In many ways, it’s like the electric guitar didn’t really exist before him. Of course, Jimi Hendrix had his influences – Muddy Waters and Albert King to name just two.
But it was Hendrix who radically revolutionized the instrument once and for all, and the impact he made in the late 60s has not been surpassed in all the years since.
It was Jimi who turned the six-string into a weapon, with its bullets cast in a melting pot of hot-rodded blues, molten fuzz and screaming psychedelia. No longer did the guitar feel like it was in the background, accompanying the rest of the band or adding melodies to help reinforce a lyric. It was now the undisputed star of the show.
The guitar hero had arrived. Born in Seattle on November 27th 1942, Johnny Allen Hendrix – renamed James Marshall Hendrix at the age of four – had a fairly unstable upbringing.
It was actually a school social worker at Horace Mann Elementary who noticed him carrying a broom around much like a guitar, and wrote to her seniors to request a real instrument for his psychological growth, using funding for underprivileged children. Sadly, her efforts failed.
But a few years later, Jimi found an old ukulele with only one string, on which he started learning his favorite Elvis Presley songs.
Eventually he acquired his first acoustic for $5, swiftly followed by his first electric – a white Supro Ozark – on which he started crafting his own style, built off what he’d learned from the likes of blues pioneers Howlin’ Wolf and Robert Johnson.
“Sometimes you’ll want to give up the guitar,” Hendrix himself once admitted. “You’ll hate the guitar. But if you stick with it, you’re gonna be rewarded...”
At the age of 19, having been implicated in a number of car thefts, Hendrix faced a tough decision: go to jail, or join the US Army. He chose the latter.
The 101st Airborne was, however, no place for an introverted artsy misfit and within a year his platoon sergeant had assessed the new recruit had “no interest whatsoever in the Army”, and that in his professional opinion, “Private Hendrix will never come up to the standards required of a soldier” – even going as far as saying he felt “that the military service will benefit if he is discharged as soon as possible!”'
Released from duty, he formed The King Kasuals in Clarksville, Tennessee, with bassist Billy Cox (also discharged), and eventually carved out a name for himself as a session musician for soul music greats such as Sam Cooke, Ike & Tina Turner and Wilson Pickett.
In 1964, Hendrix auditioned for The Isley Brothers’ backing band, a position he quickly swapped for a spot in Little Richard’s touring group, The Upsetters.
But if these gigs gave him a valuable apprenticeship, his real musical birth took place on September 24th 1966, just two months before his 24th birthday, when he travelled to London to work with producer Chas Chandler, the former bassist for British rock band The Animals.
Within a few days of his arrival, Hendrix had signed a management contract with Chandler and ex-Animals manager Michael Jeffrey, and hooked up with bassist Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell. After Hendrix changed his first name to Jimi, he and Redding and Mitchell were unveiled as a new three-piece group: The Jimi Hendrix Experience.
And, on October 1st, just a week after touching down in London, Jimi got up on stage at the Regent Street Polytechnic to jam with Cream, the new supergroup led by one of the most acclaimed guitarists in the British rock scene, Eric Clapton.
As Clapton would recall of Jimi’s performance that night: “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.”
Chandler later reported that Clapton had shouted to him after the show: “You never told me he was that good!”
The Experience wasted little time and, in the final month of that year, debut single Hey Joe was in the UK Top 10. So they kept at it, following up with the release of Purple Haze a few months later and more live performances, making history one night when their leader took some lighter fluid and set his instrument ablaze in front of an astonished sold-out crowd at London Astoria.
“The time I burned my guitar it was like a sacrifice,” Hendrix later observed. “You sacrifice the things you love. I love my guitar.”
In May 1967, the debut album Are You Experienced was released on UK indie Track Records, produced by Chandler and engineered by Eddie Kramer – who would go on to assist for all of Hendrix’s recordings. It marked not only a turning point for guitar-based music but popular music as a whole.
The aural assault of Manic Depression, Fire and Foxey Lady felt thicker, louder and bigger than anything that had come before it – overdriven amplifiers and effects pedals combining to create an unholy fuzz that would eventually go on to inspire heavy metal.
“Jimi threw a tantrum because I wouldn’t let him play guitar loud enough,” Chandler later recalled. “He was playing a Marshall twin stack, and it was so loud in the studio that we were picking up various rattles and noises.” At the time, it wasn’t the done thing, but thanks to Jimi that soon changed.
Other songs on that first album, Third Stone From The Sun and I Don’t Live Today, tapped into more psychedelic dimensions, laying down the roots for space rock and stoner rock, as well as other kinds of experimental guitar-based music.
Elsewhere, on May This Be Love and non-album singles Hey Joe and The Wind Cries Mary, Jimi’s early R’n’B influences were more than apparent, harking back to his years backing many a soul legend.
The usage of chord inversions with simple yet highly effective trills, playing both lead and rhythmic lines simultaneously, would instantly become one of Hendrix’s trademarks.
