Harvey Gerst has been a major-label musician (the Villagers, Sweetwater), hit songwriter (the Byrds), product designer (Acoustic, JBL), engineer, and producer. I his 60's, he repays his perceived debt to those who helped him by sharing his experience with novices on several Internet discussion forums. In response to one question about microphone diaphragm sizes, Harvey replied with a treatise on the history, design, and applications of microphones. He posted chapters over a period of months, complete with photos, graphs, and diagrams, all for free.
His son, Alex Gerst, is a rising star and award-winning producer. His early recordings generated interest that led to the creation of Indian Trail Studios. In recent years the Gersts have overhauled their small facility, nestled in Sanger, sleepy pastureland about 30 miles north of Dallas, Texas. They've constructed a large live room with design suggestions from George Augsperger, cut out a wall to haul in an 11-foot MCI JH-556D mixing desk, and soffit-mounted a pair of 7-foot tall full range custom JBL monitors.
You began as a guitarist.
H: At about 17, I discovered folk music and started playing in clubs. My best friend was working at JBL and got me a job there. I started learning about speakers and amplifiers. One day I said, "Why don't we come out with a line of musical instrument speakers?" The boss said, "Okay. Go do it!" That's what became the D130f, and the 120f. Meanwhile I'm running sound at clubs, hanging around with Roger McGuinn, Dick Rosmini, Rick Ruskin — giants of guitar. I learned very quickly that I wasn't a great guitar player. I was good at rhythm 'cause I knew all these jazz chords. We'd be playing and they'd go, "Take it, Harvey!" and I'd go, "No!" I was happier playing rhythm. I was no threat to anybody. I was in a group called the Men. Roger McGuinn used to hang out when we were playing at the Troubadour. We were the only ones that loved The Beatles. Everybody in the folk community hated rock 'n roll. Roger and I sat down and wrote a couple songs. Next he started the Jet Set, then the Beefeaters, and then the Byrds. The first two songs they did were the two that he and I had written. All of a sudden I'm getting a gold record and royalties. I quit the Men, and they changed their name to the Association.
Everyone knows it's "Wendy"?
H: And "Cherish", "Along Comes Mary". I was still designing speakers and living off of Byrds' royalties. A friend of mine says, "I'm sales manager of this amplifier company, Acoustic Control. Come check it out." I go play the amp and say, "This is the worst I've ever played!" A week later my friend quit cause he couldn't sell 'em. I went back to the owner of the company and said, "I don't think I impressed upon you how bad these amps really are." By that time the place was deserted. His father was fronting him money. He said, "Well, what would you do?" I told him, and the next thing I know, I've been there for eight years designing Acoustic amps. [I took] one year off. I heard this group called Sweetwater. A friend said, "God they're terrible!" I said, "No, with a bit of work they could be a major group." He bet me, so I took off for a year, got them management, got them a record contract with Warner Brothers. They opened for Joplin and Hendrix and the Doors. I ended up as their guitarist for two years.
How did you end up in Texas?
H: About four years later, Alex was born. I guess it was about '70. Jim Morrison died. Jimi Hendrix died. Janis Joplin died. [Alan Wilson] from Canned Heat died. I'm looking around and thinking, "This is not a healthy place to raise a family." I talked to the guys at Roland and said I want to get out of L.A. They said, "Want to be a rep?" I thought, sure why not? I stayed for about eight months in Holliston, Massachusetts, and hated it. In the meantime, I got a Tandy TRS 80 computer. I was really burned out on the music business. In '78 I happened to see that Tandy in Fort Worth was looking for somebody to write manuals for their new TRS 80 computers. I'd done manuals for Acoustic, JBL, and others. I called Tandy and sent them all my brochures. The guy in charge of computer applications is a keyboard player. Guess what amp he owns?
