Jimi Hendrix

Groupology

  • Curtis Knight
  • Lonnie Youngblood
  • Wilson Pickett
  • Ike and Tina Turner
  • Little Richard
  • The Isley Brothers
  • The Jimi Hendrix Experience
  • Band of Gypsies

Triassic

Watch Jimi Hendrix in Action at the bottom of this page!

Famous / Infamous for

Famous for: Influence! Jimi is considered the the inventor of modern rock guitar, and widely considered to be the greatest guitarist who ever lived. Some sculptors work in marble, others in clay. Hendrix was the first artist to use distortion and feedback as a sculpting medium. Jimi was psychedelia personified. He cultivated his electric gypsy image, sporting bright clothes, scarf headbands or velvet hats with feathers.

Infamous for: Overindulgence in drugs and groupies. Neurotic and paranoid behavior. Taking a handful of pills and choking to death in his sleep on his own vomit — we assume it was Jimi's vomit (but if Stumpy Joe Childs' death taught us anything, it's that you can't really dust for vomit). Being the largest member in Cynthia Plaster Caster's trophy case. Burning his guitar on stage at Monterey Pop (see photo). Opening for the Monkees.

Influences

Obvious: For the conventional aspects of his style, Hendrix was steeped in the blues of Albert King, B.B. King, Freddie King, and Buddy Guy. Hendrix obviously played some vicious blues himself, but his importance was as a rock player. He was one of the first four pioneers of modern rock guitar (Clapton, Hendrix, Beck, and Page) and the most original of the bunch. Jimi came from somewhere else. He visited planet Earth for a few years, stood rock guitar on its ear, and then left us. But from 1966-1970, he was the coolest dude on the planet.

Not-so-obvious: Bob Dylan. Dylan's vocal style (or lack thereof) convinced Jimi that he too could sing his own songs. (Seems hard to imagine anyone else singing them, doesn't it?) Jimi was also very much into Dylan's songs — so much so that he recorded his own electrified versions of All Along the Watchtower and Like a Rolling Stone. Jimi took ideas from Wes Montgomery, Miles Davis, and though they weren't early or stylistic influences, Pete Townshend, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and the Beatles all had an effect on Hendrix (explained in detail under Strengths).

Strengths

Vision. Despite being a great guitar player in the traditional sense, Jimi's biggest strength was his ability to communicate a totally unique musical vision. He did this by coaxing new and unconventional sounds from his guitar, amplifier, effects, and the recording studio. Jimi heard all these strange and different sounds in his head, and was able to capture them on tape for the world to hear. Some guitarists like Van Halen are able to think outside of the box. Hendrix's trip was more like: Box? What box?

Influence. He may be your favorite player, or you might not care for him at all, but if you play rock guitar, you've been influenced by Jimi Hendrix — whether you know it or not. There are varying degrees. There are guys like Frank Marino, Robin Trower, Uli Roth, and Stevie Ray Vaughan who based large portions of their styles on their Hendrix influence. Other guys like Ritchie Blackmore and Gary Moore were a bit more subtle, taking some of the fiery, flamboyant aspects like the whammy style. Steve Vai gets many of his chord voicings from Hendrix. Eric Johnson tries to tap into certain similar tones. How about you? Have you ever grabbed your whammy bar and played with feedback and dive bombs? How about a wah? No one uses Wah like Clapton anymore, but we still use it like Jimi did. Have you played melodies with octaves? Have you played an E7#9 chord outside the context of Purple Haze or quoted the Third Stone melody? Used unison bends? Muted scratch rhythms? These things are so commonplace now that we often don't remember that they came (to rock) from Jimi Hendrix.

Further, Jimi (eventually) brought rock music to the African American listeners who weren't into rock, but rather R&B. When Jimi went to England, he was purposely paired with a pair of White guys to form the Jimi Hendrix Experience. His music immediately caught on with the White, rock audiences that were already into the Who, Cream, the Beatles, and the Stones. But if you looked at the crowd at a Hendrix concert, and you didn't see people of color. This fact bothered Jimi, so he decided he'd try something different. The Band of Gypsies was an earthier, funkier style of music played by an all Black band. To the horror of his management and record labels, it didn't feature the catchy singles or the bombastic pyrotechnics that Jimi was known for — and predictably, was less commercially successful. But The Band of Gypsies was far more accessible to African American audiences, and Jimi finally crossed over.

