You Experienced", was released on May 12th. When you consider the fact that this LP was recorded in short flurries in a number of different studios all through the spring, the album is surprisingly coherent. The LP became an instant classic.
On the 18th the band travelled to Offenbach (West Germany) to promote their record. Their three-song set on the TV-show Beat Beat Beat gives you a great impression of the band’s energetic stage performance, as well as the ferocity of Jimi’s early fuzz sounds. The audience got its first taste during the solo on Stone Free (2:04). Less than a week on, and the band were in Finland, playing Helsinki’s Kulttuuritalo (on May 22nd).
Paul McCartney had persuaded the organisers of the Monterey Pop Festival to include the Jimi Hendrix Experience on their bill. Jimi’s gig on June 18th became his breakthrough in his native USA. His incendiary set was widely mentioned in the press; the LA Times wrote: “Jimi took to the stage as a vague rumour, and left the stage after nine songs as a legend.”
Interestingly, Jimi had to engage in quite a bit of arm-wrestling with the Who’s Pete Townshend before his set. Both wanted their own band to go on last, in order to close the day’s show as the headliner. In the end the organisers had to throw a coin, and Townshend "won". Jimi swore he’d use “all his tricks” to make life for the Who harder. And he did. Jimi’s show climaxed with him burning his Strat in a voodoo ritual at the end of Wild Thing. For this historic gig Jimi used only a Fuzz Face modded by Roger Mayer.
Slowly but surely the wah pedal started finding its way into Jimi’s stage set-up. A photo taken on August 18th at the Hollywood Bowl clearly depicts the wah-wah at the front of the stage. At that time Jimi mostly kept his Fuzz Face closer to his Marshall stack.
His set at London’s Saville Theatre (27.08.) – the day of Brian Epstein’s tragic death – is the first bootleg recording featuring the wah pedal on stage. You can also spot one interesting detail on that tape.
Even though Jimi had recorded the solo on I Don’t Live Today with a wah style effects, he was used to playing it with a fuzz live. Despite now having the wah on stage, Jimi still chose to play the solo using only the fuzz. This shows that he still hadn’t got the hang of using both effects simultaneously on stage.
At first Jimi had thought, that using the fuzz and wah pedals at the same time was nearly impossible live, because of the danger of feedback, due to the high volume levels. In the end it only took him about a month, before he had mastered the art of controlling the feedback spontaneously with the wah pedal. This open the door to a new world of freaky and outlandish electronic noises. Luckily, this historic show has been preserved in part.
During a show at Stockholm’s Gröna Lund on September 4th, Jimi’s live use of effects started to shift. He noticed that he could shape the feedback with his wah-wah. He started to use fuzz and wah simultaneously for screeching, yet musical feedback. In the toe position the wah would induce wild screams and squeals, but in the heel position the feedback would be reigned in. This discovery – during the track Catfish – wasn’t captured on film, but you can listen this audio recording (9:29), where he lets his Stratocaster scream in unprecedented fashion.
After a good night’s sleep, on the next day´s show Jimi started to use the wah-and-fuzz combination on other songs as well. The first was I Don’t Live Today, which would never be played live without the wah again. This show was also the first to capture Jimi’s use of the wah on film.
On December 1st "Axis: Bold as Love" was released in the UK in time for the Christmas market. There’s a hair-raising last-minute anecdote connected to this LP. Jimi had left the master tape for the record’s B-side in a taxi, as he returned home after a session. The whole B-side had to be mixed and banded during one frenetic late-night session. Everything went fine, except for the track If 6 was 9, which sounded lacklustre. The final version on the LP was taken from a rough mix Noel Redding had taken home previously, and had now rushed to retrieve in the middle of the night.
With the year nearing its end, Hendrix recorded one of his most iconic performances ever. On December 19th he played an acoustic rendition of Hear My Train A Comin’ on a twelve-string Zemaitis, which had been borrowed and quickly restrung just for this purpose. The guitar’s maker, Tony Zemaitis, later claimed the guitar was a “cheapo”, but it became legendary thanks to this clip.
Ironically, the film crew didn’t have enough negative stock in the camera, which is why the film cuts off in the middle of the performance (at 3:08). The audio recordist was up to his job, though, and managed to capture the entire, magical performance. In the finished clip, meant for a Hendrix documentary, the film simply jumps to Hendrix riding a limo and sharing some smokes with two groupies. Somehow tragic, but also heart-warming.
The year 1968 was a very hectic time for Jimi. His management tried to widen his appeal in the US by arranging two tours of the States. Additionally, Jimi was also under pressure to deliver a new album.
Hendrix started complaining in interviews that he was getting tired of all the “circus tricks” he had to perform on stage to satisfy his audience. The band had been playing the same songs over and over for a couple of years already, and Jimi wanted to develop and branch out as a player.
In a way it was Hendrix’ wah-wah pedal, which helped him find a way of broadening his tonal palette and artistic expression. Jimi got had been built in Italy, by a company called JEN, for the Thomas Organ Company (Vox Amplification’s parent company at that time). You could say that the wah was the effect that Jimi genuinely put his stamp on. He made the effect his “signature” and developed his wah use in breathtaking ways.
