Roger Mayer Interview: Guitar Tech for Hendrix and Page

By Tony Cole: Courtesy of MusicGearSource

Editor’s Note – Tony has his own online music blog and was kind enough to offer this interview for use on the TGP Webzine. Roger has been a guitar tech for such notables as Hendrix and Page, among others, and answers some questions commonly asked among guitar players from a perspective of “I was there”. My thanks to Tony for allowing the interview to be reproduced here.

experience2MGS – Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with us Roger.

RM – I am glad to answer any questions you may have and hope that I might be able to give some insight and direction to those who have an interest in sound. I would like to however point out straight away that I personally endorse the future and do not live in the past and always have encouraged musicians to seek individuality and pursue a fresh and novel approach to their art.

MGS – I’ll get my only Hendrix question out of the way so we can find out what is going on today. The wah mods that you did for Jimi, can you elaborate on them?

RM – Jimi probably did more to popularise the use of a wah pedal than anyone else and at the same time hasn’t left much room to play something that will be heard and remembered of as unique. I get a lot of questions of the mods we used and I welcome the opportunity to set the record straight as there is so much misinformation around about wah pedals and in particular the ones Jimi used. We used to buy our wah pedals from a shop whenever we needed them and it soon became very obvious that there was a large difference in performance between the various units. Jimi and I discussed this and I began a scientific approach to carefully analyse the differences in the various units and the way they were interfaced into our set up. Once we found a pedal that Jimi was particularly fond and suited a particular situation it then became important to understand what made that one outstanding. Once the analysis was complete it was then possible to modify the operational parameters further to enhance its use. At that time the tolerances on the components were large and this in turn caused quite an appreciable difference in the tuning of the circuit. Now because the wah circuit is basically a swept filter there are several important parameters that will affect it’s sound. The frequency of the sweep is dependent on the value of the inductance of the coil and the associated capacitors. There are an infinite combination of L and C that will give the same exact resonant frequency. Each combination exhibits a different Q or shape to the curve and it is important to know how these interact and sound. A different Q with the same frequency centre will produce a different sound. The input impedance of the standard wah was not that high and this factor loaded the pick ups down thus loosing valuable high frequency detail forever so I experimented using a buffer before the wah or drove the wah from a circuit that had a low output impedance to allow the full range of the pick ups to be available if desired. The use of a buffer before the wah has now become the de facto standard since I introduced it and is featured on the standard Dunlop wahs now. We never used a buffered output however. The resistance taper of the potentiometer makes a difference to the way the wah feels in operation and can be deliberately chosen to limit the actual width of the sweep whilst maintaining a more human feel. You don’t always want full sweep from bass to treble all the time but want a more controlled action. The size and type of magnetic material will effect the detail and overall frequency and transient response even when tuned to the same frequency. Nowadays I have noticed that people are just focussing on one component part of the wah as the magic cure and path to Jimi’s tone but I can assure you that this is not the case. The pot itself will not make a badly tuned wah sound good nor will a coil. It is the careful selection of all the inter dependent parts that makes up the overall result. Then of course the most important bit is where does the wah sound fit into the music and how do you want to tune it. It would be untrue to imagine Jimi used the same wah sound for all his tracks because after all why wouldn’t you change it if you could. This flexibility has become my driving force in offering the most complete and varied range of tuneable wah circuits that I can make. I have also addressed the playing ergonomic issue with the ultra low profile Vision Wah that also has a Blending Control between the original sound and the wah sound. All these tuneable features go a long way in obtaining your particular sound and after all we did not copy we invented new sounds and I myself would never claim to give somebody Jimi’s wah sound as you would have to qualify the musical moment you are talking about as Jimi was always experimenting daily to improve his sound. Nothing worthwhile stays still! So in a nutshell you have your answer. There is no one Jimi wah sound only a range that he used and I continue that tradition by offering tuneable wahs that have genuine roots and heritage that reflect the best we used.

MGS – What does your day consist of? Do you build at all or just for R and D?

RM – I am very lucky as virtually every day for me is different. As I am a the designer of all my products including all the engineering and pattern work for the castings and CAD CAM for extrusions, PC Cards and artwork my work load is high but very enjoyable and varied. I come from a family, which has always owned engineering factories, and I grew up around machines and watching my Dad create tooling and prototypes so for me it is natural to surrounded by this type of environment. I build all the initial designs personally and supervise the manufacture of them as they progress into production. As my name is on the products I obviously take great pride in making sure the end result is as good as it gets and I always have tried to be on the cutting edge of technology. I personally inspect and test all of the products before shipping using the most up to date equipment and techniques available. We use a large percentage of our resources on R&D and do not believe in sitting back and following or copying trends.