Curiosity, assimilation, advancement. Jimi had a natural curiosity about what other musicians were doing, and when he saw something he liked, he'd noodle with it for hours and make it his own — often taking it a lot further than the person he copped the idea from. As suggested above, when Jimi first went to England, he was well aware of what Pete Townshend, Eric Clapton, and Jeff Beck had been up to. Towhshend's use of Marshalls amplifiers, power, volume, feedback were certainly influential on Hendrix. Jimi supposedly got a wah pedal after hearing Clapton on Tales of Brave Ulysses, but Jimi ultimately did a lot more with wah than Eric did. And Jimi told Jeff Beck that he'd stolen a few things from him too. Like a lot of people at the time, Jimi was inspired by the Beatles' psychedelia and studio experimentation on Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. But unlike others who tried, Jimi took that ball and ran further with it.

Songwriting. You want chart hits — Purple Haze. Timeless rock classics? Foxy Lady, The Wind Cries Mary, If 6 was 9. Definitive guitar tracks? Voodoo Child (Slight Return), Blues? Red House. Studio experimentation and effects? Third Stone From The Sun, Are You Experienced. Quiet classics? Little Wing, Castles Made of Sand, Bold as Love. Raucous rock? Fire, Crosstown Traffic, Manic Depression, Gypsy Eyes. Covers? All Along the Watchtower, Like a Rolling Stone, Wild Thing. You got everything with Hendrix. Has there been a stronger debut album in history than Are You Experienced? Just check out the tracklist: Purple Haze, Manic Depression, Hey Joe, Love Or Confusion, May This Be Love, I Don't Live Today, The Wind Cries Mary, Fire, Third Stone From The Sun, Foxy Lady, Are You Experienced?

Attitude, emotion, and sex. Jimi's music was full of confidence and bravado. His guitar style certainly featured a strong sexual element, and his live performances were full of more raw sexuality than anyone before or since. Hendrix gyrated around, flicked his tongue suggestively, and generally treated his guitar as phallic extension. But Jimi's attitude was also cooler, and generally more subtle than the I'm gonna tear you a new one attitude of the gunslingers who came later. Though he had his performance tricks on stage, I never get the sense that Jimi was on an ego trip, or that the musical message was ever: check out my chops. It was about conveying raw emotion through music.

Performance and showmanship. This is where Jimi waved his freak flag high. Hendrix was renowned for his adventurous, aggressive, and sexual live performances. Musically, he didn't play it safe like Clapton in Cream. Jimi took risks. He went off. And his sense of reckless abandon usually led to either brilliant or bad moments (as opposed to Clapton's consistency). Visually, Hendrix would wow audiences with tricks like playing behind his neck, behind his back, and with his teeth. When the Who smashed their equipment at Monterey, Jimi outdid them by setting fire to his guitar. Other times, he'd bang and grind his guitar against his amps.

Rhythm guitar. From his funky rhythm work to the many different chords and voicings he popularized in rock, Jimi's rhythm style was probably even more influential than his lead style. Having played with bands like the Isleys and Ike and Tina Turner, Jimi brought authentic R&B and Soul rhythm stylings to rock guitar.

Lead guitar. He wasn't a technician like Clapton in Cream, or a proto-shredder like Blackmore, but Jimi certainly had the chops that were the equal of his 60s peers or better. He played with plenty of flash, attitude, emotion, and could be beautifully melodic.

Lyrics. Deeper than they might initially appear. There are actually college courses that study just Jimi's lyrics without even listening to the music. Jimi had a lot to say, and there's a lot of messages in his music. His lyrics encompassed autobiographical topics (Stone Free, I Don't Live Today, Manic Depression), antiwar political statements (Machine Gun, Star Spangled Banner), social commentary (If 6 was 9), and trippy psychedelic stuff filled with vivid imagery (Electric Ladyland, Third Stone from the Sun).

Experimentation in the studio. Once he'd made it, Jimi virtually lived in the studio. He'd bring people back to the studio and jam all night. He'd compose songs, and experiment. Tape was always rolling. And he had help. Eddie Kramer was instrumental in helping Jimi capture his ideas on tape. Aside from what came out of Jimi's hands, guitar, and amp, many Hendrix tracks feature landmark moments in studio wizardry, such as slowing down the tape speed in Third Stone From the Sun, or playing tape back backwards as in Castles Made of Sand, and Are You Experienced. You also get effects where the music seems to move in and out in relation to the listener as in Voodoo Child (Slight Return), or swirling around with interesting pan effects as on Still Raining, Still Dreaming or Burning the Midnight Lamp.