The wah-wah also served as a sort of grounding anchor, by allowing Jimi to come up with musical “tricks”, instead of having to rely on antics, such as playing behind his back, or using his teeth, which he was known for in the media.
An article in the June issue of Life Magazine “unveiled” to the public the “secrets” of Hendrix’ sound. Frank Zappa stated in an interview for that article, that anybody wanting to sound like Jimi Hendrix needed to “buy a Fender Stratocaster, an Arbiter Fuzz Face, a Vox Wah-Wah, and four Marshall amplifier stacks.” The piece in Life constituted the final breakthrough of the Fuzz Face. All around the world Rock musicians knew (or thought they knew) how Jimi got his tones, and, naturally, they all rushed to the shops to get their own Fuzz Faces.
After months of studio sessions of massive proportions, Hendrix released a double-album. "Electric Ladyland" was a clear step forward in terms of Hendrix’ sound. The double-LP featured many diverse styles, even to the point of making the whole sound slightly unconnected. Even though Ladyland is a bona fide classic, its predecessor, Axis, sounds much more complete these days.
Even though the band were exhausted, they were put on a European tour. Jimi played two gigs in Stockholm on January 9th, the first of which has been preserved for posterity in its entirety. This is a great video showing more facets of Jimi’s sensitive personality than all other films put together.
Jimi seems rather absent and unfocused (due to the fact that you couldn’t get any marihuana in Sweden at that time), but the film shows his effects use very clearly. Take Voodoo Child (Slight Return), for example: Jimi makes “a mess” of virtually all effect changes during the track, but his set-up seems clear enough. His mind just was somewhere else.
In approx 23:00 Jimi introduces the song, while all his effects are still over a metre away
The band played their legendary show at the Royal Albert Hall on February 24th. This show was the only one in their whole career that was set up specifically for filming. The band had been rehearsing for this show – honing their playing, and deciding on the arrangements for each song.
There’s been rumours and talk of an official RAH-DVD for years. The Hendrix Estate have edited the film of the entire set. The music has been remixed and remastered, and sounds fantastic. This is the single most-anticipated, but still unreleased gem of the whole Hendrix back catalogue and the stream of “official” bootlegs.
I hope with all my heart that I will live to see the film released. At the moment the release is being held up by protracted legal proceedings, after The Times released the whole concert’s audio as a freebie. Don’t ask me why. If you want to get a detailed look at the legal mechanics of the case, simply click on this link.
In a piece for Record Mirror, writer Valerie Mabbs mentions, that Hendrix is now using a strange new effect, which he had shown her during the interview. The new effect was said to produce strange and otherworldly sounds that nobody had heard before on guitar – not even Jimi himself.
THE UNI-VIBE had been released the year before, but because of all the touring and recording sessions, Hendrix only managed to get hold of one in 1969.
In the USA the effect was sold as the Uni-Vibe, but in the rest of the world it was sold as the Jax Vibra Chorus, by its distributor Unicord. Most people tend to stick to the unit’s chorus-section. In chorus mode you get a mix of the dry and wet signal, while vibrato mode will give you only the wet signal. Most musicians find the vibrato-section far too wobbly for serious use. The original Uni-Vibe featured no kind of bypass, meaning the effect unit softened the guitar signal audibly, while also dropping the volume level. Despite its name, the chorus-section is really a type of early phaser, using a four-stage phase-shifting section to produce its signature sound.
Hendrix first used his Uni-Vibe in earnest on August 10th, during a jam session in Woodstock, two weeks before the festival. Here’s the earliest picture of Jimi with his Uni-Vibe.
Roger Mayer remembers when the Uni-Vibe first appeared, and that he modified it for Jimi’s use: “Actually, all I had to do was a little fine-tuning. With the correct set-up these things really sound very musical.”
On August 18th the Woodstock Festival’s audience witnessed a rejuvenated Hendrix. His new band was bigger, and Jimi played several new songs. He also sported a new effect, added after his previous mainstays.
Looking from the guitar, his signal chain now consisted of a wah, a fuzz, and a Uni-Vibe. Great example of Jimi´s Uni-Vibe sound starts from 1:17.
His solo rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner is now seen as one of Woodstock’s most gripping anti-war statements. Jimi’s soulful playing served as a stark reminder to the children of Flower Power, that while they were having a festival of peace and love, a war was raging in Vietnam. Jimi was a master in making the most of the fuzz’ and wah-wah’s oscillation. The crucial factor in Jimi’s tone during this legendary appearance was his new, silicon-based version of the Fuzz Face that provided plenty of additional gain.
After having rested, post-Woodstock, Jimi appeared on the Dick Cavett Show on September 9th with the same band. In hindsight the centrepiece of this set is formed by Machine Gun. Right after finishing Izabella Jimi segues into a two-and-a-half minute version of Machine Gun. To most Jimi fans the definitive version of this track was recorded a few months later.
Jimi changed his band’s line-up again. Due to complicated contractual details he was still owing his previous record label one album. Jimi delivered a live album, whose name became synonymous with the new band – Band of Gypsys.
