He has been dead for over 40 years and yet he is still recognized as the gold standard for rock guitar players. For a guy who completed only three studio albums in his lifetime, he definitely made an enormous impact as a guitar player. Two generations of musicians who have followed him ask the same question – how’d he do that?
The hands – Much has been said about how big Hendrix’s hands were. I’ve read accounts where his hands have been described as “freakishly large.” As a guy with normal-sized hands with short, stubby fingers, I know it would be a huge advantage to have large hands with long, skinny fingers to play guitar. There are notes one can reach with longer fingers than one can with short fingers. He could stretch well over 5 frets during some chord progressions. He could wrap those huge hands around the Strat neck and fret with his thumb. I imagine he also had a grip the strength of a gorilla to be able to make those long, skinny fingers do the things to the strings that he wanted them to do. I’m thinking this because he could bend the hell out of his strings. Don’t misunderstand – there are plenty of guitarists with relatively small hands (Angus Young, EVH, Danny Gatton, Randy Rhoads, etc) who play extremely well. Hendrix had big hands and took advantage of that fact.
He was also somewhat ambidextrous. He played left-handed, but I’ve seen pictures of him writing with his right hand. Legend has it that his father taught him to play guitar right-handed because it was thought to be left-handed was a sign of the Devil. So in his father’s presence he would play right handed, but when Al Hendrix was out of sight, Jimi would switch to playing lefty. As a lefty he would play a right-handed Strat upside down so the thin strings would be closest to him. Albert King would do the same thing with his Gibson Flying V. One can imagine the unusual chord shapes this would cause, but I suspect that contributed to the uniqueness of his sound.
The sound – Hendrix used several different devices to alter his sound. One was the Octavia fuzz box. This thing had a frequency-doubling circuitry that could synthesize a second note an octave higher that what was played. He first used the Octavia on Purple Haze and Fire. Hendrix used a Univox Uni-vibe that was a chorus/rotating speaker simulator the he started using in 1969. Then there’s the wah-wah. He first heard the wah-wah when Eric Clapton used it on Tales of Brave Ulysses. After he added the wah-wah to his arsenal, Hendrix took it much further than Clapton ever would. The best example of this can be found on Voodoo Child [Slight Return]. Don’t forget the whammy bar – Hendrix practically invented the “dive bomb” with his whammy bar.
The amps – usually Marshalls. Jimi drove his amps pretty hard – he usually had them at full volume all the time. He was hell on amps; he went through a lot of them. He also used Sunns, Fender Twins, Fender Dual Showmans, but from1968 onward he was almost exclusively a Marshall guy. He would use a 100-watt Super Lead driving 2 4x12 cabinets, but eventually he would use three Super Leads driving six 4x12s. With this much power and the effects he used, his controlled use of distortion and feedback, no wonder his Strat sounded like no other.
The Solos – I don’t have enough superlatives in my vocabulary to praise Jimi Hendrix’s solo prowess. Billy Gibbons had a phrase that I think described his otherworldly playing – “he was a true Martian.”
Rhythm – Though known for his jaw-dropping leads, Hendrix was a fantastic rhythm guitar player. For proof, listen to Little Wing, The Wind Cries Mary, Wait Until Tomorrow, Drifting.
Influences – Hendrix had several influences – Buddy Guy [blues], Curtis Mayfield [R&B], and Wes Montgomery [jazz]. Other influences were Albert King, Hubert Sumlin and Muddy Waters – Jimi loved the blues. Before he hit the big time, he was a sideman for R&B acts like Little Richard, the Isley Brothers, the Impressions [just to name a few]. He once stated that before he went to England, Bob Dylan as a big inspiration. After Chas Chandler discovered him and moved him to the UK, he absorbed the psychedelic sounds of 1966 London. Hendrix also had a fascination with science fiction, especially the thought of the existence of alien life. Add all of these influences to a fertile imagination and tremendous ability, and you have the otherworldly sounds Jimi Hendrix.
Showmanship – Hendrix was legendary for playing behind his head, behind his back, between his legs, and with his teeth. He famously upstaged The Who’s on-stage destruction at Monterey by setting his guitar on fire.