H: Right. Next thing I know, a big van liner arrives, loads me up, and hauls me down here to Texas! I worked there five years. One day I'm walking in downtown Fort Worth, about 1987, and coming the other way is Jerry Freed, president of International Music Company, the North American distributor of Akai. They owned Jackson, Charvel, Ross, and others. As we get closer, he finally goes, "Harvey?" I said, "Hi Jerry." "What are you doing in Texas?" I said, "I've been here for nine years working for Tandy." He hands me his business card and says, "We're down the street. Be in my office Monday morning, eight o'clock." I walk in, and he said, "We need a new Director of Electronics and you're it." I started cranking out products for them. I went to my first NAMM show after nine years absence. I renewed these old friendships and got back in the music industry. I lasted at International Music about two years. Jerry Freed was a slave driver. I was working seven days a week, fourteen hours a day. When I left I was writing a manual for the Akai 1214, and I had one at the house that uses the Beta tapes. I bought that and an Akai F900. We moved out here to Sanger about '87. Alex was about eighteen and had been in a few bands. We had our little home studio for demos with Karen and me, and occasionally Alex's band. Alex worked for this audio rental place, and everybody there was in a band. They were all bringing in cassettes of their bands' recordings at studios around Dallas. Alex would play them his tape and just blow everybody away. They'd all go, "Wow! Where'd you do that?" "My dad's bedroom." They'd say, "Can we record there?" I had decent mics, a $10,000 Akai unit, and some pretty rudimentary equipment, but I knew how to use it. Alex kept saying, "We really ought to open this thing up to the public." And I said, "I really don't want to."
When was this?
A: This was like '92. All the demos from studios around here sounded awful. Ours were just so much better that bands just started coming in. We never advertised at first.
H: I don't want to charge by the hour, though we do make that option available now. Initially we'd charge bands $50 a song, and you'd get a finished product. Because every studio I'd go to in Dallas, money was a big focus. When I was in L.A., you didn't think about money in the studio! You'd concentrate on the music. I wanted to get that kind of feel. Have 'em pay the money up front and then we don't think about it anymore. Slow Roosevelt took off like a shot — they're signed to Sony now.
A: They helped finish the room. I've been working with those guys since '95 when they formed. We'd started Slow Roosevelt in the small room because they had a deadline. We ended up with the drum kit in there and ran a snake out to the new console. While Mike, Dad, and Karen were wiring the new room, the drummer was playing in the small room with the rest of the band out in the living room for ambience. By the time we finished the second song, we were ready to move the whole operation into the big room. The night before, we turned everything on once — okay this works — and said good enough.
H: I'm on the phone with George Augsperger. George and I lived in the same building when we worked at JBL. He went on to teach acoustics at the University of Chicago, and later started a company called Perceptions Incorporated. They've done most of the major studios around the world. I called him and he said, "Here's some stuff you can do." This is the only "George Augsperger" room in North Texas.
But you guys had the small room running for years before that?
A: Since about '92. We always wanted a bigger space. Harvey and Karen got a new place. As soon as they moved out, we tore all the walls out from here back [indicates the entire building beyond the small room]. I called every band I knew with someone in construction, and they all came out. Bands built this whole thing.
The small room was the birth of Indian Trail, which was started with the 12-track?
A: Initially. Then we went 24-track with the [Tascam] DA38s. We were the launch pad for a lot of bands that are getting noticed these days.
H: When it came time to put the speakers in the new big room, I had the ones JBL's chief engineer had designed and hand-made himself. We can do serious mastering on it. They're flat from 27 Hz to 22 kHz, plus or minus one dB. No subs needed.
You did a mic once at IMC, right?
H: The mic I designed back in '87 is a forerunner to all the inexpensive mics you see now. It was a four-pattern microphone with a 10 dB pad and a bass roll-off — $349 suggested list. I built prototypes. We advertised in Mix magazine. We took it to AES and NAMM. Everybody wanted 'em, but Jerry Freed didn't want to get in the mic business. I was just puking, because I had done this all on my own time. I was talking to my friend Dick Rosmini back in California. He said, "I'm consulting for Astatic, and they're looking for an inexpensive microphone design. Can I use it?" I said sure and sent him all the schematics. He said, "That's really clever. You'll get credit for it." Next thing I know, Astatic, which owns CAD, comes out with the E200! I called Dick and he said, "Yeah, that's your mic." So I asked "Could I get a pair of them at least?" He said, "Should be easy. Just tell 'em who you are. I told 'em who the idea came from." I couldn't get anybody to return my phone calls.
