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Music

Inside the recording of the Jimi Hendrix hit song 'Purple Haze'

‘Purple Haze’ was the song in which Jimi Hendrix truly arrived on the music scene. He’d caught the eye with his dazzling live performances, and the first single by The Jimi Hendrix Experience, ‘Hey Joe’, peaked at number six on the UK charts. However, ‘Hey Joe’ was a cover written by Billy Roberts, and Hendrix was quick to tell the press that the band’s follow-up would be a different beast entirely.

He told one publication: “That record isn’t us. The next one’s gonna be different. We’re working on an LP which will mainly be our stuff.” Recording new material for their debut album, the band wrote future classics such as ‘Foxy Lady’, ‘Third Stone from the Sun’ and ‘Red House’. However, before too long, Hendrix and the band stumbled across a riff, one that would develop into one of Hendrix’s defining moments and the song that cemented him as a pioneering artist.

In December 1966, the band’s manager and producer, Chas Chandler, overheard Hendrix fooling around with new material: “I heard him playing it at the flat and was knocked out. I told him to keep working on that, saying, ‘That’s the next single!'”, he recalled.

Chandler implored Hendrix to develop the riff into a full-fledged song, and in the dressing room of a London venue before a gig on Boxing Day, it was done. Strangely, Hendrix discussed the origins of ‘Purple Haze’ numerous times over his life but never said where the track was actually written.

Fast forward a couple of weeks. On January 11th, 1967, the band started the recording process for ‘Purple Haze’ at De Lane Lea Studios. Per an account by drummer Mitch Mitchell, he and bassist Noel Redding learnt the song whilst in the studio: “Hendrix came in and kind of hummed us the riff and showed Noel the chords and the changes. I listened to it and we went, ‘OK, let’s do it.’ We got it on the third take as I recall.”

Amazingly, the basic tracks were captured in just four hours. New multitrack recording technology now allowed engineers to record and add additional parts for the final master, so after the basics were in place, the band had room to augment the song in any way they saw fit, and time pressures were alleviated.

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Chandler commented on the song’s development beyond the basic stages:
“With ‘Purple Haze’, Hendrix and I were striving for a sound and just kept going back in (to the studio), two hours at a time, trying to achieve it. It wasn’t like we were there for days on end. We recorded it, and then Hendrix and I would be sitting at home saying, ‘Let’s try that.’ Then we would go in for an hour or two. That’s how it was in those days. However long it took to record one specific idea, that’s how long we would book. We kept going in and out.”

Famously, Redding and Mitchell were not needed for the overdubbing process because Chandler thought that between him and Hendrix, they’d be able to finish the track in a more time-efficient manner. Wanting a better quality cut, Chandler took the four-track basic tape to Olympic Studios, where the overdubbing process was completed. This was to be a significant decision, as at Olympic, they were assigned the sound engineer Eddie Kramer, who would go on to be a defining influence on future tracks by Hendrix.

Hendrix added new vocals and guitar parts over the first week of February 1967. Striving to create something genuinely pioneering, Chandler made use of the new effects and sounds that were on offer. The Geordie mastermind enriched background sounds by playing them back through headphones, which were moved around a recording microphone creating “a weird echo”. Chandler also utilised sped-up guitar parts recorded at half-speed, which raised the pitch. Additionally, he also experimented with panning, which helped to give the iconic phantasmal feel to the background noises.

This experimentation would also be the birth of Jimi Hendrix’s signature sound. The wailing guitar solo was the first use of the Octavia guitar effects unit. It was created by sound engineer Roger Mayer and developed using Hendrix’s input. Doubling the frequency of the sound that is fed in gave the sound outputted an upper octave. Moving forward, Hendrix had found his style, and he was to inspire legions in the process.

In many ways, a shot in the dark, the studio experimentation combined with Hendrix’s genius songwriting ability ended up creating the musical icon we all love today. ‘Purple Haze’ was the first proper taste of all the wonders that were yet to come from the Seattle native.

Listen to ‘Purple Haze’ below.