“Blues is easy to play, but hard to feel,” he once shrugged. But perhaps most importantly, it was the young prodigy’s wildly innovative leads that inspired countless waves of devotees.
His screeching solos on Purple Haze still raise hairs to this day, played on a Fender Strat (or Telecaster, depending on your most trusted source) fed into an Octavia and Fuzz Face for intensified harmonics, crying its way through both minor and major blues in an almost sitar-like fashion.
Manic Depression, on the hand, could be considered one of the earliest examples of shredding, with fast pentatonic runs played on a guitar distorted beyond the blues, while moments of I Don’t Live Today captured Hendrix on his quest for a higher truth, embracing the more spiritual side of self-expression.
“Music doesn’t lie,” Hendrix said. “If there is something to be changed in this world, then it can only happen through music.”
He also stated his desire for “our sound to go into the soul of the audience, and see if it can awaken some little thing in their minds... ’cause there are so many sleeping people.”
The invention of the wah pedal in 1966 also meant that Jimi – along with new friend Eric Clapton – was among the first to add one to his arsenal.
That coupled with the reverse delay – heard on the song Are You Experienced? – and other studio trickery made the trio’s debut one of the most ambitious and colourful guitar recordings of its time, taking the acid-marinated properties of flower power to new extremes.
Jimi’s genius was not lost on Jeff Beck, who had at that time made a name for himself as a session guitarist and member of the Yardbirds.
As Beck later admitted: “When I saw Jimi we knew he was going to be trouble. And by ‘we’, I mean me and Eric [Clapton], because Jimmy [Page] wasn’t in the frame at that point. I saw him at one of his earliest performances in Britain, and it was quite devastating.
“He did all the dirty tricks – setting fire to his guitar, doing swoops up and down his neck, all the great showmanship to put the final nail in our coffin. I had the same temperament as Hendrix in terms of ‘I’ll kill you’, but he did it in such a good package, with beautiful songs.”
The second Experience album, Axis: Bold As Love, arrived just half a year later, in December 1967, and eclipsed its predecessor in sheer creative depth and ambition, as well as benefitting from a better production.
Opening track EXP was Hendrix’s homage to outer space, his scorched feedback hypnotically sweeping from left to right, while the heavyweight grooves of Spanish Castle Magic and If 6 Was 9 kicked harder and louder than those heard on the debut.
To his rivals and peers, this was the record that cemented Jimi’s stature as the undisputed guitar god – a musician in his absolute prime, with songs such as Little Wing, Bold As Love and Castles Made Of Sand further exemplifying his trademark of chordal substitutions with decorative melodic embellishments.
There was also a new sense of control to his leads – less frantic and more disciplined than on the debut. And even beyond the guitar, his soulful vocals and poetic lyrics had solidified in thrillingly unexpected ways – which, when coupled with a flamboyant dress sense and penchant for setting his guitars alight, presented an artist that was fully moulded in just about every single perceivable way.
Despite having only been in London a year, it was a period of intense creative evolution. The Experience’s third and final studio album, Electric Ladyland, arrived in October 1968 – although by this stage the cracks were beginning to show in Hendrix’s relationship with his bandmates and manager.
The sessions began in London’s Olympic Studio, but eventually got moved to Record Plant Studios in New York.
It was around this time that a 14 year-old German kid, Uli Jon Roth, saw the Experience with his own eyes, and felt first-hand just how much power one single guitar player could wield.
Roth, who went on to find fame with Scorpions in the 70s, remembers: “I first saw Hendrix on TV a few years before, playing Hey Joe, and it had a very deep impact on me. I got the album Are You Experienced and I remember sitting in a dark room for a long time, constantly listening to Third Stone From The Sun and seeing all the images in my mind.
“It was like music from outer space. But what really did it for me was when I saw Jimi live for myself in Hamburg in January 1969. It was his last tour with the Experience, and he was at the absolute height of his creative power.
“The guitar sound was unbelievable, so rich and powerful. He had so much charisma – it was like I saw a light all around his body. That concert did my head in. I still have the ticket.”
By the time Hendrix arrived at that summer’s Woodstock, where he famously moved his headline set from midnight Sunday to Monday morning, he was one of the highest-paid musicians in rock. Noel Redding had left and been replaced by Billy Cox, and the group had also recruited a rhythm guitarist and two conga players.
When they were announced as The Jimi Hendrix Experience, their leader clarified, “We decided to change the whole thing around and call it Gypsy Sun and Rainbows. For short, it’s nothin’ but a band of gypsys.”
It was at Woodstock, having reportedly not slept for three days, that Hendrix played a heavily improvised version of America’s national anthem, The Star-Spangled Banner, further casting his name in legend.
The Band Of Gypsys live album, recorded on New Year’s Day 1970 as a trio with Cox on bass and Buddy Miles on drums and sharing lead vocals, showcased a different side of Jimi that was more bluesy and funky than experimental.
