Rock chronicles: Rock Chronicles. 1970s: Noel Redding

artist: Noel Redding date: 02/09/2008 category: interviews
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Rock chronicles: Rock Chronicles. 1970s: Noel Redding
When: Mid 1976 Where: This is another tough one to remember. Certainly somewhere in Los Angeles but it's impossible to recall whether it was a hotel somewhere or some record company office. What: This is as close as I ever got to Jimi Hendrix (he passed away a couple years before I began writing). Well, that's not strictly true. I did spend a couple hours with Mitch Mitchell once. But hearing these stories about Jimi was pretty excellent. The main thing I remember from this conversation is that Noel never felt intimidated in Jimi's presence. He truly felt he was Jimi's guitar equal. I found that astounding. Read on and see if you're astounded. It is inevitable when dealing with such a visible and emotional force as Jimi Hendrix that person who were close to him - and even played music with him - will be obscured, veiled by the once-in-a-lifetime chemistry that made up the man. Though Noel Redding may not leave behind a legacy of Jimi's magnitude - who could? - his contributions as bass player for The Experience have been immortalized on record, and one cannot overlook the important role he played. He has since gone on to play with various musicians, both as bassist and guitarist, and proven himself to be more than just that guy who used to play with Hendrix. Born in Folkestone, Kent, England, on December 12, 1945, Noel began playing violin at nine, while still in primary school, but soon abandoned this for the banjo. He took up the mandolin at twelve and for two years stuck with these instruments. At 14, he bought an old acoustic guitar for $12.00 and started playing skiffle (English jug band) music. Just one year later, Redding purchased an electric. It was black and white with one pickup and a Dallas amp. It was alright, it worked. He quickly formed a school band which performed versions of various songs originally made famous by The Shadows, the Ventures, Johnny Kid And the Pirates, and Shane Fenton and the Fentones (now known as Alvin Stardust). He did sing a little ('Tom Dooley' and things like that) but most of the material Redding was weaned on were instrumentals. Early influences included Buddy Holly, Cliff Richard, the Everly Brothers, and Eddie Cochran were also covered. I went to an art college when I was 15 and would play in the evening. And I think by that time I had a Burns guitar; it was an old one called a 'Tri-something' and had three pickups and a tremolo arm. I had a Swiss-echo echo chamber and a Selmer amplifier. Art school held Noel's interest for about 18 months before he made the decision to leave and become a professional musician. He purchased another Burns (custom-made) and traded in the Selmer for a Vox AC Super Twin and the Swiss-echo for a Binson unit. Working the club circuit in Germany, Scotland, and England, Redding went through several guitars - first a Gibson SG Special, then a Gibson Stereo that was broken and replaced with a Fender Telecaster. This was plugged into a Fender Bandmaster that he still sometimes uses. He actually recorded three singles for Pye Records during this period. His band was called The Loving Kind and was managed by Tom Jones/Engelbert Humperdinck figurehead Gordon Mills. That all folded up, he explains, because we were going to gigs, driving two hundred miles, and finding out we were double-booked. The usual. I gave all that up and got the gig with The Experience in September of 1966. I got rid of the Telecaster and swapped it for a (Fender) Jazz Bass which I still own. The route to membership in the Experience was not a straight road; originally, Noel came to audition as guitarist for The Animals but was told that This American guy was looking for bass players. They just asked me to sit in and he (Jimi) shouted out some chords. I found out later it was 'Hey Joe.' I think he was very surprised that he could just tell me the changes once and I could play them. I can pick things up very quickly. They were also auditioning a drummer and that was Aynsley Dunbar (now with Journey). They asked me if I fancied joining their band and I thought about it and for some reason I did. We started rehearsing the next day and tried Aynsley out again and another drummer. Then about two days later, we tried (Mitch) Mitchell and he was agreed on. Redding didn't mind the switch from guitar to bass and made the adjustment easily. During these initial rehearsals another bassist, Dave Knights (of Procol Harum) was brought in to allow both Hendrix and Redding to play guitar but this arrangement didn't work out. It would have been quite nice actually. In the beginning, Noel, as a bassist, was using a small Burns amplifier, as was Jimi. But they soon both changed to Marshall (one cabinet, one amplifier each). Jimi stayed with Marshalls, but Noel, after coming to America on tour, switched to Sunn. He used three Coliseum bass amplifiers with seven cabinets - a big wall of noise - for the Experience's duration. It wasn't hard playing that loud but it was noisy. I used to have six cabinets on my side and one on Jimi's side. And he used to use four cabinets, or six cabinets. Marshalls. I don't know why we were that loud really; it was just a big wall of amplifiers.