MGS -What’s the is the product you are most excited about offering right now?

RM – We recently have introduced a new extrusion enclosure for the Vision Series of pedals. The Vision Series have both buffered and hard wire outputs and these features have been so popular that we are now improving the very successful Voodoo Range by moving them to exactly the same enclosure with the added features of the Hard Wire and Buffered Outputs. We have also updated our Voodoo- Vibe enclosure for easy battery access. So it’s good bye to die cast boxes and taking the back off, loosing the screws all to change the battery and hello to the future with instant battery access and both types of output. After all it’s all about making life easy for the player.

MGS – Tell us about this new guitar strap switching system from RM effects.

RM – The Mission Controller system brings to the player remote switching of his effects. We are the first manufacturers to do this and break new ground in bringing to the player total freedom from having to be at the pedal board to change the effects. So if you are using a radio link for the guitar audio signal you can also use a Mission Controller Transmitter that will fit onto your strap to give total freedom on stage. Even when using a guitar lead the advantage of not having to be near the pedals and tap dance has real benefits. We are starting with a simple system that has two effects loops that are implemented with reed relays of recording studio quality. So you can channel switch an amp or switch in two independent loops in your effects set up. All switching is passive and click free with no amps buffers or any electronics in the signal path. Just pure switching in a vacuum by the best method possible using the optimum material for the switch contacts. It’s not the cheapest way to accomplish this but it’s the best. The future capability of the system is enormous as up to 15 commands can be sent from the transmitter and configured into all manner of control paths. The heart and security of the system lies in the code hopping radio transmissions that ensure freedom from interference and hacking. This is a further development of the technology as used by top automobile makers for keyless entry. Our system uses a refined and long-range transmitter that also transmits a signal to the receiver to show you when to change its battery, which incidentally should last a year. We are introducing 3 models of transmitter and pictures and details of these will be on our web site.

MGS– Its odd almost 40 years later alot of folks are still chasing Jimis tone. What are your honest feelings on that? What should folks be doing to find their own tone?

RM – The interesting comment that I always make to people is that you are hearing a recording of Jimi probably from a CD and in a particular room setting and at a sound pressure level that is comfortable to you. The CD pressing is at least 7 generation away from the original and the signal has already passed through various production stages before your laser in the CD player gets to decode the signal and send it to the power amplifier and then to the speakers. So as to chasing Jimi’s tone. Is the aim of your quest to emulate the sound coming from your Hi Fi loudspeakers or do you want to make a record to sound like Jimi or do you want to sound like him playing live. The answers to each of these questions would be completely different and to be honest not appropriate to discuss here as each case in point would only apply to an individual and his style of guitar playing. Listening to a recording even of a live performance has only so much relevance and should only be used for inspiration and enjoyment not as some benchmark that is set in stone. I always try to tell a musician that using the same equipment is only part of the story and can so easily work against you in thinking subconsciously that it will be a substitute for real talent and inspiration. Obviously having a good equipment helps and should be used to eliminate the bad workman blaming his tools syndrome. I specialise in producing equipment that has the capabilities to produce the sounds that can be recorded to make hit records and some devices are designed expressly for live stadium type gigs at maximum volume with the back line amplifier then being miked up and distributed with a massive house PA. I do not make pedals that are primarily designed to be used at low volume in a bedroom as many people will tell you when they move to a real gig that the sound they thought was great at home just does not cut it in front of an audience and used in anger. The situations are completely different and require the correct solution. Dedication and daring to be different is the path to finding your own unique tone. So the next time you hear Jimi try to capture his musical spirit and put your own twist to it and not try to copy him note for note.

MGS – On that same note how do you feel about the builders that are still cranking out the same tired circuits? Not many things that are different these days. What builders actually impress you as doing or trying to be different?

RM – Those people who only copy or re package would probably design something new if they could. It’s very sad that many leading manufacturers have no new ideas and push the past as if it’s the future. It’s the only industry I know where this is tolerated and you can catch a cold by being too advanced. I really do not have any contact with any other designers or builders except at trade shows but see as much live music as I can and ask my associates and musician friends to bring to my notice anything new that they think I should know or hear. I do however associate with designers in other fields who are on the cutting edge of their own speciality and that keeps my faith for the future.

