You can almost instantly recognize his guitar playing. His flamboyant take on psychedelic rock is as recognizable as it is revolutionary. And even if you’ve never heard anything Jimi Hendrix ever recorded, you can hear his spirit being channeled by almost everyone who’s ever played electric guitar. Over forty years after his death he’s still the most iconic and important of all the “guitar gods.” His legacy has endured to the point where he still eclipses pretty much every guitarist to have come along since. His experiments with feedback and effects challenged conventional approaches to music, while his blues inspired riffs cleared the way for hard rock and heavy metal. He pretty much redefined the electric guitar itself:
“Musically, Hendrix did much to further the development of the electric guitar’s repertoire, establishing it as a unique sonic source, rather than merely an amplified version of the acoustic guitar. Likewise, his feedback, wah-wah and fuzz-laden soloing moved guitar distortion well beyond mere novelty, incorporating other effects pedals and units specifically designed for him.” – Wikipedia
As a performer, Hendrix’s flashy persona took center stage and one sometimes has to remember just how talented a musician, writer and producer that he was:
“His frequent hurricane blasts of noise and dazzling showmanship — he could and would play behind his back and with his teeth and set his guitar on fire — has sometimes obscured his considerable gifts as a songwriter, singer, and master of a gamut of blues, R&B, and rock styles.” – All Music Guide
Jimi Hendrix was born in Seattle, Washington in 1942. After an unstable childhood that involved a bit of moving around he ran afoul of the law and wound up doing a stint in the U.S. army to avoid jail. Freed from his military obligations after a year, he focused on music fulltime. He tried his luck around Tennessee, working on his own as well as backing up numerous blues, R & B and soul artists such as Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke. The years he spent in Nashville’s Jefferson Street as well as other cities and venues on the famed “Chitlin’ Circuit” helped establish him as a solid guitarist with great chops. In January 1964, he moved to New York City and a month later won a talent contest at the famed Apollo Theater. This exposure landed him a gig playing lead guitar for The Isley Brothers. As well as touring and recording with The Isleys, he found work with other R&B greats such as Little Richard and King Curtis. Hendrix was later quoted as saying “I want to do with my guitar what Little Richard does with his voice.”
In 1966 he met Chas Chandler, the former bass player for The Animals, who was looking for an upcoming star to manage. Chandler convinced Hendrix to join him in England where he teamed up with British musicians Noel Redding (bass) and Mitch Mitchell (drums) to form The Jimi Hendrix Experience. The band was initially conceived as a backing band for Hendrix, but they quickly took to the power trio model that was working so well for the super group Cream. Their collaboration resulted in three exciting albums that feature some of rock music’s most influential guitar work. Are You Experienced? (1967), Axis: Bold as Love (1967) and Electric Ladyland (1968) all rank highly in Rolling Stone magazine’s top 500 albums of all time. The Jimi Hendrix Experience very quickly made a solid impression on England and other parts of Europe, thanks in part to a few famous fans like Pete Townshend, Eric Clapton, and The Beatles. On the recommendation of Paul McCartney, The Jimi Hendrix Experience was booked to play the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival in California. This wild performance at the outset of the “Summer of Love” catapulted Hendrix to stardom in the United States. The pyrotechnic set ended with the infamous burning and smashing of Hendrix’s guitar during a cover of Wild Thing (a trick he’d been using for a while).
The band’s dramatic rise was not without tension. Noel Redding left the group in 1968. Hendrix became entangled in a series of legal troubles that included contract disputes with various managers and a drug arrest. On August 18, 1969, Hendrix appeared onstage with a new group of collaborators which he dubbed “A Band of Gypsies.” After some delays due to bad weather, the group played before an eagerly awaiting, albeit diminished crowd, at the infamous Woodstock Music Festival. The performance was notable for its “rocket’s red glare, bombs bursting in air” machinegun rendition of The Star Spangled Banner. If ever there was a defining musical moment for the 1960s hippie movement, it was this five minute psychedelic blues improvisation. Hendrix had always maintained an avid interest in the hippie movement and this was to become the iconic moment for which he is most often remembered.
Hendrix himself was, like most people, often paradoxical. While press in America went on and on about his flamboyant shows and guitar stage tricks, Europe quickly got past that stage and lauded him for both his true-to-roots blues arrangements and his pioneering work with multi-tracking and use of effects (he bought his first wah-wah pedal from Manny’s Music in New York immediately after meeting Frank Zappa there in the summer of 1967), playing the studio itself as a musical instrument. While constantly touring, he managed to create over three hundred unreleased recordings. He was also a big admirer of Bob Dylan. Not only did he cover Dylan’s All Along the Watchtower, but he probably also took a cue from Dylan when considering his legendary hairstyle.
A light that burns twice as bright often burns half as long. Tragically, Jimi Hendrix was found dead on September 18, 1970 under circumstances that have never been fully explained, though a combination of sleeping pills and alcohol are often listed as causes. A bit too much is often made of the fact that Hendrix died at the age of twenty-seven, the same age as other notable music icons of his era. Understandably, Jimi Hendrix’s image has taken on an iconic stature (we even used his image as part of our site for years until we learned that was a no-no), but nothing really overshadows his musical achievements. Endless praise is often heaped on him for his innovations and contributions to popular music, but it should never be forgotten that he also created simple, beautiful melodies. Three minute songs like Purple Haze, Little Wing, The Wind Cries Mary, If 6 Was 9, Rainy Day Dream Away and Angel will always be as memorable as they are incomparable.
A new Jimi Hendrix album of twelve unreleased studio recordings was released in 2010. Valleys Of Neptune includes Hendrix’s inspired interpretations of “Bleeding Heart” by Elmore James and Cream’s “Sunshine Of Your Love.”