"Well, I was a guitar player, Jimi didn't have to show me anything."
Though Redding had no real difficulty changing instruments, the first sessions with the band were quite awkward. Combining three different musical styles proved a tough task. Those rehearsals were very strange because we didn't know what to do. I'd been in three-piece bands before, but I don't think anybody else had. And it was strange because I was playing bass for the first time and Mitchell had just left a band which was very jazz oriented so he's going (mimics a drummer banging wildly around a drum set) and we're saying, 'Can't you just sort of (imitates a drummer beating a simple time)?' I could say something off the record - it must be off the record! I learned how to keep tempo; Mitchell did tend to race a bit. I always ended up during some sections going like that (stomps foot to indicate tempo). Really, that happened a lot. And Hendrix had just done a load of R&B with Little Richard and all those sort of people. So it was very weird; there was rock and roll, R&B, and jazz. We were doing things like 'Have Mercy,' 'Everybody Needs Somebody To Love,' old Presley things, 'Hey Joe,' 'Johnny B. Goode,' that sort of stuff. We didn't start doing original things until later. 'Third Stone From the Sun' was the first one we did and then we'd slip in 'Fire,' 'I Don't Live Tomorrow' (Redding means I Don't Live Today) and 'Manic Depression' (all from Are You Experienced?) Noel was so accustomed to playing guitar that he even began using a 6-string Burns bass during these formative days. I never even noticed it really, commenting on the change from guitar to bass. Later, I got a Fender 6-string bass but I could never really use one. One of the controversies revolving around the Hendrix band was just how much or how little of the music Redding had contributed. Was he simply a vessel for Jimi's ideas? Say we learned a song, the first thing we did was learn the chords and the (instrumental) breaks. The guitarist did write all of the group's original material - with the exception of She's So Fine from Axis: Bold As Love and Little Miss Lover from Electric Ladyland - both written by Noel. Jimi, however, did not show Redding specific bass parts but rather would show Redding basic chords and then the band would work out the instrumental breaks. On a few songs, Hendrix would have suggestions - such as the bass line for ''Manic Depression which mimics the guitar line exactly. But in a solo section, we were all left to be free and then come back into the verse. There wasn't much of the, 'You play that bit.' There were isolated instances when the late Seattle-born guitarist would play bass on record; this included 1983 (A Merman I Should Turn To Be) and other assorted tracks from Electric Ladyland (the trio's third and final album). But the reason was not because of any technical inadequacy on Redding's part but rather a physical one. We used to go in the studio about 8:00 at night, lay down a track, and then until four in the morning Jimi would be putting on overdubbed guitars. At which time, everyone was so tired or whatever they just tended to leave the sessions. If Noel was left to his own devices in searching out accompanying bass lines to Jimi's music, did the left-hander provide any sense of guitar direction? During the period when they both played guitars, was there an exchange of ideas? No, not at all. Well, I was a guitar player, he didn't have to show me anything. Unlike Hendrix, who was continually experimenting with new guitars and sounds, Redding used the same instrument throughout: that Fender Jazz bass obtained before joining the band. He worked briefly with a Burns 6-string and more recently purchased a Fender 6-string but does not feel comfortable with either. The Fender Jazz is a stock 1965 model except for slightly lowered action and the removal of the pick plate and bridge plate which tended to get in the way of Redding's bass chords. The bass, since refretted, is employed primarily for studio work while a new Jazz is used for touring. Redding also bought a Gibson EB3 but because of its smaller scale (The kind that Jack Bruce uses), he tends to play it too fast. Another reason he stays away from the Gibson is that the variable tone setter makes it difficult to change swiftly from one sound to another without having to stop playing to adjust tones. On a Jazz, Noel feels, one can simply alter the sound by playing harder or softer or on different parts of the instrument - picking up near the neck, over the pickups, back by the bridge - which was a technique he developed while with Hendrix. Noel favors Rotosound strings and has used a heavy nylon pick ever since he started playing bass. His strong attack makes it impossible to use stock Fender or Gibson heavy picks because they break too easily. He now uses a German-made plectrum. Yes, I pick hard but it depends. If I'm playing a verse, I can play very softly; but if I'm playing a solo, I'll really attack it. If I have to do a fast run, I'll attack it to really get the effect. It's just basic technique; on a solo I'll play back by the bridge, on a verse I'll pick further up on the neck. I can't play with the fingers because you don't get the same effect as with a pick. It was an automatic thing to use a pick - you go down to buy a guitar, and you already have a pick in your hand. I never really thought about it; I can't play without a pick, anyway. The 31-year old player still uses Sunn amps with the current Noel Redding Band though he switched briefly to Marshalls when he returned to playing guitar with Fat Mattress. This group toured with The Experience in America, where Redding served double duty: playing guitar during Mattress' set and returning to the bass for Hendrix's headlining set. Noel was then playing a Gibson Stereo guitar, through two of Jimi's Marshall 200-watt stacks. He formed Mattress more an outlet for writing than for guitar playing. In fact, he claims not to have been influenced by the southpaw's playing - I had done an awful lot of guitar playing before joining The Experience. He didn't have to show me anything. After Fat Mattress broke up, Noel did some sessions with Lord Sutch in 1970, again on bass. In June of 1971, he moved to Detroit where he formed a band called Road with guitarist Rod Richards (formerly of Rare Earth). Now, as bassist for the Noel Redding Band, Noel uses a Sunn stack comprised of two eabinets with two 15 speakers in each and one 200- or 300-watt head. This setup, as he puts it, is plenty loud. Redding says, I don't like playing loud anymore, I don't know why we were that loud with Hendrix, really. Just a big wall of amplifiers. Noel's tone settings on the Sunn are: volume at ; bass on 6; midrange on 4;mid-treble on 2; and high-treble on 5. On the bass, he combines both pickups, the bass pickup (the one closest to the neck) being a big higher than the treble (bridge) pickup. With Hendrix, the settings always remained in one position: full up.