Having heard the E200, how good a job did they do with your design?
H: They didn't do a great job of it. I'd found a company in Taiwan that made a little cardioid 1/2 inch capsule. You got a tray of 100 capsules and there were maybe twenty that were killer. If you matched these up, you got something that did sound very similar to a Neumann U87 with all the patterns. I like to think I was in some small way responsible for bringing the prices down. At that time the cheapest multi-pattern microphone was the AKG 414 at $1,400. It made these companies look at lower price alternatives. When I do these [online] reviews I keep a little more open mind about mics. I kinda backed into becoming a reviewer. When we got the [Neumann] TLM103, the first review I ever did, I cut a whole record with it. That was on the first R.A.P. CD [a collection of recordings made by members of the rec.audio.pro discussion board]. Everybody on rec.audio.pro was asking if anybody had heard the TLM103. I got one from Fletcher's first batch. I was producing this alt-country guy, and I thought here's a quick way to test the mic. If I time it just right I can get this in as my contribution to the compilation. I'll do everything with the TLM103 — vocals, violin, guitars. Everybody that heard it went, "Whoa! Cool mic!" Then Fletcher says, "You guys really ought to hear this [FMR] RNC." He was the first one that really turned everybody in the industry on to it. Based on what he said, and the fact they were $199, I ordered one directly from Mark McQuilken. At the same time I'd struck up a friendship with the Neutrik rep for Texas, and he said, "Wanna play with our test station?" It measures frequency response, distortion, everything. I got set up with this $5,000 acoustic test station. I opened my mailbox one morning and there's the RNC. I thought, let's see what this thing can really do. I set it for minus 6 dB threshold and looked through the scope. I checked the noise level. It was minus 137 dB. Whoa! I switched the Neutrik to wideband, which was zero to 200,000 cycles [Hz]. I'm sweeping this thing with 6 dB of compression on it all the way out to 200,000 cycles, and it's still at zero! The RNC's literature only claims out to 100 k and a noise rating of minus 120 dB. So I checked for distortion. It claims .003. It measured .0000012! I called up McQuilken and said, "I just bought one of your RNCs. I have an A2 test station here, and I'm getting some weird results." He says, "Like what?" "Well, you claim the thing is 1 dB down at 100 k. I'm sitting out here at 200 k, and I see maybe a quarter of a dB?" He said, "That's about right." "You claim minus 120 dB noise level. I'm reading minus 137." He said, "That's typical." "Well, for distortion you claim .003, and I'm getting .0000012." He said, "Yeah." I said, "Why aren't you printing those results?" He said, "Because nobody would believe it." So I got on rec.audio.pro and told this story, and his sales shot up.
You also wrote about the Oktava mics from the Sound Room.
H: People online would say they're crap. Taylor Johnson called me one day, introduced himself and said, "I'd like you to listen to these mics." I said, "Okay, but whatever I find I will print on rec.audio.pro — good, bad or otherwise." I wasn't crazy about the 219. The 319 wasn't bad. Then I get to the MC012 with the three capsules, and I went, "This is pretty nice!" Then I stuck the Lomo large diaphragm head on there and went, "Oh my God! This sounds like an old Neumann!" I dutifully report my findings and suddenly became the unofficial Russian microphone poster boy. At the next AES I met Brent Casey and said I'd really like to test all the MXL mics. We got them in December 2000, and I posted my impressions in January. Weston Ray, moderator from homerecording.com/bbs, brought that posting over to Home Rec. I recommended the V67, the 2003, and the 603s. Again, sales shot up times six.
When did you work with Al Schmitt?
H: In '63 while I was working for JBL and still playing folk music, I started a band called the Villagers. We were on tour playing Carnegie Hall, Preservation Hall, and Freedom Hall. I get a call from our manager saying, "Come back to L.A. I got you signed to RCA Victor." Al Schmitt was our producer, and we became friends. Flash forward a few years to Jefferson Airplane. Who's their producer? Al Schmitt. What amplifiers are they using? Acoustic. I also resumed friendships with Dave Lindley and Jackson Browne the same way. Dave used to play the folk clubs with me, and Jackson used to sleep on my floor. They end up being produced by Al and using Acoustic amps also. I got to hang out with Al in the control room on a lot of sessions. I learned a lot about mic technique and got to watch him twiddle knobs and listen to balances. We'd discuss stereo versus mono. I did demos at Sunset Sound, Goldstar, or with Dave Hassinger at Sound Factory with Linda Ronstadt. I'm hanging out at all these studios getting to know all these great engineers, and more importantly, occasionally twiddling knobs. I started doing some producing and engineering. I still play guitar and bass. Alex still plays drums.