Four sets – recorded on New Year’s Eve and on January 1st, 1970 – formed the basis for the upcoming live LP. Jimi also added something new to his effect arsenal.
Roger Mayer made his return as Jimi’s live technician. He had moved back to the USA, which meant the pair had been apart for about a year. His return present to Hendrix was a finished, fit-for-gigging version of the Octavia, an Axis Fuzz (built into a Fuzz Face enclosure), and a few modified wah-wahs.
Much of Hendrix’ soundscape comes together at the Fillmore gig, where Machine Gun got its final shape. This track is brimming with guitar pyrotechnics – bombs and rockets going off, the sound of screaming, and shots being fired. The horrors of war recreated on the electric guitar. Sadly, the surviving video is rather patchy, but the audio is great and it has been released in a few different versions.
Jimi’s signal chain now reached its most legendary state. Hendrix-fans call this set-up the BOG- (Band of Gypsys) or the Voodoo-pedals.
Even though the drawing suggests otherwise, the effects were hooked up as follows:
The Octavia was now inserted between the wah and the fuzz. This kept the Uni-Vibe last, with everything in front of it amplifying its sound.
Luckily, there are some professional photographs available, which show us the effect chain in full. No doubt Jimi had tried several alternative signal chains, but in this picture the wah’s output cable clearly is plugged into what looks like the Octavia. Hendrix had spent most of 1968 honing his way of using wah and fuzz in conjunction, which poses the question: Why change a winning formula? Was it because of the different transistor type in his Fuzz, as design had evolved from germanium to silicon?
Now Jimi had a wide array of tones at his disposal, and he really knew how to make the most of it. Jimi’s “Octavia-era” started two minutes into 1970, when the band started jamming the song Who knows. After the New Year’s gigs Jimi carried on using the Octavia for a little while only.
Still, listening to the album Band of Gypsys, it is evident that Hendrix’ sound was more refined and mature compared to two years previous. A little bit of mystery is a good thing, and we probably won’t ever know the full truth behind his effect order choices. It is possible that Jimi also changed things around from gig to gig.
The album Band of Gypsys is released on March 25th. The LP introduces the audience to a funkier and more groove-centred Hendrix. The fans loved the record, which stands as a cool snapshot of that era, even to this day. Still, this line-up wasn’t to last, either. Jimi returned stylistically to something akin to his earlier Experience-line-up.
Hendrix’ Octavia-era came to an end in Madison on May 2nd. It’s unclear whether the pedal was stolen, or if it simply broke, but it never returned to Jimi’s signal chain.
Jimi wanted to record his new band – Mitch Mitchell (drums) and Billy Cox (bass) – at a smaller venue, instead of large festivals, for a better sound. Berkeley’s Community Theatre – a 3,500-seater – was chosen for this purpose, and a top-notch sound crew was hired for the job. The band played two shows on the same day (May 30th), and the resulting recordings were great. Most of the material has seen the light of day, in one form or another.
These two gigs give us Hendrix’ at his most mature. The recordings serve as a fitting testament to the legendary musician. These were his last professionally-recorded, and successful, live recordings, made by the most influential guitarist on the planet. The Octavia was not seen again.
The Atlanta Pop Festival was held on July 4th. Jimi was completely fed up with just repeating his old hits, such as Fire, Foxey Lady and Purple Haze.
The film of Hendrix’ gig in Maui on July 30th is riddled with technical problems. The sloppily edited material ended up as a part of the Rainbow Bridge movie. Hendrix’ roadies had to cut a piece of foam out of a guitar case to serve as a wind filter for Jimi’s vocal mic. Mitch Mitchell later had to re-record all his drum parts in the studio, because the live signal was unusable.
The Isle of Wight Festival – held exactly one month on (30.08.) – was planned as “Europe’s Woodstock”. Just like there, the schedule here started lagging badly behind. Jimi only got to play long after midnight, and he was plagued by problems with his amps and his monitors.
His wah-wah and the high-gain silicon-fuzz were screeching almost uncontrollably, there were walkie-talkie conversations coming from his amp stacks, and the monitors were feeding back badly. This gig was like the worst-case scenario, the 101 of everything that can go wrong at a live show. Despite all this, the official recording of the show is of a good quality, and well worth a viewing.
Hendrix’ last live show was at the West German Love and Peace Festival on September 6th, 1970. Shortly thereafter Billy Cox had to leave the band due to health issues. He was suffering from acute paranoia, and returned to the States to rest his nerves.
On September 18th, 1970, Jimi Hendrix was found dead in his girlfriend’s apartment in London.
Judging by his final letters and other documents, Hendrix was full of energy and positive about his future prospects in music. There weren’t any signs of impending self-destruction. It’s a huge tragedy that the world never got to hear what he would have come up with further down the road.
Finally, I will bust a few myths and correct some erroneous information pertaining to Jimi Hendrix’ set-up and signal path:
28.8.2013 Kimmo Aroluoma
The writer is the owner of Custom Boards Finland. He is a veteran guitar tech who has toured for years with Finnish bands HIM, Amorphis, Michael Monroe, The Rasmus and Von Hertzen Brothers. Today he designs pedalboards and runs his own web shop in Helsinki, Finland.