Even so, tracks like Machine Gun and Message To Love showcased yet more growth in his technical mastery – with even more power to those mercurial bends and trills. It would be the new line-up’s only release, playing just a handful of shows before Jimi decided to reform the Experience with Cox remaining on bass.
They had been working on his fourth studio album, The Cry Of Love, and touring, before the night Hendrix was taken to St Mary Abbot’s Hospital in Kensington. He was pronounced dead at 12:45 on September 18th 1970, after asphyxiating while intoxicated.
“After Jimi died, I was angry,” remembered Clapton during an emotional television interview in the months that followed, mourning the loss of someone who was more friend than rival. “I was incredibly angry. I thought it was, not selfish on his part but just, um, a lonely feeling – to be left alone, you know?
“And after that, I kept running into people who kept shoving him down my throat ‘Have you heard this one he did, this one’s never been on record before?’ To see these young kids playing the guitar coming up and saying ‘Have you heard this one?’ or ‘I can do all this’. Forget it, mate. It’s been done.”
James Marshall Hendrix’s legacy has continued to resonate through the 70s, 80s and 90s right up to the present day.
His influence would echo in the music of countless other guitarists such as Eddie Hazel (Parliament/Funkadelic), Prince (who recorded in his own tributes in Purple House and Habibi), Slash, John Frusciante and Kurt Cobain, who once proclaimed, “I’m gonna be a superstar musician, kill myself and go out in a flame of glory, just like Jimi Hendrix.”
Now, on the 50th anniversary of Hendrix’s death, he remains one of the most common influences for guitarists of just about any genre: a true game-changer who reinvented the instrument in ways no one else could have possibly conceived.
As Grammy-winning virtuoso Joe Satriani tells TG: “Jimi was an unbelievably accomplished player, and yet he always sounded like he’d never practiced a day in his life... Which we know he did.
“There’s been many times where Billy Cox has told me Jimi never stopped playing, he was always practicing. But it all sounded so natural, like it just came into his head and he was figuring it out for the first time.
“That’s why normal people – not guitar geeks like us – love his music, too. It sounds like music, not somebody practicing or displaying what they’ve practiced. Sure, we can always organize things better, clean up the nasty bits and noise, but that doesn’t necessarily make it better. I’m always keen to remind myself of what Jimi accomplished in that area [feel] and how I should always try to strive for it myself.”
Modern blues hero Eric Gales concurs. “Jimi was so innovative, man,” Gales says. “He was doing things that other people weren’t doing. I guess it probably felt pretty normal to him but to the rest of us it was completely revolutionary.
“I don’t even think he knew how mesmerizing he was. And he still is so inspiring to players today – from his tone to his songs to his licks, it was all awesome. That’s what I took from him, trying to be the full package, to rewrite the rules. Castles Made Of Sand blew my mind when I first heard it.
“That whole concept of playing melodies within the chord is something I took a lot from. You can learn a lot from that track in particular. Little Wing has that too. I think a lot of it came down to Jimi’s influence from guys like Curtis Mayfield, Bobby Womack and all them soul cats from way back.”
And among the new generation of guitar stars are many who have been deeply affected by a man whose life tragically ended decades before they were even born.
It’s a list of names that spans far and wide – from Hertfordshire’s James Bay, American R’n’B artist Melanie Faye and Australian bassist/guitarist Tal Wilkenfeld through to Brazilian Instagram hero Mateus Asato and German fusion shredder Manuel Gardner Fernandes.
Mdou Moctar, the 34 year-old singer/guitarist born in Niger and hailed as ‘The Hendrix Of The Sahara’, has even drawn links to the sounds Jimi popularized and his own style of Tuareg Berber music.
“I didn’t listen to or have any idea who Jimi Hendrix was until about 2012,” he tells TG. “The more I listen to him, his guitar playing reminds me so much of the Tuareg guitar style.
“My bass player Mikey brought Band Of Gypsys to Niger with him the first time he came to visit and we listened to that album very loud driving round Niamey. The music felt very familiar. Later, I was informed Jimi was inspired by African music.”
In journals, interviews and diaries published long after his death, Jimi Hendrix weighed up his own legacy and pondered on mortality.
Those notes would prove to be some of the greatest insight into the mind of an icon. “I’m not sure I will live to be 28 years old,” he prophetically stated, “but then again, so many beautiful things have happened to me in the last three years. The world owes me nothing.”
Perhaps most poignantly of all, he stated mourning was a burden only for the living (“the dead ain’t crying”) and how sadness should be saved for “when a baby is born into this heavy world” – before going on to share what he hoped to achieve when his own journey came to an end.
“I tell you, when I die... I’m going to have a jam session,” he said. “I want people to go wild and freak out. And knowing me, I’ll probably get busted at my own funeral. The music will be played loud and it will be our music. I’ll try and get Miles Davis along – if he feels like making it. For that, it’s almost worth dying. Just for the funeral...”
“It’s funny the way people love the dead,” he concluded. “You have to die before they think you are worth anything. Once you are dead, you are made for life. When I die, just keep on playing the records...”