A: Haven't lately.
H: He's been putting in 14-hour days here.
A: On some stuff I end up playing drums and engineering at the same time.
A: It's kinda tough. Usually I'll get Harvey in there to set the levels, or I'll get one of the players to test the drums while I set the levels and get the tone, then have someone else operate the board and tape machine while I play. I cut the drum tracks, then switch back to being engineer or producer.
H: The important thing for us, because we charge by the song, is to have the efficiency to move bands through quickly. That's why we invested in the headphone mixing stations for the tracking room. You can do your own headphone mix quickly. We don't wind up spending an hour just getting a mix for everybody. That's also why we have three sets of drums, two Les Pauls, a Fender Strat, an ESP, a Nashville six, a twelve-string, nylon strings, and a selection of amplifiers. We keep it all in immaculate condition. Drumheads are regularly changed out. For the guitars, we have a luthier, so our guitars all play like butter and stay in tune. We don't spend a lot of time trying to get their crappy equipment to work.
A: A lot of people come in with guitars that won't stay in tune. Of course it comes across in the recording — every defect in the equipment, especially on the drums. Most studios' weak point is their drum sound. That's where we specialize.
H: All our drums are tuned for the room.
A: Or for the songs. I'll tune them for the key of the song too.
Harvey, I know you like the Behringer ECM8000's as drum overheads. Is that a spaced pair?
H: Yeah. I usually put one over about halfway between the hi-hat and the crash. The other one usually sits almost directly over the back end of the ride or else right at the bell. I try to keep them to where they're still about the same distance from the snare.
Being omni patterns, are they pointing straight down?
H: Yeah. Omnis aren't completely omni. They do have a little bit of directionality to them with respect to high frequencies. Since with overheads we're talking about mostly cymbals, they're all high frequencies. It does give them a beautiful spread. The cymbal sounds we get I absolutely love, especially with the Behringers. On hi-hat for example, I'd probably go to the Stephen Sank mod'ed Beyer M260. Alex loves the [Shure] SM7. He'll mic the hi-hat from underneath and get a great sound!
Alex, you use the Marshall 603s on overheads more. Do you position them similarly?
A: It really depends on the amount of cymbals on the kit. I try to go for an equal balance. If the drummer has three cymbals on each side I may move one closer to the ride to try and accent it a little more. It really comes from the band though, and what kind of style they're going for.
H: One of the things I learned in L.A. is that engineers are chosen based on the drum sounds they got. We really concentrate on getting a great drum sound. That's one thing I think escapes a lot of studios, [where] you've got thirty minutes to set up the drums so I'll throw my usual mics on there. The usual mics don't always work. With our drum sets, we know approximately what we're going to use. We've got six different kick drum mics. Hell, I think we've got six different kick drums.
A: Five. I've got a bass drum for every occasion practically.
H: I learned in L.A. how to get a drum sound. I worked on a board where you had 12 channels going to a 2-track machine. If you had EQ at all you had these big pots with bass and treble. EQ was done with mics — what mic and where do you put it. If you couldn't get the sound with a mic after you'd played with placements for a while, you'd put it back and try another mic. Eventually you develop a feel for what the mic is capable of doing. You get to where you can just hear a drum set and think that would be good with mic X. It becomes second nature. You listen to the way the guy hits the snare and think, "Do I want the [Shure] SM57, or a Beyer 201, or maybe a 603 will really pick up some snap? On floor tom, do I want a [Sennheiser] 421, an [AKG] D112, or an [Audio Technica] AT25?"
A: Or an SM7!
H: I'm constantly recommending that one. It is one of the finest mics that Shure has ever made, along with the 57 and the [SM] 81. There's nothing better for country fiddle than the 81.