Weaknesses

Like most icons who die young and in their prime, Hendrix's stature has been elevated to mythical proportions. When that happens, objectivity vanishes, and people often only remember the positives. Jimi's legend is secure, and nothing I say would, could, or should change that, but at the risk of blaspheming, it wasn't all marvelous. Like the little girl with the curl — when Jimi was good, he was very very good. When he was bad, he was horrid.

Drug use. When you let drugs kill you, it moves to the top of the list of weaknesses. Jimi's death was a drug-related accident and could have been avoided. But like most of his peers at the time, Jimi liked to party and did his share of drug use and experimentation. It didn't always effect his performance, but Jimi did, on occasion, go on stage too stoned to play. The most notorious example occurred at the Winter Festival For Peace, Madison Square Garden, 1/28/70.

Inconsistency. That wonderful sense of abandon that Jimi showed in the live setting also produced more than a few inconsistent performances that were filled with messy, out-of-tune moments. Don't take my word for it — there are several live recordings where you can hear Jimi apologize to the audience for "not being able to get it together," as he'd say. Whether it was drug related or not, the bottom line is that a significant percentage of Jimi's live performances were sub par. And Jimi knew it. Similarly, the downside of his feedback experimentation was that it produced loads of nonmusical noise. I'm sure it was mind-blowing if you saw it in the live setting at the time — especially if you were tripping — but on some recordings (without the visual aspect or the hallucinogens), it loses its appeal for some of us.

As stated above, Jimi virtually lived in the studio and always had tape rolling. After his death, his bones (and tapes) were picked clean to extract every possible penny. Every little noodle or wank that had made it to tape was packaged and released on some album. To be fair, this was hardly Jimi's fault. Some of it is great stuff that Jimi was planning for his next album, First Rays Of The New Rising Sun. These tracks appeared shortly after Jimi's death as Cry of Love. But for me, hearing a lot of unfinished stuff that Jimi never intended to release kind of dilutes the overall product. Remember, there were only a four original albums released during Jimi's life: Are You Experienced, Axis: Bold as Love, Electric Ladyland, and Band of Gypsies, which was live. On the bright side, the Experience Hendrix releases are great, and have gone a long way toward repairing the damage done by earlier releases — including the closest we'll ever get to a proper issue of First Rays.

Strengths as weaknesses. Allow me to play Devil's advocate for a moment. Like Townshend and Clapton, Hendrix was a proto-dino. He was a hugely important figure, but he didn't really create heavy, Dino style rock himself the way Zeppelin, Sabbath, and Purple did. He wasn't a heavy riff guy. Instead, Jimi's music (quite naturally) reeks of the trippy, psychedelic era that he was a part of. The music of that era generally lacks the balls and aggression of the classic Dinosaur Rock Guitar bands that came later.

And for all the effects use and studio experimentation that was in vogue in the late 60s and early 70s, it can sound dated and gimmicky removed from the context of its time. Whether it's Jimmy Page's violin bow adventures, Tommy Bolin's Echoplex solos, or one of Hendrix's trips like the second half of Third Stone from the Sun, it can grate on the nerves after a while. In most cases, I'd personally rather just hear a guy wailing on his guitar rather than all of the noise and experimental weirdness.

I know. Sacrilege.

Tone

Though he played Les Pauls, SGs, and Flying Vs throughout his life — and used Sunn amps early in his career, the Hendrix image is inexorably linked to the Fender Stratocaster and the Marshall amplifier. He was both Fender and Marshall's greatest ambassador — his middle name literally was Marshall.

As you probably know, Jimi was a lefty who used upside-down, right-handed guitars. While this put the controls and the Strat's vibrato bar above the strings, he did (re)string his guitars in the conventional manner — though he typically tuned down to Eb to make bending easier. He generally used Strats with rosewood fingerboards early on, and those with maple fingerboards later. He used Fender and Sunn Coliseum amps early in his career (and dabbled with Burns and Sun City amps), however, his classic tone is that of 100 watt EL34 Marshall Plexis.

But to say Jimi's tone was Strat through Marshall just doesn't cut it. Jimi had roughly a dozen distinct rhythm tones, and as many lead tones that he got from just a Strat, a Marshall, and his hands. When you add in the all the effects he used, the number of tones he got probably triples. Next time you listen to Electric Ladyland, just check out all the subtle variations in tone there are. Virtually every track features a different Strat tone. He could get all those tones live, too.

