It’s often said that in rock music, there’s two distinct eras – before Hendrix, and after Hendrix.
November 27 marks what would have been his 74th birthday, the guitar great who changed the course of rock music in the late ’60s. Even 46 years after his death at 27, there’s still no debate – Jimi Hendrix is, and forever will be, the greatest guitarist of all time. Despite his incredibly short-spanning mainstream career, Hendrix’s impact on rock music lives on today through not only his amazing guitar technique, but as an entertainer, a pioneer of sound, an influence, and an icon – a shooting star that few had the opportunity to glimpse flashes of.
Born in Seattle in 1942 as Johnny Allen Hendrix, Jimi grew up in a particularly unstable family marred by alcoholism and custody disputes. At school, Hendrix used to carry a broom around as a mock guitar until he found a one-stringed ukulele whilst assisting his father clean up an elderly neighbour’s garage in 1957, learning Elvis Presley’s ‘Hound Dog’ by ear from the radio.
After buying his first proper guitar in 1958, Hendrix was inseparable from his instrument, spending hours and hours each day painstakingly learning songs off the radio. As the Hendrix family couldn’t afford to pay the tuition fees, Jimi remarkably never learnt any music theory; instead, he pestered touring blues musicians and session players into reluctantly sharing what they were doing in order to craft his skills. After being kicked out of his first band between sets for being too flashy, Hendrix was drafted into the military as a paratrooper at 19, where he continued to play in base clubs with bassist Billy Cox, whom he would later reunite with in 1969 with Band of Gypsys.
After being discharged from the army in 1962, Hendrix served extensively as a session musician for several soul and RnB acts in the south of America, playing for groups such as Sam Cooke and the Isley Brothers, making his first recorded appearance in 1964 on the latter’s single ‘Testify’. Constantly bouncing between gigs, Hendrix soon left the Isley Brothers and joined Little Richard’s musical ensemble in 1965. However, Richard and Hendrix constantly clashed over Hendrix’s showing off on guitar and wardrobe choices, and he was fired soon after his first live television appearance supporting Buddy and Stacey on their song ‘Shotgun’.
After moving to New York in 1966 to pursue a more vibrant musical scene, Hendrix was spotted performing with Curtis Knight and the Squires by Keith Richard’s girlfriend Linda Keith, who was mesmerised by his uncanny guitar technique, and recommended him to several managers. Chas Chandler, former bassist of The Animals, was impressed enough by Hendrix to convince him to relocate to London and form a musical group. In September 1966, the Jimi Hendrix Experience was formed after jazz drummer Mitch Mitchell and guitarist-turned-bassist Noel Redding were recruited by Chandler, and recorded a cover of the Billy Roberts song ‘Hey Joe,’ kicking Hendrix’s musical career into interstellar overdrive.
A significant feature of Hendrix’s guitar playing was the fact he was left-handed and played right-handed guitars. Developing an affinity for the Fender Stratocaster in the mid 60s, Hendrix resorted to flipping the instrument and restringing it to suit a left-handed player, which enabled him to achieve an unconventional guitar tone due to the reversed tonality of the guitar pickups, as well as having greater control over the volume knobs and whammy bar. However, it’s a little known fact that Hendrix could actually play both left AND right handed – and played right handed as a youth because his father associated playing left handed with the Devil. Was there really anything he couldn’t do?
Through adopting techniques such as hammer ons, heavy vibrato, and slur licks, Hendrix crafted a soulful, emotive style of playing which was seldom heard before him. Fusing his early love for RnB and blues with modern rock and psychedelic stylings, Jimi Hendrix was able to react to his context, fluidly bouncing between styles while performing and recording. A perfect example is the soulful guitar flourishes and lyrical guitar solo on 1967’s ‘Little Wing’.
A major drawcard to Hendrix’s live performances was his incredible skill as an entertainer. Frequently playing the guitar between his legs and behind his head, Hendrix was also notorious for playing it with his teeth, a dentist’s nightmare he picked up while performing in Nashville. Fellow guitar great Eric Clapton was said to have walked off stage in disbelief when the then-unknown Hendrix upstaged him while performing ‘Killing Floor’ with Cream in 1966.
