Ask any guitarist of ability and he will tell you that Jimi Hendrix was the greatest ever. His brief tenure at the top of the world, electrified his audiences and revolutionised the rock world. Three albums, tours and massive festivals were all that we had. His demise left us wondering about what could have been.
Jimi started playing professionally with Little Richard, and although he was a bad timekeeper he was kept on due to his ability. Chas Chandler, ex-bassist of the Animals discovered him and took him to London. In late 1966 London was the centre of the Rock world. In a private club, the cream of the rock world gathered and he was unveiled. Eric Clapton, Pete Townsend, George Harrison and Brian Jones were amazed at what they saw. Jimi had taken the instrument to a completely new level and they saw how the game had changed.
He played a right handed Fender Stratocaster left hand. He had massive hands and before the advent of effects pedals, he could adjust the volume on the strat with the hand he was strumming with. He was deeply based in the blues, but would just jam and could do things that nobody else had even dreamed of. He would practice all the time at home, walking around the house with an axe even playing in the bathroom as he liked the echo from the tiles.
When the leaders of the industry heard him, they immediately assembled a band. Noel Redding a guitarist played bass and Mitch Mitchell drums. He quickly recorded his first singles and albums and exploded on to the British scene. The soulful Hey Joe and the Wind that cries for Mary were contrasted with the raunchy Foxy Lady and the psychedelic Purple Haze. The album “Are you experienced” was a smash hit and was followed by the rushed “Axis bold as love”. Jimi had discovered pedals and was jamming away, but unfortunately did not really construct much in actual songs. Sometimes he would just play and the engineer would just record and then they would decide where the song stopped.
He was not a great singer, but was inspired to lead by the influence of Bob Dylan. He announced himself to the world at the Monterey Pop festival. The Who made their entrance when they smashed up their instruments, as usual. Jimi followed by setting light to his guitar with lighter fluid. He wrote, played and performed.
In 1968 he recorded “Electric Ladyland” a tour de Force. Crosstown traffic an electric song about commuting, the apocalyptic version of Dylan’s All along the Watchtower and the unending stream of consciousness that was Voodoo Chile.
His music was dynamic, explosive and could reach into the darkness that was to come. He used cannabis and LSD to expand the mind to help his creativity and rejected other drugs. He was very much a ladies man and never missed an opportunity with the army of fans that followed him.
Perhaps his greatest moments were at festivals. At Woodstock his performance was immortalised in the film. Ironically he was being watched by only 1000 people as he was last on and everybody was going home on Monday morning. He played his version of the Star Spangled Banner and twisted the song and made it soar in a parody of the perversion of the American Dream. Like with the festival there was always the backdrop of the Vietnam War and the social unrest at home.
In 1968, he was playing in Newark the day Martin Luther King was assassinated. As the city was being torn apart outside, he came on stage on his own and said this is for a friend. He played dark, painful, soulful blues never heard before or since. He played for nearly an hour and left to silence. Unfortunately the sound man had forgotten to turn on the tape recorder and it was lost. But somethings are just for the moment and that was a dark but special day for America.
The relevance to the social revolution around him and the rest of the rock and pop movement was intense. The kids were reacting to the establishment politically, sexually, morally, spiritually and emotionally. His contribution was immense and profound. His influence was universal. There are some that learnt to play like Jimi, but Jimi was just instinctive and spoke through the guitar. Even his ability to control feedback and make it work for him was incredible. Every part of that guitar was made to work for him to express himself.
He tragically died of an overdose of sleeping tablets. He probably took his girlfriends in the middle of the night not realising that UK version was of a much higher strength. He stopped breathing and we would never know what could have been.
But that is greedy, he burnt bright, but too briefly. His influence on rock and guitar playing was seminal. Nobody existed before like him and nobody after. Jimi you were the one.