Eddie Kramer

Gaurdian of Jimi's Sound
Gaurdian of Jimi's Sound

People who think they know Jimi Hendrix’s music inside and out may have to think again. A new batch of compact discs being released this April might make you hear the legend’s music in a different light.

Let’s start at the beginning. You may remember Jimi’s family finally winning legal control of his recorded catalog. His father, Al, his half-sister, Janie Hendrix-Wright and her husband Troy Wright, then signed a worldwide licensing agreement with MCA Records.

“So What?” you say. “I already have all the Hendrix stuff on CD.”

Here’s the interesting part: Jimi’s work has never been put on compact disc with the material coming from first-generation original masters. It’s always been from inferior tapes mastered for different uses.

Add to that the poor treatment given Hendrix’s material from the people who formerly owned the catalog, like former Hendrix manager, the late Mike Jeffery, who cut material Hendrix was working on at the time of his death into several albums, to wring all the product out of it he could. Plus, the 21 years prior to 1995 saw over 20 albums released, some of it with new music added by studio players.

Lots of the stuff released was never intended for release, and was a shoddy representation of the man many consider the finest rock and roll guitarist ever.

Now, Experience Hendrix (which is what the family is calling the new company), and MCA hope to rectify this. Former Hendrix engineer Eddie Kramer was brought in to master the tapes. He and Hendrix historian John McDermott found the flat master in a variety of odd places and in boxes marked with the wrong labels. They will be releasing First Rays of the New Rising Sun along with remastered versions of Are You Experienced, Axis Bold as Love, and Electric Ladyland. First Rays of the New Rising Sun is the project Hendrix was working on when he died. Most of the material has been released before, but in a scattershot manner. Kramer thinks this release will be close to what Jimi wanted.

Vintage Guitar spoke with Eddie Kramer about the releases, and other topics. The gracious Englishman worked us around his lunch as he talked about recording with Jimi, his favorite tracks, and the Hendrix legacy.

Vintage Guitar: You must be excited by this series of CDs…

Eddie Kramer: Very much so. It was an incredible labor of love.

How long have you guys been working on it?

Well, basically what happened, we – John McDermott, myself, the family, and Troy – once the legal shenanigans had subsided, actually had the rights to the material, [so] we started assembling, or rather, reassembling the library and trying to make some sort of sense out of it. And, you know, we found a lot of stuff missing, which we tried to fill in the gaps, which we have done. In doing so, we also cataloged it and copied it to make sure there were safety copies of everything. It was an arduous task of matching numbers and looking at titles and finding out what was what…what’s supposed to be there. We discovered, in the process, the tapes that they should have been using, because nobody bothered calling me, you know, in the last 25 years, and said ‘Hey, you wanna come in and re-master Jimi’s work? ‘ I would have loved to have done it.

Nobody ever contacted you during that time?

No, and so they were using the wrong bloody tapes! In the mastering process, in the old days, we would take a tape, up it on the machine and equalize it, compress the signal and make corrections for the disk (record) format, which was, and is, a pretty primitive process. It’s easier now to cut good records, but in those days it was very tough. Vinyl was pretty crappy, and there wasn’t the sophistication of computer control for getting the grooves crammed in. At best, this EQ tape copy was a compromise to make the most of a somewhat-flawed system, if you see what I mean. Now, leap forward into the ’80s, here come CDs and what do the record companies do? They use their stupid EQ tape copy that’s got all the corrections in it for disk (records). That’s not the way to do it. In turn, those tapes were copied again and again. So you ended up with second and third-generation EQ tape copies that sound like crap.

So people with Hendrix CDs literally have third and fourth-generation copies?

Well, that’s what it would appear. Yes.

And this new series of CDs should set the record straight?

Well, what we did, we went back to the original masters for the most part, and found tapes that were very clean…

And were in some odd places too, right?

Yeah, yeah…let me tell you it was great to put up Electric Ladyland and look at tape boxes with Jimi’s original handwriting on. It was a thrill.

What do the new CDs sound like, to you, compared to the previous releases?

Well, basically, if I can sort of tell you the story of what we did when we brought the tapes into Sterling Sound. George Marino, who was the mastering engineer and a dear friend of mine. I’ve known him for 20 years or so…he and I decided right off the bat we were going to stick as closely as possible to the original tapes and not go overboard with EQ. But rather, do anything in the analog domain that’s possible. Obviously, we chose a nice machine to play them back on and individually corrected the Azimuth (vertical and horizontal planes on the playback machine) to make sure that was done right. Each song was done individually. Each was treated very specifically. When we played the tapes with our processing, our EQ, which was all analog, against the Warner CDs and the previous MCA CDs, the difference was absolutely stunning. It was as if someone had lifted a veil from in front of the speakers.

That much difference?

Big difference! Huge difference…and you can definitely hear it. And, of course, we did it in vinyl, too. We’re putting out the original gatefolds, the original covers. None of this other crap that was out there.

That sounds great. You’re not too fond, it sounds like, of some of the other stuff that’s been released?

That goes without saying. Some of that stuff was pretty ty.

