“His impact is beyond solar systems”: Remembering Jimi Hendrix, the greatest guitarist who ever lived
Geezer Butler remembers where he was when he found out that Jimi Hendrix had died. Black Sabbath were at the airport, heading to America for the first shows on the Paranoid tour, when the news stared out at him. “I just remember walking past a newsagent and seeing the headline that said: Jimi Hendrix Dead,” he recalls. “It took something off the day for me, that.”
On September 18, 1970, the legendary guitarist had been found unconscious in the London hotel room he had been in with his friend Monika Dannemann, and pronounced dead in hospital two hours later, the victim of a drugs overdose, aged just 27.
Hendrix had first arrived in London almost four years to the day previously, on September 21, 1966. It was here that the smiling, young dandy went from being a sideman for American rock’n’roll stars like Little Richard and Curtis Knight, to the greatest and coolest guitar player ever to strike a chord. Or, indeed, play the instrument upside down, with his teeth, set it on fire, or show such a wizard-like mastery of touch that even feedback seemed to fall under his command. Nobody played like him, nobody connected with the music like him, nobody had the same kind of cool. To all who heard and saw him, Jimi Hendrix was simply God.
Fifty years after his passing, this remains true. His time in the spotlight may have been tragically short, but in that just-shy-of-four-year period, The Jimi Hendrix Experience made three records (1967’s Are You Experienced, 1968’s Axis: Bold As Love, and 1969’s Electric Ladyland) that were unlike anything else in rock’n’roll or blues, while the man himself became instantly known as the most electrifying, exciting, talented, charismatic guitarist ever to walk the earth. Nobody was as loud, or as heavy, but neither could they say so much with a slight bit of teased vibrato on a single, clean note. Guitar heroes who followed like Slash, Eddie Van Halen and Muse’s Matt Bellamy have all been clear and unanimous: Hendrix was beyond. When asked by K! what God looks like, Metallica’s Kirk Hammett replied, “Black, headband, had an afro, played Woodstock,” while Jus Oborn of Electric Wizard declared, “These death metal people think they listen to the heaviest music ever, but if they ever saw Hendrix they’d shit themselves.” And his ex-roadie, Lemmy, simply called his old boss “Fucking magic, man,” also noting that his boss would never bogart his LSD stash (“If he had 12 tabs, he’d give you four”).
Even at the time, the list of people in awe of the man is enviable: Keith Richards, John Lennon, Jimmy Page. Upon seeing him onstage at a show they were playing together, Eric Clapton complained angrily to the new lad’s manager: “You never told me he was that fucking good.”
“How would you not feel threatened by him?” laughs Lamb Of God guitarist Mark Morton. “On every level, he was just on fire. It’s not just like, ‘Oh, that guy can shred,’ or ‘That guy revolutionised the way we look at effects,’ or, ‘That guy dressed fly-er than anyone you’ve ever seen and lit his guitar on fire’. It was everything. In terms of showmanship and performance, there was nobody like him.”
Baroness’ Gina Gleason – whose first guitar was, cooly enough, a white Fender Stratocaster – is of a similar opinion. “It’s like, Jimi Hendrix is up [reaches above her head] here, and then you can start your list of favourite guitar players,” she says. “He’s the real deal. He really pushed the bar of innovating guitar playing. When you watch footage of him, he’s one unit with what he’s playing and what he’s singing.”
For Chris Robertson, frontman of Black Stone Cherry and Hendrix-tattooed Stan, the man’s greatness can be written in even larger terms: “You can’t mention the electric guitar without mentioning Hendrix. He’s as important to the electric guitar as Leo Fender or Les Paul.”
Jimi Hendrix was born to play guitar. In fact, he wasn’t much use at anything else. He never graduated high school, and his childhood in Seattle, Washington was impoverished and tough, with his parents divorcing when he was nine, and his mother dying of alcohol-related health issues when he was 14. But, drawn to guitar and the blues, as a kid the young James Marshall Hendrix would, in the absence of an instrument of his own, pretend he was playing one with a school broom. Eventually, he learned to play Elvis songs on a ukulele he found in a bin, upgrading to an acoustic guitar of his own when he was 15, at which he quickly excelled. His tenure in the army – chosen over going to prison after he was busted riding in a stolen car when he was 18 – was noted by his superiors for his casual attitude to discipline and dereliction of duties, but also for the guitar being the only thing he had any real interest in.
Even as a sideman playing guitar, he couldn’t quite fit. “I am the only one allowed to be pretty!” Little Richard is said to have yelled at him, when Jimi turned up in some fabulous clothes of his own, rather than the expected suit. It’s an easy thing to say now, but Hendrix was simply too cool, too big, too flamboyant to be corralled by anyone else. He wasn’t being a dick about it – he was just guilty of being the best. And it wasn’t until he was signed and brought over to London as his own man that he finally assumed the form that’s spent five-decades-and-change in the world’s ears.
