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Exploring Jimi Hendrix's deep love of classical music

Jimi Hendrix was nothing short of an iconoclast. A man unwilling to give in to the musical mores of the day, like everyone who played the guitar at the time, he was, of course, inspired by the blues. However, it was what he did with his musical background that truly sent him on his path to stardom.

Hendrix made the guitar the visceral beast we know it to be today. He was the first real shredder, and there is no doubt about it. Through his use of distortion, wah, and other FX, he made the guitar sound as no one had ever heard it before. In fact, he was so brilliant and so unique in comparison to the very white, almost rigid guitar playing of The Beatles, The Who and The Yardbirds, that he made all of his six-string contemporaries rethink their strategy when approaching the guitar. In short, he was a breath of fresh air that re-wrote the guitar playing handbook.

Effortlessly cool, on stage, he oozed a swagger that the world had never seen before and never will again. The genius of Hendrix was that he managed to capture the heat of his live shows on record, and together with the live footage that exists of him, they really paint a vivid picture of the measure of the icon we know today.

Another exemplary part of Hendrix’s make-up was that he was not just a one-dimensional ‘rock God’, for want of a better description. He was actually a deeply interesting human being, as Charles R. Cross’ biography Room Full of Mirrors displayed. While w touched on his love of the blues, it was actually his adoration of all things art that ran so much deeper than that.

His record collection shows that Hendrix was a fan of everything from jazz, James Brown, Indian musician Subbulakshmi, and even The Bee Gees. Outside of music, he was also an avid reader and a huge fan of science-fiction. In fact, his psychedelic masterpiece ‘Purple Haze’ was inspired by Philip José Farmer’s book Night of Light. 

A man whose tastes could not be pigeonholed, in 2013, some more revelations came to light about Hendrix’s tastes in the book Starting at Zero: His Own Story. The document compiled all of the interviews the late maestro gave in his career. In one of the interviews, the notoriously private Hendrix revealed himself to have been an avid fan of classical music. He said: “I’d like to take a six-month break and go to a school of music. I want to learn to read music, be a model student and study and think.” 

He then explained how he felt his self-taught nature was a burden, adding: “I’m tired of trying to write stuff down and finding I can’t. I want a big band, I don’t mean three harps and 14 violins – I mean a big band full of competent musicians that I can conduct and write for.”

Hendrix showed himself to be a true musical pioneer, an artist who never settled for the ordinary. Tinged with a hint of that unwavering and almost comical hippie hope, he outlined his hopes for the future: “I want to be part of a big new musical expansion,” he said. “That’s why I have to find a new outlet for my music.”

Jimi Hendrix had a fascination with all genres of music. (Credit: Alamy)

Somewhat cryptically, Hendrix explained: “We are going to stand still for a while and gather everything we’ve learned musically in the last 30 years, and we are going to blend all the ideas that worked into a new form of classical music. It’s going to be something that will open up a new sense in people’s minds.”

Then came the biggest surprise of them all, Hendrix’s mention of two specific composers really helps to establish him as a multi-faceted, complex individual. He said: “I dig Strauss and Wagner, those cats are good, and I think they are going to form the background of my music.” Strange, of course, that he mentioned Wagner, whose politics were the antithesis of Hendrix’s.

Not forgetting where he came from, nor his penchant for all things narcotic, Hendrix then went on some opaque tangent about the new form of music he would create, making you think, was he under the influence at the time of the interview? He said: “Floating in the sky above it will be the blues – I’ve still got plenty of blues – and then there will be western sky music and sweet opium music (you’ll have to bring your own opium!), and these will be mixed together to form one.”

Revisiting the hippie dream of a musical utopia, Hendrix described what effect he wanted this new type hybrid of classic and rock to achieve, commenting: “And with this music, we will paint pictures of earth and space, so that the listener can be taken somewhere. You have to give people something to dream on.”

This revelation makes us think of just what kind of musical route Hendrix would have gone down if he hadn’t tragically passed away in 1970. Given the surreal picture he paints of this new type of music he wanted to create, it’s not outlandish to posit that perhaps it would have been in a similar realm to that of prog-rockers Yes and Emerson, Lake and Palmer.

Regardless, the thought of Hendrix backed by a full symphonic orchestra is incredible. What a spectacle that would have been.

Watch violinist Neil Kennedy’s version of ‘Purple Haze’ below.

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