The Posthumous Jimi Hendrix – Engineer Eddie Kramer, who played a big part in getting the sounds Hendrix heard in his head down on tape, said that whenever Jimi wasn’t on the road he was in the studio. His first two albums [Are You Experienced? and Axis: Bold as Love] were produced by Chas Chandler. Chandler taught him a lot about using a recording studio efficiently [studio time was then and still is expensive] as both of those albums took about two weeks to record. But when he got around to recording Electric Ladyland, he took his time, much to the annoyance of Chandler and bassist Noel Redding. He was meticulous at getting the sounds he wanted. As creative as he was, Hendrix was prodigious in his output, though much of it was released only after his death.
During the last year of his life Hendrix was overflowing with ideas. He was working on an album under the working title First Rays of the New Rising Sun. It was to be a double album like Electric Ladyland, but fate intervened and it was not to be. Much of this output was unfinished, but to my ears unfinished Hendrix was a lot better than the final product of mere mortals. The first posthumous album was The Cry of Love. It didn’t have all the songs Hendrix would’ve wanted on his First Rays project. Some songs were cherry picked from those sessions and released on subsequent posthumous releases [Rainbow Bridge, War Heroes]. Producer Alan Douglas somehow [some would say fraudulently] gained control over Hendrix’s outtakes. He took songs recorded by Hendrix, removed parts recorded by Mitch Mitchell, Noel Redding, Billy Cox and Buddy Miles, and replaced those tracks with others recorded by musicians Jimi Hendrix had never met nor worked with [Sacrilege!]. This resulted in such releases as Loose Ends, Crash Landing, Midnight Lightning and Voodoo Soup. Knowing that some original material was deleted by Douglas, I didn’t buy any of those, so I can’t testify to their musical quality. I won’t slam something I haven’t heard, but on principle I couldn’t buy them while knowing what Alan Douglas did to the music.
After Jimi’s father and step-sister finally got control over Jimi’s recorded legacy from Alan Douglas, the Experience Hendrix LLC put together the best attempt at reconstructing First Rays of the New Rising Sun, the results of which saw the light of day in 1997. Another album of similar material, South Saturn Delta, also came out in 1997. Eddie Kramer got the original two-track master tapes and did a wonderful job restoring all the stuff that Alan Douglas cut, and the remasters sound remarkable. He also did a great remastering job on Are You Experienced?, Axis: Bold as Love and Electric Ladyland. Experience Hendrix also put out an expanded Band of Gypsys live album titled Live at the Fillmore East. Eddie Kramer and John McDermott are still finding things to release. They put out Valleys of Neptune in 2010, and next year we’ll see People, Hell & Angels. I’ll probably get both of them. He’s pretty productive for having been dead for 42 years…I’m hoping that someday the show the Jimi Hendrix Experience did with Traffic at the Royal Albert Hall in February 1969 will see daylight.
Tony’s favorite Hendrix – For me, two songs stand out above all the rest, and they’re both from Electric Ladyland – All Along the Watchtower and Voodoo Child [Slight Return]. If I hear one, I have to hear the other.
Tony’s iPod playlist:
Are You Experienced? – Purple Haze, Manic Depression, Hey Joe, Love or Confusion, I Don’t Live Today, The Wind Cries Mary, Fire, Third Stone From the Sun, Foxey Lady, Are You Experienced?, Stone Free, Red House
Axis: Bold as Love – Spanish Castle Magic, Wait Until Tomorrow, Little Wing, If 6 Was 9, You Got Me Floatin’, One Rainy Wish, Bold as Love
Electric Ladyland - Have You Ever Been [To Electric Ladyland], Crosstown Traffic, Voodoo Chile, Gypsy Eyes, Burning of the Midnight Lamp, 1983...[A Merman I Should Turn to Be]/Moon, Turn the Tide Gently, Gently Away, House Burning Down, All Along the Watchtower, Voodoo Child [Slight Return]
Band of Gypsys/Live at the Fillmore East – Machine Gun, Hear My Train A’ Comin’
First Rays of the New Rising Sun – Freedom, Drifting, Ezy Ryder, Room Full of Mirrors, Izabella, Angel, Hey Baby [New Rising Sun], Earth Blues, In From the Storm
South Saturn Delta – Look Over Yonder, Here He Comes [Lover Man], Message to the Universe [Message to Love], Bleeding Heart, Pali Gap