Hendrix, Page, and Standing Out in a Crowded Effects Market: A Conversation with Roger Mayer

Whilst the man standing at the front of the stage hogs the limelight, there’s often an essential brain hidden away behind the scenes, keeping the cogs turning. Behind revered artists like Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley, and Jimmy Page stood the extraordinary pedal maker Roger Mayer.

Since the late ‘60s, Mayer has striven for excellence. His studio and guitar equipment has been featured on some of the bestselling albums of all time. We sat down with Roger to discuss his backstory, how his friendship with Hendrix began, and where his work is today.

You began your working career at the Admiralty Research Laboratory (ARL). What inspired you to start building guitar effects, and who took first interest in your designs?

I grew up listening to U.S. R&B records from an early age, as my sister went to art school and was ahead of the curve when it came to new underground breaking artists. My local bands featured guitarists Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page, and on weekends, we met and listened to the latest underground U.S. music at JP’s house in Epsom with Jeff.

The U.S. records began to feature distortion and, encouraged by them, it inspired me to design my first fuzz boxes that immediately were featured on U.K. hit records by Jimmy and Jeff as their careers took off.

The daytime job involved vibration and acoustic capture and analysis, so in reality, it was closely connected to creating guitar tones. I first met Jimi Hendrix whilst at the ARL, and by then, my early fuzz designs had been on hit records. Jimi then pioneered the iconic sound of my latest effect on "Purple Haze"—the Octavia—which has become my signature effect.

How did you meet Hendrix?

I first met Jimi a few days after my 21st birthday, after one of his shows at the Bag O’Nails club in Soho, London. After being blown away by his live show, I introduced myself backstage and instantly got lost in conversation about tone and how I wanted to create something completely different.

Roger Mayer, Mitch Mitchell, Jimi Hendrix, and Noel Redding

He invited me along to a gig the following week, which is where he first listened to the Octavia backstage on a small amp. He was so impressed and excited with the new sounds he invited me along to the Olympic Studio later that week to overdub the solos on his second release—"Purple Haze"—and "Fire."

Our mutual love for science fiction and space led to us agreeing on an "outside of the box" approach to guitar tones and sounds. Jimi wanted to sound nothing like anything that been recorded before—we wanted to look ahead, not over our shoulders. We just wanted to create complete originality and had absolutely no idea how influential and successful it would become.

I truly believe that the sounds and tones from those records are still as compelling now as they were back then. And whilst the Octavia was a tool to help Jimi achieve those sounds, the magic was, of course, all in his hands and vision.

Touring with Hendrix in ’68 must have been quite something. Are there any moments from that tour that have stayed with you?

The opportunity to travel with Jimi to the States in early 1968 was a personal "thank you" and appreciation for the time and work we had spent together in 1967, culminating in the release of Axis: Bold as Love in December ‘67. My role was to help Jimi and provide technical support whilst acting independently and not working for his management.

There was only the road manager, myself, Jimi, Mitch, and Noel who travelled together, often having to drive large distances to make the gigs on time. We got to meet so many famous U.S. musicians and always tried to see as much live music as possible. Jimi, of course, always wanted to sit in and play.

The big difference for me is that each night on tour is completely different from the last. The room acoustics, the stage, and the equipment can change with each day, so a full technical understanding of today’s obstacles must be understood to achieve the best possible result.

A record, however, is deliberately designed and produced to be played and enjoyed in any country, on any device or platform, at any time of day. The live show was as an important visual experience, as it was musically—people cheered when Jimi took his jacket off. So my desire to make great sounds for iconic records means that the studio is always my creative office of choice over a live scenario.

After a successful career of building studio equipment, was pedal and effects design something you intended to go into?

Roger Mayer

I have never really made a distinction between the various categories of electronics used in the recording process, as the end result is the objective. Even in the beginning I was interested in making hit records that stood up in quality, innovation, and could be compared to anything else available. The recording process is comprised of many parts of a chain, all of which should not be analysed separately but only by the end result.

When I first moved to New York I was in a very enviable position of being able to evaluate differences between the top U.S. and U.K. studio sounds and techniques, and this led me to develop a range of studio equipment that was very well received by studios worldwide.

I was approached by bands in the U.S. about my pedals—after they’d heard them on the Hendrix records. Studio equipment is much more challenging to design and can be used for all musical styles, and in all sorts of different recording environments. Around this time I helped build the custom analogue synthesizer used in the recording of Music of My Mind by Stevie Wonder at the Electric Lady studios. Despite initially being used exclusively by Jimi, my effects and sounds started making their way onto many hit records.

The market is vastly more saturated than when you first started. What is it about your effects that continue to stand out in both studio and stage environments?

What artists have told me, and what I believe myself is my pedals provide clarity, dynamics, and—when used on a record—they stand out. Some of my more modern designs use a particular technique, which allows the player’s input to alter the eventual outcome of the pedal. This very complex process that can only be achieved with an expert knowledge of electronics. It’s very easy to knock up a straightforward fuzz box, but making it so it stands up on its own on a hit record is not.

When I moved back to the U.K. in the early ‘90s, a few of the indie bands at the time like The Stone Roses, My Bloody Valentine, and Dinosaur Jr. got in touch about my designs. So this demand from these new up-and-coming big bands spoke volumes about the quality and clarity of my effects. This sonic clarity and tonal quality wasn’t achieved by accident, and the smash hit Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Wonder, and Bob Marley albums are testament to that.

Your latest release, the Visage, has done incredibly well since its launch. Tell us a little bit about the background behind this model, and how your involvement with Hendrix lives on in this pedal.

Whilst on tour with Jimi, we brought in the best commercially available fuzz boxes that needed selecting, tweaking, and repairing. For studio use, I started developing my own spin on the Fuzz Face which led to the new Axis Series. The Visage allows the user to tweak the sounds from various Hendrix records, all within one single and straightforward pedal.

What is a fairly simple circuit, with the tweak of a few jumpers you can achieve 45 different options from one pedal. There’s no excess of knobs on the front, just pop the panel off the bottom, get the sound you want, put it back together, and you’ve got a great-sounding pedal. Nothing that can get in the way or distract you—just you, the pedal, and the amp, just jamming and having fun—like Jimi and I used to do down at the Speakeasy many nights.

Back on tour, nobody wants to see the guitar player staring at his shoes, trying to figure out which one of the 20 pedals he has to press next. They wanted to see the guitar player perform, with a few memorable straightforward sounds and giving the crowd a real exciting show.

Lastly, what does the future hold for Roger Mayer pedals?

The most recent products all feature the 456HD process, used today by great producers and featured on hit albums like the latest Roger Daltrey and Manic Street Preachers releases. The depths and dynamics from our multi-track tape simulation have impressed modern record labels and radio DJs. This is studio equipment, so nothing for the pedal fans to get too excited about, but continuation and improvement of what already exists is paramount.

If you want to experience a legendary recording chain, we have our 4-channel class A microphone preamps—all with 456HD process—and the famous RM58 Stereo Limiter with 456HD process as well. This recording equipment will get your tracks to digital the best possible way, recreating the legendary ‘70s recording quality.

This article was furnished by Jake Law, of the U.K.'s Guitar Village. Check out their Reverb shop here.

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