RELOADING MACHINE GUN
by Frank Moriarty
Jimi Hendrix's tone during the song "Machine Gun," recorded live at the Fillmore East in New York in 1970, is one of the shining moments in the history of the electric guitar. For Guitar Shop I had the pleasure of examining the "Machine Gun" sound while attempting to recreate it using some of today's available guitar effects. Here's what happened...
It is December, 1969. In preparation for two nights of shows scheduled for New Year's Eve and New Year's Day at the Fillmore East, Jimi Hendrix, bassist Billy Cox, and drummer Buddy Miles -- the grouping that came to be known as Band of Gypsys -- have gathered in Manhattan to rehearse new material.
Following a fifth run through the new song "Who Knows," Hendrix asked a question that could easily have applied to not just that tune, but the entire Band of Gypsys project.
"Do you think it's gonna work, just messing around with it? Just for a loose jam?"
No one could have known that just days later Cox and Miles would provide the support for what many feel is the crowning achievement of Jimi's brief career, if not the ultimate example of the potential of the electric guitar. During the first set of the January 1, 1970 performance at the Fillmore, Hendrix unleashed a staggering rendition of a new song called "Machine Gun."
Of all the recordings of Hendrix in concert, "Machine Gun" best displays Jimi's immense talent and his brilliant usage of effects. Striving to convey the terror of war, Hendrix pushed himself and his equipment to the limit as he built a towering and complex sonic sculpture. Notes plucked on Jimi's black Stratocaster travelled through his effects and amplification, emerging only after being transformed into harrowing, extreme sounds that were unlike any others ever created with any musical instrument.
While "Machine Gun" appeared with regularity in Hendrix sets up until his death, it is the gut-level intensity of this early version that has withstood the test of time. Originally released on Capitol Records in April, 1970, Band of Gypsys captured the Fillmore "Machine Gun" for posterity. Just re-mastered and re-released on CD by Capitol after a long domestic absence, "Machine Gun" is once again available to amaze today's guitarists.
But what if you want to do more than just listen to "Machine Gun?" Can guitarists still find the tools needed to build that awesome analog tone? Contemplating such a task evokes feelings similar to those a mountain climber must feel at the foot of Mount Everest.
The ammunition for Jimi's "Machine Gun" can be found in the effects chain Hendrix used that night. The effects, when combined with Jimi's vast musical ability, resulted in lethal firepower. In order, Jimi ran his Fender's signal through a Vox wah pedal, a Roger Mayer Axis fuzz, a Fuzz Face, a UniVibe, and finally a second Mayer pedal, the Octavia.
The characteristic Hendrix sound is highlighted by the use of the Octavia and UniVibe. The Octavia made its first appearance on the Are You Experienced? album, and its upper octave generation can be heard on Hendrix classics like "Purple Haze." The UniVibe's debut in the company of Jimi came at one of the most heralded rock events ever, Woodstock. Its unique wavering sound -- an attempt to imitate a rotating Leslie organ speaker that instead resulted in uncommon sonic qualities -- would play a important part in Jimi's performances and studio work for the rest of his career.
In order to best recreate the complex "Machine Gun" voodoo, one needs to look beyond the mass-market effects easily found in every music store. Today, there are talented effects builders making high quality, unique effects that capture the best elements of the pedals from Jimi's career.
While Octavias have continued to be made available by Mayer, UniVibes have become scarce since production of them ceased in the 1970s. Dunlop has announced plans to offer their own production of a UniVibe this year, but Fulltone Custom Effects has been marketing a custom pedal called the Deja'Vibe that has found its way into the paws of players like Robin Trower, Billy Gibbons, and Eric Johnson.
In search of the "Machine Gun" tone, we used a Deja'Vibe pedal in addition to a second Fulltone pedal called the "69." This fuzz is available with Germanium transistors, but we went with Fulltone's optional NPN BC108C transistor set up -- the same circuitry at Jimi's disposal that night at the Fillmore.
Also on hand was one of Prescription Electronics' very cool Experience pedals, providing additional fuzz capabilities as well as octave and swell modes. A tried and true Vox V847 pedal held down the wah end of things, and a signed Roger Mayer Octavia contributed positive vibes as well as its unique sonic signature.
We began by mimicking Jimi's effects chain with a Stratocaster through the Vox, the "69," the Experience, the Deja'Vibe, and the Octavia, all fed through a Marshall head and 4x12 cabinet. When it was all powered up, what emerged was a startling -- and deafening -- recreation of the electronic firestorm of "Machine Gun."
Much of Jimi's control of his effects was achieved through manipulation of the volume control on his Strat, and we found this was essential to prevent total sonic chaos from breaking out. It took quite a bit of experimentation to discern what optimal settings were required -- for example, when first switched on the Octavia's gain was too high and tended to cancel out some of the frequencies we were looking for. But after a bit of high-volume dialing in, out Strat was painting dive bombs from the same high-octane sonic palette Hendrix used.
Despite the potent sound wash at our feet, the effects generated surprisingly little undersired noise -- a tribute to the quality built into the pedals. In fact, the only real noise was the tendency of the "69" pedal's special-order transistors to pick up radio signals, just like Jimi's Fuzz Face did at gigs like the Isle of Wight festival. Talk about authentic!
Our impressions of the pedals on an individual basis were that Fulltone's "69" yielded a warm, comfortable fuzz that formed a central core to the sound. The Deja'Vibe does an amazing job of recreating the UniVibe ambiance -- one created by photo-optic cells reacting to a pulsing light source -- but this pedal is enhanced with features like a nifty Heavy/Lite switch that controls the effect depth. And when switched from Chorus to Vibrato, the pedal offers a wild, sea-sick wobble tone.
Both the Vox wah and the Octavia are highly regarded classics, and a listen to Jimi's legendary recordings offers proof why. But for the guitarist looking for a versatile bargain in Hendrix-ware, the Experience pedal is a good place to start. A rich fuzz that can be processed through Octavia-like treatments is pretty handy to have in one pedal, but when you add in the spacey backwards-tape sounds you can create with the Swell feature the end result is a powerful, multifaceted box at a bargain price. That's characteristic of all Prescription Electronics devices, which range from the old-school fuzz of the Yardbox to the very cool Clean Octave Blend, a pedal that allows you to precisely dial in the amount of octave mania your tone seeks.
One thing all of the "Machine Gun" effects we tested had in common was a reliance on high quality components and an obvious love of craft that their builders bring to their products. The combination we used to get the "Machine Gun" tone surely isn't the only one that will come close, but, as always, when it comes to guitar effects experimentation is the key. That's a lesson that Jimi Hendrix knew well.
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