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Music

Frank Zappa and the legend of Jimi Hendrix’s charred guitar

@TomTaylorFO

To state the bleeding obvious, playing the guitar is pretty hard. However, like two strapping six-footers in a world of munchkins, Frank Zappa and Jimi Hendrix made reaching the figurative top-shelf look as easy as swimming is to sharks. Zappa may well have been inspired by classical forms and Hendrix took a leaf out of blues structures, but they seem to transcend any sort of theory, and simply followed their own whims when it came to the next note, in the same way that a window cleaner might just whistle along while they work. 

Although they have clear differences, they continue to be linked in one fabled way that proves to be far more tangible than simply their brilliance alone. This is the legend of the charred guitar that continues to tell a mystic tale of two musical greats and their weird and wonderful legacy to this day. 

Picture the scene: a chilled-out counterculture crowd bask in the boon of the southern sun at the 1968 Miami Pop Festival. The fuzzed-out cacophony of bands tuning up and idle chatter about acid epiphanies is drawn to a hush as a couple of helicopters circle overhead. The paranoid few who have stepped one toke over the line scarper thinking the CIA have finally called a halt to the party like Henry Hill in Goodfellas. Others with less addled minds wonder whether The Beatles have decided to get their live show back on the road.

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Alas, it is Jimi Hendrix who emerges from one chopper and his band stumbles out of the other. Their guitars are pre-tuned, and their leads already waiting. They simply skirt through the crowd, plug into amps, and the first chord from the axe-wielding Mozart rings out over the festival like manna from heaven.

Hendrix’s performance that day is said to have been so electric that the guitar simply spontaneously combusted—it had nothing left to give. This is a vignette that you may well poetically purport to be true if there wasn’t anecdotal evidence of him setting it on fire like a voodoo ritualist and proof of the charred remains (not the one from Monterey Pop Festival). However, this fateful axe was set to survive the cremation and its legacy would live on. 

Zappa and The Mothers of Invention were also playing that day. And as Frank’s son Dweezil Zappa has subsequently explained, Hendrix and his father were good friends and frequently played together. In fact, Zappa is perhaps the only man on the planet who offered Hendrix some advice; it was simply this: Because he wasn’t musically literate, he should’ve been placed alongside someone who could write down his ideas on paper to have them scored for instruments other than the electric guitar. 

Thus, with their friendship and musical virtuoso status binding them, after Hendrix’s blistering performance, his roadie Howard Parks retrieved the charred and dogeared Strat and later gave it to Zappa. Smashed up, with a broken neck and as Zappa described it, “blistered and bubbled,” the moustachioed maestro had no use for it beyond a magnificent memento. Therefore, he just hung it on the wall of his studio seeing he is just about one of the only musicians in history who wouldn’t be intimidated by its presence. 

Then one day, Zappa decided that it was going to waste by simply gathering dust and in the mid-1970s, he decided to have it restored back to a playing condition. He added a mirrored pickguard, blend nobs and all the mod-cons of the day. It then became a working guitar that graced the stage once more in the hands of Zappa, Steve Vai and a host of other greats. Proving there was still a tune in it beyond its forebearer’s tragic death. 

While many dispute the true origins of the story with reports of whether he even burnt a guitar at the Miami Festival varying and some claiming it was his classic guitar from the Astoria, the myth, almost befittingly, seems fated to ramble on. With little concrete evidence to confirm things either way, for now, we’re happy to take the word of its custodian Dweezil Zappa whose upkeep has kept it in some sort of cobbled state of repair. As a result, one of the coolest artefacts in music history joyously lives on like the reverberating hum of the guitar God who spawned it.

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