Rising in fame, Hendrix began to show off more on stage, often smashing his guitars and amplifiers throughout sets. However, his most infamous stunt was at his iconic gig at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, where he ‘sacrificed’ his guitar at the end of an ear-splitting cover of The Troggs’ ‘Wild Thing,’ setting his guitar on fire at the peak of the song’s intensity. He smashed it into the stage in front of a stunned audience, writing himself into history.
Possibly the most influential feature of Hendrix as a musician was his manipulation of sound in and out of the studio. He first experimented with effects pedals on the guitar solo for ‘Purple Haze’, where he used an octave doubling pedal designed by close friend Roger Meyer, who would build many effects for Hendrix over his career. After hearing it being used on recordings by Eric Clapton and Frank Zappa, Hendrix frequently utilised the wah-wah pedal in his music, pioneering the effect as a musical tool which few have been able to replicate.
Through endless experimentation, Hendrix mastered the use of controlling the raw noise of amplifier feedback and using it prominently throughout songs. ‘Machine Gun,’ a politically charged 12-minute epic from the 1970 psych-funk live album Band of Gypsys, features Hendrix manipulating feedback to emulate the sounds of fighter jets, bombs, and the three round burst of the M16 rifle used by US soldiers in the Vietnam War. This created a memorably haunting anti-war statement.
Hendrix and engineer Eddie Kramer began dabbling in using the recording studio as a musical tool while recording his second record, Axis: Bold as Love in 1967. Through the use of effects such as phasing, extensive overdubs, and reversing guitar solos, Axis: Bold as Love was a pioneering album which displayed the way in which the studio could be utilised as a creative instrument. A key example is the incredible cosmic production on the album’s title track.
Influence and Iconography
Even before his untimely death, Hendrix was regarded as one of the most influential guitarists alive; an astonishing feat for a man whose mainstream career lasted only four years. Rock royalty Eric Clapton, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Pete Townshend and Jeff Beck all attended the first Jimi Hendrix Experience show in London in mid-November in 1966, predating the release of ‘Hey Joe’ by a month. In 1969, Jimi sparked a friendship with jazz legend Miles Davis, comparing him to John Coltrane and even claiming Hendrix was the biggest inspiration to his epic jazz-fusion record Bitches Brew. At one stage, Hendrix and Davis were even planning on forming a supergroup with Paul McCartney on bass after jamming together; however, McCartney was unable to commit to the project due to tensions within The Beatles. Oh, to be a fly on the wall…
Several prominent guitarists have cited Hendrix as being not only an inspiration, but the greatest guitarist of all time. Successful and influential guitar players such as Prince, Slash, Stevie Ray Vaughn, and John Mayer have both covered Hendrix and stated their affection for his playing throughout their careers. John Frusciante, former guitarist for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, is commonly compared to Hendrix, and has spoken many times of Hendrix’s influence on him, telling Rolling Stone in 2007, “His music always sounds so perfect because he’s bending sound, taking care of music in every dimension – where most people think of it in two dimensions, he’s thinking of it in four. I don’t think there’s a better guitar player in history. He’s not something that can be improved on.”
Due to his image and the cosmic freedom his music represents, Hendrix is often regarded as an icon representing the lust for peace experienced throughout the radical socio-cultural shifts in the ’60s. He was a passionate advocate for individuality and self-expression and supported various anti-war movements. He also rallied for racial equality and was often associated with psychedelic drug counterculture.
Although his short career was full of them, his most iconic moment was undoubtedly a cover of ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ at his headlining set on the final day of Woodstock. He utilised distortion and feedback to effectively mangle the US anthem into a political statement against war, perfectly encapsulating the dissatisfaction and subsequent radical changes experienced throughout the 1960s. This iconic moment affirms Jimi Hendrix as not only being the greatest guitarist of all time, but one of the most influential musicians to walk the earth.