As Mark Morton says, on every level, Jimi Hendrix outplayed, outclassed and outcooled everyone else. Every shot of him is Pictures You Can Hear – the thrilling howl of a silk-shirted, paisley-bandana demon with a flipped, white Stratocaster almost clinging to him for dear life; the smooth resonance of a gently-strummed acoustic guitar on a barstool; a purring chuckle as he sits smoking on a sofa like a smile in flares. He was a cat, man. The passing of time and crystallisation of the legend has obviously helped, but the truth is that the man simply had this stuff coming out of him.
“There’s this idea of having a voice on the instrument,” Mark says. “And nobody had a voice like Hendrix. And I’m just talking about the guitar, I’m not even talking about his singing!”
But in this, Hendrix was something of a paradox. Chris Robertson is right when he calls him, “One of those guitar players where, even when they hit just one or two notes, you can immediately feel something from that,” but it’s deceptive. So deep was Hendrix’s groove that clever, neat things were just… there, the perfect example of true genius making the impossible seem simple until you try it yourself.
“When I was a teenager I’d try to learn Axis: Bold As Love, and it just blew my mind,” says Gina Gleason. “I was like, ‘I can’t really learn this! I can’t sound like him!’ And when I was 18 I worked in a Guitar Center, and every fucking day someone would try to play Purple Haze, and it just wouldn’t sound right. But I don’t think he was really thinking, he was just such a fluid player that that’s how it came out. He even has a chord named after him – the Hendrix chord! It’s a dominant-seventh-sharp-nine chord. And he spaces it in a way that sounds beautiful, not dissonant, just totally fucking cool. He didn’t invent it, but he really nailed it in a rock context.
“There’s so much harmonic content in some solos that you can’t tell if it’s how he’s using his fuzz pedal or what,” she continues. “When you watch live footage of him, you always see him reaching for his volume knob. He’ll use his volume knob with a low-impedance drive pedal, and the single coils [pickups] from his Strat, and get a lot more headroom and room to express himself. So he can roll the volume back and do all these rhythm embellishments or whatever he’s singing over, then he can turn the volume up and just have fucking chaos and total overload. That’s awesome, dude.”
It was here, onstage, where Hendrix truly came alive. He was killer, pure energy, reaching deep into the well of the blues, while performing it with pure, raw excitement. So visceral and magnetic to watch was he, in fact, that Chris Robertson rightly makes the point that, in a time when filming bands was a costly and logistically demanding thing to do, there is a truly staggering amount of performance film to watch. “He was just a guy you wanted to film,” he enthuses. “He was worth filming because something was gonna happen when he got up there!”
A few: the time at The Monterey Pop Festival when he lit his guitar on fire before hammering it onto the ground; causing the BBC’s Six O’Clock News to run late for the first time ever with their appearance on The LuLu Show after Jimi abandoned their intended closing number Hey Joe (“We’re gonna stop playing this rubbish”) so they could play Sunshine Of Your Love in tribute to the song’s authors, Cream, who had split that day; his howling version of The Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock, part protest jam, part experiment in what noises guitars shouldn’t make.
“I love Star Spangled Banner – that blew my mind,” says Gina Gleason. “I’d been introduced to Metallica and Slayer and Pantera and that kind of stuff, but I remember hearing that and thinking, ‘This is like the first dive bomb!’ For that time period, nobody was doing that stuff.”
Fifty years on, this is a large part of the reason Hendrix remains just an astonishing talent: he was both the first and the best, and the magic of his playing, the thrill of seeing him almost pulling the neck off his instrument as he did… stuff to it remains spellbinding because nobody else has ever figured it out. Even now, the opportunity to experience Hendrix in some way is truly special.
Chris Robertson knows. Not only has he played one of the man’s own guitars, Black Stone Cherry performed one of his songs in his London flat.
“I remember walking up the stairs, man, and I just stopped,” he remembers. “I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t talk, I had tears in my eyes. It’s one of the most amazing things to me, ever. And I got to play one of his guitars on a different occasion. It was the Flying V. I won’t go into how I got to play it, but I did. I remember leaving, and going around the corner, and just burst into tears like a baby, man. It was the most overwhelming thing, that I got to put my hands on a guitar that Hendrix had played, that everybody saw him play. That was one of the most surreal, awesome experiences of my whole life.”
But whether you’ve been able to get this close, or simply listening to Voodoo Child and marvelling at it all – the musical skill, the tones, the rhythm, the thrust, the voice, the structure – Jimi Hendrix remains a titan among guitar players. He spoke in a musical language that others can hear, but none can speak, and recut the canvas for what can be done on a guitar forever.
“The level of impact is beyond solar systems,” says Mark Morton. Maybe, or perhaps even further…
“I recognise Jimi as – obviously – one of the most influential musicians of all time,” says Mastodon’s Troy Sanders. “I just saw Bill & Ted Face The Music recently, and in that they have to go back in time to get him to save the world through the power of music.
“I think that’s a pretty good display of just how important he was.”
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