Let’s talk a bit about First Rays of the New Rising Sun.

Well, it basically was The Cry of Love with seven extra titles. They’re all interrelated and I think this is pretty close to what Jimi would have wanted.

And, I think that’s a pretty big point, especially with what we’ve said about the last 20 years.

Yeah, we’ve got his notes about First Rays of the new Rising Sun and we also know for a fact that these songs fit. I mean, I was there for the cutting of these songs. They fit together as a body of work that is meant to be together.

And it hasn’t been till now. Should be a lot of fun for Hendrix fans.

Oh, it’s great. When you hear this…I play this for people and the hair on the back of my head stands up! It’s so cool.

Let me ask you something from the engineering end. Hendrix certainly was the kind of guy who liked to go out on a limb and look for new sounds. How much fun was that for you, as an engineer?

Well, in the beginning, Roger Mayer was a kid in those days. He was pretty inventive, especially with Jimi’s pedals, and he’d give them the extra little tweak, and Jimi was always trying to hotrod his guitars and trying to make them sound as evil as he could (laughs). And he did. They would walk in and start plugging in pedals and effects boxes, and I’d go “Yeah, check this out.” If Jimi had a sound in his head he would produce in the studio, then I was sort of able to make that sound and expand upon it and give it a little bit more. We didn’t have much at our disposal because, remember, we were four-track, so we only had tape delay, compression and EQ.

Boy, at times it certainly sounds like a lot more.

It may seem that way, but we had very little, especially in comparison to what we have today, where you push a button and things happen. In those days, you had to struggle, but I think that was the challenge of working with him. He was always coming up with some kind of wild sound out in the studio, which in turn inspired me to go crazier in the control room. We just sort of laughed and worked and liked what each other were doing. It was a sort of symbiotic process, I guess. We just enjoyed working together.

For historical context for our readers, you were there from the first album, right?

Yeah. I wasn’t there for the first single, “Hey Joe.” Right after that, they were pretty unhappy with the sound, and they wanted to try Olympic, which was the studio I was working at. It was the new studio in town, and I was the new kid in town. The studio manager said “I’ve got this American guitar player, his name is Jimi Hendrix and he’s pretty wild. We’ll give him to Kramer because he does all the weird #$@* anyway.”

That’s an absolutely true story.

It wasn’t unusual that he didn’t care for the sound of some of his stuff, was it?

That was later on. What you’re probably referring to is Electric Ladyland. At that particular point, we were experimenting with all kinds of crazy, out-of-phase stuff, trying to get some 3-D effects, which we did, and you can actually hear it now on these CDs because there’s so much more definition. In those days, trying to cut that stuff on vinyl, well, I wasn’t around to do the supervising of the mastering because they wouldn’t let anyone in to the mastering! It was done, I think, over at CBS, and he complained bitterly, and justifiably so, because they really ed it up. It was very tough in those days to cut a lot of left-right information, very discreet information and a lot of out-of-phase content. I know what they were up against, but those guys were pretty conservative.

And obviously, the people working on the mastering weren’t involved in the day-to-day recording process.

Right, and most of these guys weren’t into Jimi’s music, so…

Is it my imagination, or does it seem from the first album to Axis, Bold as Love that there are pretty big leaps of sound?

That’s an excellent question. I’ll tell you what I’ve found, from a sonic point of view… I know there is from a musical point of view…listening to the albums one after the other, after what we had done to them. You start with Are You Experienced, go to Axis, then Electric Ladyland, then to the First Rays album, then Band of Gypsies, there’s an amazing change, certainly from one to two.

Are You Experienced was kind of a rough album. It was “bitty.” It was done in little bits in different studios, so I ended up with up-mixing on it, overdubbing on it, recording new tracks trying to put it all together. It was all very raw. But, when you get to Axis, that was all done in one place, at Olympic, and there’s a huge jump. I mean, the drums are in stereo, and things are starting to get a little better, sonically, and I think his musical horizons are expanding. But that’s not to say the first album is junk. The first album is genius, as all his records were. There were just different levels of genius.

Yeah, I don’t think any guitar player would argue with the statement the first album isn’t junk. But Axis always seems to be the one I pull out for my Hendrix fix.

Hey, it’s a fabulous album, and when you hear it now on the new CDs, you’ll hear a big, big improvement.

There’s some other new stuff too, right? Now that the family’s in control, people have been turning in tapes they’ve kept, up to this point, to protect.

Yeah, there’s been a lot of people coming out of the woodwork who just didn’t want to give the tapes to the previous owners and we’re definitely discussing it with the family and making deals with the family. There’s some wonderful stuff. We’ve heard some fabulous songs that haven’t been out before, and stuff that hasn’t been bootlegged, thank God. This stuff will all come out in good time. But, we’re only going to put out the very best. Rest assured, we’re not going to put out junk.

There certainly seems to be, for this whole effort, a real wish to “do things right” as far as the Hendrix legacy goes.

Yeah, we’re putting the library in the right context. We’re putting all the Hendrix material back on the shelf with the original covers, the way he wanted it, and hopefully sounding as good as or better than the original.

