Why Was Jimi Hendrix So Important?
This is a guitar blog. So let’s list some incredible guitarists.
We can start with Bob Dylan, a man who’s used his guitar to support some of the greatest American poetry ever written. Next up is Eric Clapton, three-time inductee to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and eighteen-time Grammy Award recipient. There’s Stevie Ray Vaughan, the man who reminded everybody that blues definitely wasn’t dead even in the ‘80s (or maybe Jeff Beck, who continues to remind us of this fact even now). How about Pete Townsend, the windmill-strumming rock genius from The Who, or the funky and magnificently well-dressed multi-instrumental stunt performer that was Prince. Kurt Cobain kept things elegantly simple in Nirvana, Matt Bellamy keeps things elegantly complicated on stage with Muse, and Kirk Hammett continues to remind us why he’s a living legend of thrash metal. Robert Smith, John Mayer, John Frusciante, Tom Morello, we could go on and on and on…
There is a point to this name-dropping exercise. Because we’ve only identified a fraction of the most ground-breaking musicians that have contributed to the way music has developed over the past 50 years, and even then, have only focussed on guitarists. Artists such as jazz pianist Herbie Hancock, Hip-Hop legends like the Beastie Boys, and literally thousands of other musicians could also be included in this list for one very simple reason. They all cite Jimi Hendrix as a major influence.
James Marshall Hendrix died on September 18th 1970 at the age of just 27, ending an active performance and recording career that had lasted a mere three years as a solo artist and band leader. This ridiculously narrow timeframe makes his musical accomplishments and legacy, particularly with regard to rock guitar, all the more spectacular. But why?
Firstly, there’s his sound.
Guitars: Despite a number of appearances with instruments ranging from Gibson Flying V’s to Gretsch Corvette’s, it’s the Fender Stratocaster that has always been most closely associated with Jimi Hendrix, who described it as "the best all-around guitar for the stuff we're doing”. Although his habit of using a right-handed instrument strung backwards for left-handed playing resulted in a reversal of high/low string definition compared with standard Strats - the slanted bridge pickup causing the darker highs and brighter lows that became a trademark part of his tone.
Amps: Sure, there were other guitarists in the ‘60s that liked it loud, but none of them had truly embraced the potential of wildly overdriven amplifiers, and practically every other band at the time did their best to avoid feedback. But Hendrix, newly arrived in England in 1966, had noticed a number of guitarists using Marshall equipment, and picked up a selection of amps and speakers from this indigenous British manufacturer. Setting all the controls to maximum (infamously known as “the Hendrix setting”) provided the trademark tone that, in the words of Jim Marshall himself, made Jimi the “greatest ambassador" his company ever had.
Effects: Roger Mayers Octavia pedal along with the Dallas Arbiter Fuzz Face were two regular features of Hendrix’s stage and studio setup (both prominently used in “Purple Haze” for example), along with the Univox UniVibe that can prominently head in “Machine Gun”. But it was the brand new Vox Cry-Baby Wah-Wah (only invented in 1966) that became Jimi’s signature effect, providing that legendary introduction to “Voodoo Chile”…
Secondly, there’s his technique
There were undoubtedly some legendary stunts up Jimi’s sleeve such as playing with the guitar behind his head or picking strings with his teeth (not to mention actually setting the thing on fire after a few notable performances). But acting as both frontman and sole guitarist in a rock trio is a serious test of musicianship, and one that Hendrix conquered magnificently.
Musicologists have described his chordal technique as ‘piano style’, where the thumb was used to cover the 6th string and sustain chordal roots, leaving the other fingers free to cover both harmony and lead parts - perhaps best demonstrated during the opening section “Little Wing”, and a world apart from the standard barre chord method used by everyone else.
But it’s the virtuosity and progressive fusion of genres in his soloing that truly blew the world away, and continues to inspire musicians to this day. The solid Blues core of his style was neatly mixed with Rock’n’Roll, R&B, Jazz, Soul, American folk and British Rock influences, pushing the boundaries of psychedelic rock that no-one had come close to touching. Long-time friend Eric Clapton first witnessed this when he allowed Jimi onto the stage for one song at a 1966 Cream gig in London, subsequently recalling that "He played just about every style you could think of, and not in a flashy way. I mean he did a few of his tricks, like playing with his teeth and behind his back, but it wasn't in an upstaging sense at all, and that was it ... He walked off, and my life was never the same again”.
This word can mean many different things to many different people. So, a peer review is probably appropriate here.
Matt Bellamy has said that “what changed my life was the freedom, the expression that Hendrix brought to the performance. There was a sense of wild, reckless danger”. Robert Smith agrees, saying that "Hendrix was the first person I had come across who seemed completely free, and when you're nine or 10, your life is entirely dominated by adults. So he represented this thing that I wanted to be.”
Other titans of the guitar world have delved more directly into the technical aspects of Hendrix’s musical freedom, with Kirk Hammett observing that "When he played a song and wanted sea-gull sounds in it, he would get those sounds. If he wanted his guitar to sound like it was underwater, he could do that." John Frusciante has taken a more holistic view, stating that "Hendrix creates a place where you can be high and hang out and lose yourself. He's bringing out aspects of sound we didn't know were there".
Pete Townsend provides perhaps the perfect instrumental analysis; "He managed to build this bridge between true blues guitar...and modern sounds...He brought the two together brilliantly”. And we quote Yngwie Malmsteen with the perfect conclusion; "Hendrix created modern electric playing, without question ... He was the first. He started it all. The rest is history.”
There are no more words.Peace out.