In life, we have been offered rare instances where someone comes around the corner and changes how we approach a subject or, even better, the way we conduct our everyday life. Art, literature and sport are just three of the areas that have been changed at one point or another by a character, or characters who have appeared and proceeded to throw out the handbook, taking us in an entirely new direction.
Music is another realm that seems to have been full of periodical groundswells that change the way we do things. Given the advent and development of technology, this has aided music’s ascent in the 20th and 21st century’s, as a global market force-generating billions. This was not always the case, though. If you look back to the 1930s and ’40s, music consisted of a few rudimentary genres/forms, namely blues, folk and big band and was limited to local spaces.
However, in the ’50s things really started to take off with the advent of rock ‘n’ roll and legends such as Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley. Then came the ’60s. The most pivotal time in all of music. The big bang happened. The ‘Fab Four’, The Beatles, from Liverpool, England, became the first true musical phenomenon. They spearheaded the ‘British Invasion’, pioneered songwriting and recording techniques, and wrote the general handbook on modern music-making and consumption.
The Beatles started it all. However, some of their contemporaries were also pioneering in other ways. The ’60s was such a pivotal time, that we had advancements across all of society. Focusing back on the music, though, there was one other in the ’60s who probably comes as secondary to the Beatles in terms of influence, but when we hone in on his instrument of choice, the guitar, there has never been anyone like him.
Jimi Hendrix. The left-handed Stratocaster-toting wizard is without a doubt the most game-changing guitarist of the ’60s, and duly one of the most revered musicians of all time. Purists may say, “well actually, Eric Clapton is the premier guitarist of the ’60s” or that “Jeff Beck is technically a better guitarist than Hendrix”, to which one would simply say, “no”.
Clapton and Beck are brilliantly technical guitarists in their own right, we are not looking to diminish their stature. However, more so with Clapton, both largely carried on in the Blues tradition from which they were schooled. Aiming for the purists again, so was Hendrix. But herein lies the point. It’s what he did with his musical background that made him so brilliant.
Even Beck, who is Hendrix’s self-proclaimed number one fan, once said: “For me, the first shockwave was Jimi Hendrix. That was the major thing that shook everybody up over here. Even though we’d all established ourselves as fairly safe in the guitar field, he came along and reset all of the rules in one evening.”
Before Hendrix, there had never been such a visceral guitarist. One would go as far as to argue that he was the first man to truly shred on the six-string. He pioneered the use of distortion, the wah and chorus pedals and feedback. Fittingly, author Paul Trynka claims that Hendrix created the “definitive vocabulary for rock guitar”, which is true. Herbie Hancock even went as far as to call him “avant-garde”, and given the era, this is also true. This fact is made even more mind-boggling when you note that his recording career as an artist only lasted less than five years, as he tragically passed away in September 1970 from a barbiturate overdose.
Without Hendrix’s driven, hard-playing, you could say goodbye to many of our favourite acts, across the board. Funk legends such as Prince and Funkadelic, hip-hop trailblazers like A Tribe Called Quest and Beastie Boys, metal legends Black Sabbath, Metallica and grunge icons such as Jerry Cantrell and Mike McCready are just a few to have cited the massive impact of Hendrix.
This is the true majesty of Hendrix, the wide-reaching impact he had. He pushed contemporary psychedelia to another level but also contributed to the development of hard rock, heavy metal, funk, post-punk, grunge and hip-hop. When you let that sink in, it is nothing short of remarkable.
Hendrix has respect from nearly every corner of the musical world, and apart from The Beatles, he is the only person to claim such a feat. Even his contemporary, ‘The Voice of a Generation’, Bob Dylan, was blown away by Hendrix’s classic take on his 1967 song ‘All Along the Watchtower’.
Dylan recalled the iconic cover: “It overwhelmed me, really. He had such talent, he could find things inside a song and vigorously develop them. He found things that other people wouldn’t think of finding in there. He probably improved upon it by the spaces he was using. I took license with the song from his version, actually, and continue to do it to this day.”
Excusing some of the hyperbole, Metallica’s resident shredder, Kirk Hammet, did a fine job at summing the essence of Hendrix up: “His music was so visual. When he played a song and wanted sea-gull sounds in it, he would get those sounds. If he wanted his guitar to sound like it was underwater, he could do that. And in the live ‘Machine Gun’ from Band of Gypsys, he goes into that whole thing where he’s mimicking the bombers coming in, dropping bombs, the voices crying out.”
He concluded: “Hendrix had a way of saying something political without speaking outside his own musical language. He said it in sonic terms. And his guitar tone is something he completely invented. There is no one who sounded like him, before or after. He invented the Church of Tone. He had monster tone, monster technique, monster songs. And soul to spare.”
You may be mistaken in thinking that Jimi Hendrix was just a master of all things hard-rocking. He also donned the acoustic at points, and using the electric, he gave us some of rock’s best toned down moments such as ‘Little Wing’, ‘The Wind Cries Mary’ and ‘Axis: Bold as Love’. He also brilliantly carried his records into the live setting. The 1967 Monterey Pop Festival and Woodstock ’69 appearances are just two of his most iconic performances that are etched forever into pop culture history. Need we mention the guitar burning at the former?
Aptly called ‘Mr. Phenomenon’ by the Record Mirror, Hendrix was just that. His contributions to music have been critical, and when you compare his influence to the Beatles’, and remind yourself that he was one man, and that they were four, it is also a stark reminder of his genius. In terms of his pioneering effects, John Frusciante of the Red Hot Chili Peppers claimed that Hendrix was the progenitor of groundbreaking electronic acts such as Aphex Twin and Squarepusher and stated that “they continue the work Jimi Hendrix started, but not on the guitar.”
Where better to conclude than with a quote from the late Kevin Ayers? He remembered the first time he witnessed Hendrix perform in London, November 1967. Clapton, Lennon, McCartney, Beck, Townshend, Jones and Jagger were all in attendance. Hendrix swiftly blew the contemporary heavyweights out the water. They knew they had just been usurped, and would never truly recover. Ayers recalled: “All the stars were there, and I heard serious comments, you know ‘shit’, ‘Jesus’, ‘damn’ and other words worse than that.”
Listen to Santana discuss Hendrix, below.