Ok, if you’re expecting an homage to Elvis, you’re going to be seriously disappointed. But maybe not.
Born in 1942, springing from Seattle with a (left-handed) Stratocaster on his shoulder, James Allen (later James Marshall or Jimi) Hendrix revolutionized the electric guitar. He also reinvented, remolded, added, enhanced, melded, synthesized, altered, dismantled and set it alight.
Twenty eight years later he extinguished. Funny, some of the incredibly talented ones do this. He managed more in the few years he was with us than most do in lifetimes.
Arguably his period of fame lasted from 1968 to 1970. In that time there were several variations of the Jimi Hendrix Experience as well as the Band of Gypsies. That’s a lot for one person.
One of our greatest treasures of the guitar had to leave his home country to seek fame and fortune in England. Playing at dumps in New York City, he was snatched up by Chas Chandler, bassist for the Animals, and whisked away to the UK, where he played out his first night.
The Experience, drummer Mitch Mitchell and bassist (formerly guitarist) Noel Redding, were quickly auditioned and started playing. Jimi used to refer to Noel as Bob Dylan’s grandmother because of his hair. You can hear this on the live recording of “Like a Rolling Stone” from the Monterey Pop Festival.
Recording was different back then. Studio time was booked and “Hey Joe” was recorded by itself. That did well on the charts and the group started building an audience and hype gig by gig. They went back in the studio to record an original song, “Purple Haze.”
Live gigs built incredible word of mouth, largely due to the guy with the guitar. He was doing things that nobody had ever seen done before. Rock `royalty’ started showing up, from the Beatles to the Stones, Page, Clapton, and Beck. Chandler got Jimi onstage to jam with Clapton one night. Clapton walked off and met Chandler backstage, chain smoking nervously… “You didn’t tell me he was THAT good!”
And the Experience was off.
It was time to conquer America. They needed to make a big splash and Monterey was the place to do it. It was less a splash than an explosion, with Jimi torching his guitar with lighter fluid at the end of his set. Suffice it to say he had finally made it in his own country.
People would hear his music and turn their heads – it was like nothing else at the time. Still is. Jimi frightened his contemporaries. At Woodstock, nobody wanted to follow him (specifically the Who). His version of the Star Spangled Banner still sends chills up and down my spine.
I was a bit young for Woodstock. In fact, I was a bit young for Hendrix. I didn’t discover him until the mid seventies, after I had started to play guitar. I thought it was wild to see a famous left-hander, albeit a dead one.
By the end of 1969, specifically the last day, Jimi recorded a double album (yes, album) with the Band of Gypsies, featuring Billy Cox on bass and Buddy Miles on drums. It was his most rhythmically accomplished outing yet, inspired by a lot of grief from the black community to play with (and for) people of his own color. It was an astounding outing.
Mitch, Noel, and Buddy are deceased.
Jimi did things with the guitar that still haven’t been topped. Listen to, but also watch, his performance of “Like a Rolling Stone” from Monterey. His little riffs, tossed off between verses, are a complete lesson in rhythm guitar playing. This is before he plays a single lead line.
I recently caught a biography on YouTube. You should too. It’s easily digested, in typical ten minute installments, for the person who doesn’t know a lot about Jimi. To say he had a rough childhood would be putting it mildly.
Even though he’s a guitar idol, I rediscover Jimi every few years. Or rather, discover a different facet of his playing.
I wonder what Jimi would say about the situations that came about after he died. His manager, Mike Jeffery, absolutely looted him and the band, then died in a plane crash on the way to court. His father, Al, lost then regained the rights to his music. The estate is now controlled by his half-sister, Janie, who, like Gene Simmons of Kiss, never saw a product that she wouldn’t put his face on. Janie is a necrophiliac who makes Yoko Ono jealous. Janie did not know Jimi Hendrix, yet she speaks for him by accident of birth. Jimi is survived also by his brother Leon.
Listen to his music again or for the first time. Listen critically. You’ll hear a man way ahead of his time. I promise.
When I play, I give everything I’ve got, but I’ll never be a Jimi.
There are other, very interesting people around Jimi…
- Jim Marshall: had a music store in England, founded Marshall Amplification
- Roger Mayer: made custom foot pedals for Jimi, still making them (I use his Voodoo Vibe)
- Randy Hansen: white guy who did a frighteningly accurate Hendrix show
- Bill Lawrence: did guitar wiring, now produces pickups by hand
- there were many one-offs but the guitars were upside down Fender Stratocasters
- tons of pedals were used but the staples were an Arbiter Fuzz Face, an Octavia, a wah, and a Univibe. These are all available today, in many incarnations. The Fuzz Face has barely changed.
- the amps were Marshall 100watt stacks. There were flirtations with Fenders and Sunns but mainly it was Marshall. Same for bass.
- in the studio, it was whatever worked. The studio was an insturment in itself. Jimi’s secret weapon was Eddie Kramer, producer and genius. Jimi described it, Eddie made it happen.