You've cited the SM7 as a good choice for rock vocals.
H: It is our default scratch vocal mic. I would say 25 percent of the vocal keeper takes end up being on the SM7.
A: This one band I'm doing, they have two vocalists. I tried 'em both on the 103 and it was just missing something. So I put one guy on the SM7 and it just worked perfect.
Dynamics get overlooked for vocals.
H: Like the 421. It was designed for vocals and broadcast. It just happens to handle 150dB without distorting! I love dynamics and omnis. And I love my ribbons! I've got four of the nicest ribbons you'll find in this area I think.
A: An [RCA] 44BX. An [RCA] 77DX. A Coles 4038.
H: A Beyer M260DX modified by Stephen Sank. I got the tapered [body]. Mike Rivers got the straight body on the first mic to get the Stephen Sank 77DX mod. When I heard it, I just went crazy and had to have one, so I got the second. I went to Stephen's house and watched him do it. That was such a learning experience. You know how thick the ribbon is? 7/10 of a micron! This is the original RCA die and ribbon material. Stephen's father designed the RCA mic. When they folded the division, his dad took the dies and a lot of the ribbon material with him. When you consider that a thin piece of paper is 20 microns thick, and this is 7/10 of a micron! Wes Dooley's booklet describing the Coles 4038 is 8 pages long. Seven of those list what not to do with a ribbon mic! Don't swing it on a boom arm. Keep it away from bass ports. Never take it outside. Don't open or close the case suddenly. Don't blow into it. Of course Alex stuck it in a bass drum.
A: More like at the end of a tunnel for the bass drum. And it worked. I mean it worked for the whole album!
H: I took it out one day and there's no output!
A: It must have happened after I took it down to put it back in the case. I had it positioned above the air hole of the bass drum and it was sitting far back. For 12 songs it sounded perfect.
H: Wes Dooley fixed it.
On discussion groups I hear a lot of emphasis on gear, and I'm reminded that without a good song to record in the first place, we're screwed!
H: Good equipment can't fix a bad song! Yesterday on a forum someone was asking what mic to use, and I said, "Actually, I'm not that fussy about microphones." If you know what you're doing, the equipment isn't that big a factor. I've heard stories from people who worked with Al Schmitt where he said, "I want a [Neumann] U67 there." The assistant says, "All we've got left is an SM57." Al says, "Okay, throw that on there. It'll work." That's the key — he makes it work. People get so pigeonholed into thinking this mic has to go here, etc., till they lose sight of experimentation. One trick Alex and I developed while working on a heavy metal mix — the singer sounded good but the vocal just didn't sound right. I realized that everything else in the mix had at least a little bit of distortion to it, except for this nice clean vocal. I grabbed the SansAmp, routed the vocal through it, and started adding distortion. The voice dropped into the slot and suddenly sounds about ten times bigger. It's all about listening to the music and realizing what you need to do to make everything work. That comes with experience, trial and error, and talent. I have to work at it. Alex has a natural talent. He doesn't even look at the control surface. He just starts turning things and they sound right. I can hear what he's doing while I listen with eyes closed, and I'll say, "Right there," and he's already done it. He doesn't know as much technical stuff as I do.
You share a lot of knowledge on forums geared toward amateurs. Is there such a thing as a question that's just too stupid, and what is the best mic for under $300?
H: Every mic has little peaks and dips in response. If your source happens to excite the wrong peaks or dips, it'll sound terrible. It may even just be a particular key that does it for a certain mic. So, when somebody says, "What's the best," it's an impossible question. The only accurate answer can be, it depends on what else you got and what are you doing with it. The only way I can tell if it's the best mic for your voice is to listen as you sing through it. The stupid things, to me, are when somebody tries to defend their ignorance. "I like this, and I don't care what anybody else says." If you can't hear the difference, then you don't need to worry about it. When people say, "I like the [AKG] C1000 for overheads." I say fine. It does have the advantage that you can stick a battery in there — not a bad feature if you need that. For me, I'd rather have my fingernails pulled out at the roots. I haven't been able to get the C1000 to work well but for a couple of things. This was on one singer and his guitar. Should I keep this microphone when that's the only time that guy will record here? I got rid of it. Got rid of the Alesis 3630. Tried out an AKG 414BULS for a couple weeks. Didn't like it. To me every one of those I've ever heard sounded overly bright, like AKG went out of their way to put this one capsule in everything, the 2000, 3000, 4000, the Solid Tube. I guess they shrank it down and put it in the C1000 too. Some of the Audio Technica stuff I love. Their kick drum mic is wonderful, and the lavaliere, the AT831B, wonderful guitar mic — fits right in the sound hole.