Philosophical question for you. What do you think makes Hendrix so popular after all this time? He’s been dead almost 27 years now.

Well, I think the main thing is he played with such feeling, such heart and such vivid imagination. And he was a maverick. He was a stand-alone character. How do you get any better than Hendrix? I don’t think there is anybody I’ve worked with, guitar playing-wise, and also from a musician standpoint. The man was a visionary and it’s pure, you know? It’s unadulterated. And I think kids pick up on that. And, I think each successive generation picks up on that. My 14-year-old daughter loves Hendrix. There was an intense four-year period of recording and creativity, and fortunately there’s a nice library full of tapes that gradually will all be brought out. People will keep listening to Jimi Hendrix for the next couple hundred years.

As long as there are guitar players, they’ll be listening to Hendrix. Let me ask you a question that’s speculated about a lot. Where was he heading if he lived?

Well, I think one has to look at the last body of work, which was the First Rays material. It definitely is a more R & B, more funky-oriented direction. But, I think at the point at which he unfortunately died, he was a little lost and I think he wanted to put the old team back together. He saw Chas a few days before he died. About a week before he died, he called me up. He wanted to come over with the tapes. I said “Jimi, I can’t. I just built you a beautiful million dollar studio.” He said “Oh yeah, yeah, yeah, right…I’ll be back there in a week, see ya.” But, he had a desire to get away from Michael Jeffrey, I know that. He wanted to change the team.

I think, had he been given the opportunity to take a year off, which is probably what he should have done, he would have re-evaluated his situation. He would have woodshedded some more…probably got in with the avant-garde and sort of jazz-rock fusion guys. I could have seen him collaborating with Miles Davis, which although it failed the first time…it never really occurred, I’m sure he would have gone for that. He would have expanded his horizon musically by incorporating horns and woodwinds and strings. I think had he lived through to today, he would be right there with the best of hip-hop, dance, rap, sampling …everything. There is nothing he would not have incorporated into his music.

You mentioned Chas Chandler (for-mer Animals bassist who helped get Hendrix in the limelight and helped to guide his early career) earlier. From what I’ve read, you obviously think highly of him?

Oh, absolutely. What’s there not to be favorable about?

He helped Jimi’s career a great deal, in your eyes?

Well, he was the architect. If it wasn’t for Chas, I don’t think Jimi would have been quite as big. I think Chas was absolutely instrumental in helping Jimi get his career launched.

Was it always a Strat in the studio? I’d better ask that one since this is a guitar magazine.

Well, Strats were the main workhorse. That’s not to say he didn’t use Flying Vs. I even have a picture of him playing a Les Paul Junior in the studio.

That would be odd to see.

Yeah, he’s in the middle of a horn section. It’s pretty wild. The picture’s in my new book. But, you know he had a sitar/guitar, he had Vs…he had tons of Strats. Those were the main guitars.

Do you have any favorite tracks, albums or solos you enjoyed the most?

Hmmm…I loved them all, but the songs that probably are my personal favorites are “Little Wing,” studio and live, either or, but probably the studio one even more so…”Voodoo Child” because it’s such a great live track. You know, it’s live vocals, live everything. Nothing overdubbed on that. I would say probably “1983” only because it’s mixed as a performance mix all the way through together. I have favorites on every album, but we could be here a year talking about them.

And we could have been there for a year, but Kramer had lunch sitting there, getting cold. It should be noted that he’s been working on some other items recently too, some involving Hendrix, including a special slated for broadcast April 18 on VH-1. It’s a documentary called The Making of Electric Ladyland. He’s also been working on a film called Festival Express, which features what he calls “terrific performances” by the likes of Janis Joplin, the Band, Grateful Dead, and Traffic.

As far as records go, he’s been in the studio with original Spin Doctors’ guitarist Eric Schenkman, recording music they hope to release later this year.

Kramer says anyone interested in Hendrix should check out a couple books he and John McDermott have written. The first is Setting the Record Straight, which he says goes behind the scenes. And the most recent release is Jimi Hendrix Sessions. Eddie is also at work on a solo book called From the Other Side of the Glass, which he says will feature lots of photos of him at work with bands like the Rolling Stones, Traffic, Led Zeppelin, Kiss, and of course, Hendrix.

Kramer has also recently picked up a couple of guitars he was thrilled to get. Fender just did a replica of the Strat Hendrix burned at Monterey. You might remember it had paintings on it, done by Hendrix. Kramer says Fender duplicated it wonderfully, and it plays great. He also got one of the Limited Edition Black Flying Vs Gibson released last year. He loaned it to Schenckman, who didn’t want to give it back. Kramer doesn’t have any other instruments, but was pleased to be doing the interview with Vintage Guitar because, he said, “I’ve seen a few in my time.”

In the next few months we’ll review the four CDs to see how they sound. Audiophile 180g “heavy vinyl” versions hit the stores April 8. Hendrix music actually still sells over two million units per year, more than some so-called superstars. These releases should add to the number and put his musical legacy in sharp detail.

Eddie Kramer. Photo by Chuck Pulin.

This interview originally appeared in VG‘s May ’97 issue.