MGS – Where do you see the effects industry heading and how do you see RM fitting into that?

RM – The sound effects industry could be very important if it takes a path similar to that of the film industry in pioneering new techniques and FX. The two industries might become more linked as home cinema and 5.1 sound gets a strong foothold in the home. It’s only a matter of time before this will happen and all recordings will be using 5.1. We intend and are already committed to following an aggressive development path in the future of sound FX.

MGS – Have you seen the new Jimi modeling pedal? What are your thoughts on that and modeling in general? I played it and thought it was pretty bad to be brutally honest.

RM – My opinion of the Jimi pedal is not important. The public have ears and let them decide with their wallet. As to real time modelling I would like to make an analogy to your readers. Imagine you are beside a lake with an unpredictable wind blowing across the water and are holding a stone that you intend to throw into the lake. How could you possibly predict exactly what the pattern from the splash of the stone would be before you threw it into the lake also taking into account the effect of the unpredictable wind. You couldn’t possible compute it ever. There are too many unknown variables involved. One definition of music is that it is not a repetitive waveform and therefore cannot be analysed in real time, only after it has occurred. So there you have it. Game over. Always remember analogue is continuous information and digital is maths. Digital recording and processing is a case of not continuously recording or processing signal information but slicing the signal up as a series of ones or zeros. The subject of digital modelling tries to make itself credible and believable by conveniently forgetting the fact that you are trying to simulate or model something from basically an alien source that might or probably does not contain the necessary information you are trying to simulate. It is not possible to accurately extrapolate information from the various sources that do not contain it in the first place. All you can do is make global decisions about what has already passed and then apply various mathematical algorithms to them after a sufficient time or number of cycles has passed with no idea of what will happen next. This is what latency is all about. This applies whether you are trying to simulate a valve, loudspeaker or any effect, as you cannot possibly instruct you digital modeller what to do if nothing has happened yet. It must wait until an event has passed or idle in some state that was previously determined by a past event. Now also remember that the speed of processing is not the answer to all the problems as in the case of musical instruments or vocals you will have to wait for zero crossings of the wave form before you have any idea of what the frequency is and therefore what possibly to do. This brings us back to the lake and not being able to possibly predict the splash pattern.

MGS – I am a lot bigger Trower fan than Jimi. You did a rack vibe for him in the early 90s didnt you? Can you elaborate? Anything else for Robin? Id love to find one of those rack units.

RM – I used to make a rack model called the Supervibe which was an upgraded evolution inspired by the old Univibe chorus pedal and contained the tuning selection and other information that I gained from playing and analysing Jimi’s units which by the way were not particularly stable and suffered from an unregulated power supply. SRV also used the Supervibe with the same type of filter sections with improved components and circuit features. Robin also uses a few of my distortion boxes including the Mongoose as well a having a modified wah with the 9090 series card.

MGS – We have a mutual friend Calvin “fuzzy” Samuels former bass player for well you name it. For the record can you tell me when your relationship started? Did you know him when he was in the studio with Jimi for the first Stills solo album?

RM – We both have a mutual friend Junior Marvin who went on to be lead guitar for Bob Marley and the Wailers and Fuzzy and Junior brought us together a long time ago in the 70’s.

MGS – I get the feeling that RM effects does a ton of business in other countries besides the USA is that the case?

RM – Yes that is true and Japan has been our biggest customer since 1985. I really like the way the Japanese embrace new technology and have real excitement for new ideas. They love rock guitar and music and it’s refreshing to see enthusiasm for music.

MGS – If Jimi was still around do you think he would still be playing the same gear or something totally different?

RM- There is no doubt in my mind whatsoever that Jimi would continue his quest to improve and follow his vision of the sound landscape that he wished to create. As to the gear he would now use I feel that in no way would he remain static in that area and we often discussed the ways you can make sound appear to come from different spaces and this was carried out to the best of our ability in the studio recordings that were produced. I know the direction we were taking in making the music have lots of movement and texture and this is the area I feel Jimi would have moved into. This would lead naturally into having the ability to cross fade sounds live and add echo and any other effect live and this is what
we were always trying to do from day one. Being able to get instant feedback from instant control was important to us and is the fuel for creation, like bending a string but taken several steps further. As to the type of guitars, amps and pedals, Jimi always used what suited him on that day. So it’s pretty obvious that unless there was nothing new or better he would remain true to his favourites but knowing Jimi and his love for change he would have made sure somebody out there listened to him and made something better.