We were talking about rave reviews of inexpensive new mics. You said if it's the listener's first large diaphragm condenser and their only other mic was an SM57, they might lack the basis to make a real comparison.
H: Number one, with the 57 you're talking about a minus 59 dB output, [which] takes a lot of gain to crank it up. You plug in a 2001, an NT1, or one of these condenser mics, and they've got like minus 36dB. They're a lot more sensitive. Because of the way the diaphragm is tensioned, they tend to have a lot more top end. On a one-inch condenser, you'll always have a little peak in the 5-8k range. If you're not used to hearing a peak that high, you go, "Wow! Listen to that detail!" and start talking about "Crystal clear" and "Etched". Those to me are warning signs that say, "We've got some peaks happening here." Because they're new to the process and all they've heard is a 58 or 57, they may mistake peakiness for quality, and it doesn't really sink in for about a year. As their ears become educated, they begin to realize, "Hey, this thing's got problems."
You don't know any better if you lack a true frame of reference.
H: That's what's nice for me. I've used the U47 and the U67. I know Stephen Paul and the way he thinks about microphones. I've designed a few. I've watched Al Schmitt set up mics. You get to hear these little subtleties after a while. Over the years, there's not much difference in speakers and microphones. There's always going to be quality and the people who care about it. There's going to be tweaks you can perform to improve things, assuming you can tell good from bad. Unfortunately, most of the magazine reviews I read, you can't tell anything from them. You have to be careful what you write. People online will say, "I hear you got the new line of Studio Projects mics. What do you think of them?" I can't do that. I can't just plug it in and go, "Hello, hello." Sounds dark. I try to really listen and give an exact, honest appraisal of what I think — what it's useful for, what I don't like as well as what I do. Like the Marshall 600 — gorgeous looking mic, $300 list. I listened to it and thought, "What are they thinking?" Then I found the 603 and went, "Whoa! This is a $99 mic? This thing sounds killer." I sent a 603 to Al Schmitt to listen to, and he was surprised at how nice they were.
In Oktava's case I think a lot of people got a first-hand taste of the quality control problem.
H: There was a problem there. Taylor Johnson walked me through their whole operation and all the extra steps The Sound Room takes. He'll send back a lot of the mics he gets. For me it was a no-brainer. I had to get mine from The Sound Room.
Give us a mix tip.
H: You must open up space for the vocal. Sometimes what I'll do is start a mix with everything down but the vocal and bring in one element at a time. Anytime I add something and notice the vocal drop a bit in level, I'll pull back whatever I just added. Those things can be panned hard left or right, or you might try a frequency cut, maybe lose 'em altogether. You've got to be aware of what you want the end product to sound like, and not get caught up in the shortsighted vision of what you want one instrument to sound like.
I designed the Charvel and Jackson amps and Ross PA systems. I worked with Harold Rhodes on the original Rhodes piano. I collaborated on the Morley pedals. I worked for Peavey and Gibson.
Was it Acoustic you were working for when you first met Jimi Hendrix?
