How Jimi Hendrix Got the Record-Scratch Sound on ‘Are You Experienced’
When Jimi Hendrix broke onto the London scene in ’66, he caught people’s attention for a number of reasons. Obviously, his highly personal style of dress (not to mention his skin color) stood out. But his dazzling guitar technique and over-the-top stage tactics really sent people into hysterics (both the good and bad kind).
Yet Hendrix and his bandmates were only getting started. “Hey Joe” and “Purple Haze,” the Experience’s first U.K. singles, introduced listeners to Hendrix’s vast talents. Then Are You Experienced (1967), the group’s debut LP, filled in the blanks.
On the title track, Hendrix pulled out all sorts of tricks, some of which sound (to modern ears) like a DJ scratching a record. Hendrix made those sounds with instruments in the studio. He just reversed the way they played back on the record.
Jimi Hendrix used sounds played backward on ‘Are You Experienced’
“Are You Experienced” jars listeners right from the opening bars, and the most disorienting effects come from a track played backwards that’s mixed in with the rest of the tune. The wall of backward cymbals create the sonic haze in the background, and the scratching sound is Hendrix working his pick along his guitar strings (a muting effect).
As Frank Moriarty explained in Modern Listener Guide: Jimi Hendrix, engineer Eddie Kramer sub-mixed a track the Experience played before transferring it in reverse onto one of four available tracks. That clash of the backward and forward sounds provided some of the song’s drama.
As for the droning, bell-like sound, that effect came from Hendrix playing a piano chord over and over. (Hendrix used an upright piano sitting in one of the rooms at Olympic Studios.) The band had many more surprises to come in the six-minute track.
Perhaps the most incredible thing Hendrix managed was the solo. He had to understand how his guitar work would sound played backwards when he recorded it. According to his biographers, Hendrix regularly listened to his recordings backwards so he’d know how to approach his performance. And he pulled it off relatively quickly.
Hendrix surpassed the Beatles’ experiment with backwards sound on ‘Rain’
Hendrix wasn’t the first to get backward sounds onto a pop album with the title track to Are You Experienced. The Beatles had done it the previous year on “Rain,” the excellent B-side to “Paperback Writer.” On that track, John Lennon sang a vocal that went onto the end of the song, played backwards.
The Beatles didn’t exactly succeed with their backward sound experiment on “Rain.” (In the promotional video for the song, Lennon doesn’t know what to do when the section comes up. So he laughs and tries to mime that part, too.) Hendrix took it to another level on “Are You Experienced.”
Instead of serving as a gimmick, the use of backward sound acted as a counterpoint. It gave Hendrix a basis on which to construct the brilliant closer to his debut album. With his ability to play off any musician or sound, Hendrix probably spent the most energy on making it sure the sound in his head made it onto the record. Kramer and the rest of the studio team helped him get it there.