When you think of Jimi, you may think of screaming distortion, but Jimi was very interested in beautifully clean, watery, delicate, Strat tones. Little Wing is the classic example, but there are plenty more. In general, Jimi's recorded tone was very clean by today's standards. Live, you had a situation that was similar Clapton's in Cream. Two or three Marshall Plexi stacks on stage cranked to the max. This gave Jimi that classic, warm poweramp distortion. There's still not much gain by today's standards, and Jimi commonly used a Fuzz box to get a more distorted tone.

Jimi is closely associated with the following classic guitar effect boxes: The Vox Wah (Voodoo Child (Slight Return), Burning of the Midnight Lamp), the Dallas Arbiter Fuzz Face, the Roger Mayer Octavia octave divider (Purple Haze), and the UniVox Univibe (Machine Gun). You can hear Jimi using all of these effects in the context of one song during his Woodstock version of The Star Spangled Banner. He used a Leslie speaker cabinet in the studio on tracks like Little Wing and House Burning Down. Despite all of the effect use, there was always clarity in Jimi's tone.

Guitar Style

All the bombast and pyrotechnics aside, if you analyze Hendrix's playing style, you find that his rhythm work was even more influential than his lead work.

Jimi had huge hands, and a very clean and gentile touch and these things effected his style in several ways. For example, instead of playing a root 6 bar chord, he'd play a root 1 voicing and wrap his big thumb over the low E in a way that those with smaller hands cannot. He had loose, relaxed picking hand which let him play very funky rhythms. None of Jimi's British peers had anything like the hot rhythm style you hear in Gypsy Eyes — though this style was ultimately quite influential on rock players who came later.

Several other rhythmic aspects are also distinctive. Musically, there are characteristic Hendrix chord voicings. Also characteristic are sliding chord forms, and chord riffs. Having played rhythm and blues on the Chitlin Circuit, he was well versed in Major and Minor 7ths and could play diatonically. More distinctive, however was his use of hybrid 6/9, 11th chords, hybrid Major 9ths, and 9ths, chord triads (ala Little Wing), or fragments consisting of major and minor passing chords and passing tones within chords.* Using these chords, Jimi was able to introduce harsh, discordant tonalities (to songs like Foxy Lady and Purple Haze) that hadn't been heard in rock music before Hendrix. He's particularly known for bringing the 7#9 chord (which he got from Miles Davis) to rock. It is such a Jimi trademark that rock guitarists commonly call this chord the Hendrix chord, and it's featured prominently in Purple Haze. Jimi was also probably the first rock player to play melodies with octaves as in Third Stone from the Sun. He got this technique from Wes Montgomery.

Hendrix had a unique melodic sense that came across mostly in his compositions, but it's also in his solos. You also will sometimes hear people say that Hendrix "played rhythm and lead at the same time." That's not exactly accurate, but he would throw in little rhythmic fills and phrases during his rhythms. Billy Gibbons does this too, and he got it from Jimi.

Jimi's lead style was blues-based and pretty basic. He was one of the first rock players to use unison bends. Double stops and over bends were also characteristic. Like the bluesmen that came before him, Hendrix didn't use his pinkie much for lead work, nor was he a pure alternate picker.

Scalewise, Jimi used the Blues scale, Major Pentatonic, and some Dorian. Some of his compositions and melodies were in Mixolydian. He got a lot of mileage out of the root/octave positions. People call Machine Gun one of Jimi's finest lead guitar moments, and if you watch the footage from the Fillmore performance, note that the solo is almost entirely from the pentatonic box in the 12th fret (octave) position. And when he's not there, he's in the root (open) position. No bells, whistles, or flying around the neck — just raw emotion culled from the most basic box pattern, in the two most fundamental positions.

Vibrato: He had several, all smooth and controlled. There was a wide half-step vibrato that he either played fast (where it was reminiscent of Albert King's) or slow. Then there was a narrower one that was fast and frantic, more like B.B. King's. And of course there was all of the whammy bar pyrotechnics that Hendrix brought to rock.

Jimi Hendrix in Action

Recommended listening

The Jimi Hendrix Experience

Band of Gypsies

 

Profile By Dinosaur David B. Copyright ©2003 All rights reserved.

* Source: Jeffrey Aarons