I got a call on Saturday morning from Steve Marks, the president of Acoustic, saying, "Go down to TGG right now!" Why? "Jimi Hendrix just bought four of our amps and he's having trouble with some of the controls." I'd seen Jimi, but had never had the chance to talk to him. I showed him what he wanted to know about the amp. Then I said, "Here's another thing they can do. Let me borrow your guitar." We're both left-handed. I go to show him this feature, and his strings are like, medium gauge. I'm used to extra super slinky. And they're way up from the fret-board. I hand it back to him and say, "I can't play this. Let me go get mine." Mine was the Acoustic Black Widow, [with] twenty-four frets to the body, so you can play two full octaves. The heel doesn't start until after the 24th fret. One of the techniques Hendrix used was to shut the volume knob down, hit the chord and then bring up the volume. Your finger sat right there. And the toggle switch was angled to hit your strum. Neat guitar! I walk in, take it out and show him the neat little thing. He's not even listening. He's just staring at my guitar. It's left-handed. He's got nothing but right-handed Strats. When I finished showing him some things, he just held out his hands and said, "Gimme." He starts playing that thing, starts tape rolling, and I'm going, "Why do I even play guitar?" He finishes playing. I answered all his amp questions, and said, "I gotta go. Can I have my guitar back?" He says, "My guitar." I say, "No, that's my guitar." He starts laughing and says, "Not anymore! Now it's my guitar!" I say, "Hey look, I'm not a salesman. I play in a band, Sweetwater. What am I gonna use?" He points at the floor where four of his white Strats are laid out and says, "Help yourself!" Of course I wanted another Black Widow. I called Steve Marks and told him what happened. He said, "He wants it? Give it to him! Don't worry. You'll get one back!" I take one of Jimi's Strats to use. Like a dummy, I didn't have him sign it. I'm gonna play this guitar on the road, and I hate it! The action's up way too high. The damn knobs are getting under my arms because it's upside down. Every time I strum I hit the volume knob. Can't keep the damn thing in tune. I put super slinky strings on, and it made the bridge even worse, and now the action's even higher. I'm having to intonate this damn thing every night! I go through a set of strings in one playing. Finally, a month later my Black Widow comes in. I ran into Jimi in the airport in Oakland, and asked him "How are you liking the Black Widow?" He says, "I love it! It's my studio guitar." I said, "Well, I finally got my new Black Widow in, so here's your Strat back." He stared at me for a second, then said, "Huh?" I said, "Here's your Strat. I don't need it anymore." "Oh. Okay." It wasn't till a few years later I was telling this story that it hit me. He wasn't EXPECTING me to give the Strat back. He was GIVING it to me! And I, like an idiot, gave it back to him-one of the first four Strats he owned. What's it worth today? About $500,000. While I had it, Sweetwater was playing a theater that had no sound system. I had an Acoustic cabinet and a powered unit, so we'd use that for a PA. That left me without a guitar amp. Phil Fry of Fry Music, an Acoustic dealer in Phoenix, opens up his store after hours and says, "Pick an amp." There in the corner is a gorgeous Marshall stack with eight 12 [inch speakers]. "That one." I get up on stage, and I'm thinking, "I've got a Marshall stack and I'm playing Hendrix's guitar." At one point I'm supposed to come in and hit this note just full out and hold it and let it feedback. I walk over to the Marshall and crank every knob to eleven! The song starts off with vocals, bass and keyboards. I'm thinking, "This is SO cool!" Comes the point I step forward a little bit and I crank the knob wide open, hit the chord, and it goes "dink". Everybody's looking at me like, "dink?" I hit it again and "dink". It was totally clean! The Acoustic amps I usually played through all had built-in fuzz tone. Hendrix used two fuzz pedals wired in series. The Marshalls didn't have a bunch of gain even at full volume. The later ones did, after they put in the gain control. I must have had the funniest look on my face. I'm ramming the guitar into the cabinet trying to get some feedback, and with all my gyrations, I musta looked like Hendrix! No sound is coming out! I think that's when I got really soured on Hendrix's guitar. I was so embarrassed.
In the photo from the '69 Miami Pop Festival you look like David Crosby's wilder kid brother.
Sweetwater had just played the Fillmore East with Stephen Stills and Mike Bloomfield, who had just done Super Session. Funny you mention Crosby, because the Miami Pop Fest was really the first big show CS&N did, before Woodstock. Sweetwater played the first day. This was a huge racetrack. It held 40,000 people, and it was packed. We had a top 40 hit at the time. When we finished our set we got a standing ovation. 40,000 people standing and cheering for YOU is a sight not to be believed. The picture you mention was in Focus magazine up in Boston. I'm coming off stage clutching my guitar and grinning ear to ear. It was such a rush! The thing I remember thinking back to those times is how cool it is playing to an audience that really appreciates you.