"I just plug in. I don't believe in effects; I can't understand why people use them, anyway."
Just as he has remained faithful to one axe, the Englishman has maintained a barrier between himself and pedals, a philosophy based on the fact that he can draw all the sounds he needs from an amp alone. I just plug in. I don't believe in effects; I can't understand why people use them, anyway. I could plug into a paper box, really, and play. When I use to play guitar, I just had it and an amplifier, and I used to get effects. I'd turn down when I was playing behind and turn up when I did a solo. I'm not knocking pedals, but they tend to get in the way a lot, and they're a lot of trouble. You always get these people, 'Oh, my box doesn't work, I can't play tonight.' People start depending on them. I mean, I'd get a bit worked if I didn't have a plectrum at a gig. Redding feels his bass playing has improved considerably since The Experience days. Playing with so many new musicians has widened his approach to the instrument. Hismajor bass guitar influences include Jack Bruce, John Entwistle, and Jack Casady (Jefferson Airplane). As for guitar heroes, Noel cites a diverse sampling including James Burton, Mick Green (the player from Johnny Kidd and the Pirates), Chet Atkins, (Big) Jim Sullivan and Ritchie Blackmore (during his Screaming Lord Sutch period). He especially likes Jim McCarty, originally from Mitch Ryder's Detroit Wheels. Cactus, yeah, the first album. Is it 'Parchman Farm?' Of his evolution as a bassist, Redding says, Not to sound flash, but my playing is now about 300% better (than with The Experience). I've learned how to do it; I don't have to think about it. I once tried to learn to read music but I thought it would change my views. I can remember everything anyway so I didn't see the point. Aside from his further development as a technician, Noel has grown as a writer and arranger. When he is on stage now, he not only concentrates on his own playing but also considers what the overall band sounds like. Noel writes on guitar, working out basic chords with the drummer and will then switch to bass to fill in with riffs and punches. Unlike Hendrix Redding tries to work without many overdubs, though he will occasionally put on added percussion, a Clavinet or organ track, or an acoustic or electric rhythm guitar (which he'll typically play). Though many followers of Redding's work consider his period with Jimi Hendrix as the most creative, the bassist feels it was mainly a learning period. He felt little or no creativity with Hendrix and, though he admits his support as one half of the rhythm section was substantial, can cite no one instance where his playing commanded attention. I learned how to perform and learned how to play loud. But we were rushing around so much and we were working so hard, it was just like, 'Whew.' Of course it was one of the higher points in my career, but I prefer to carry on further. I was involved in a very, very successful band, but lots of things went down in it. He died, our manager (Mike Jeffery) did, money was stolen, there were lawsuits - and it does tend to upset me. That's all an afterthought; at the actual time, we all enjoyed it. We had a good time. In the Noel Redding Band, the acid rock veteran has found that people will allow him to grow past the limitations of the 'former Experience' stigma. His vision of the future is simple and realistic: I just hope to be appreciated as a writer/bass player/singer. I've been getting off planes at different places and going through customs and these guys will say, 'Oh, Noel, you're coming back to work again.' They all remember and I'm really amazed. They don't really relate to the past. I guess they think, 'Oh, great, he's out on the road again.' Which is really nice. Note: Noel Redding passed away on May 11, 2003. 2008 Steven Rosen
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