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Music

Why Jimi Hendrix was inspired to start playing guitar with his teeth

Jim Hendrix arrived in the UK with a bang. Keen to impress audiences on the damper side of the pond, the guitarist pulled out all the stops, treating music fans to jaw-dropping feats of virtuosity. Hendrix’s reputation as a showman was an essential aspect of his popularity in Britain. Fans would have gone to a Hendrix concert expecting a thrilling performance, and he indulged them time after time.

As the 1960s wore on, and Hendrix became more established, he began to resent the stage tricks he’d once relied upon. Like George Harrison, he was keenly aware that fame made cartoons of men, transforming them into puppets with very little creative agency. But it was already too late. By that point, the guitarist had become synonymous with a certain kind of showmanship. “The trouble was, audiences took it as something they must see or they didn’t enjoy the show,” Jimi explained in Chris Welch’s Hendrix (1972).

Hendrix wasn’t always so unenthused. At the beginning of his career, the guitarist made a concerted effort to wow audiences with increasingly daring tricks, one of the most memorable of which featured him playing his Stratocaster with his teeth.

Although, according to Alphonso Young, a guitarist who played alongside Hendrix during his time with the King Kasuals, Hendrix wasn’t the first to pull off the trick. In Becoming Jimi Hendrix, Young recalls the moment the musician saw him perform in one of Nashville’s top Black clubs. “Jimi’s eye lit up when he first saw me play the guitar with my teeth and behind my back,” Young said. “I was always a show-off. The girls loved it.”

At the time, Hendrix was an unknown R&B guitarist. He knew that if he wanted to make it big he needed to stand out, and the best way of doing that, he thought, was to introduce Young’s wild antics into his act, much to the chagrin of The Isley Brothers, with whom he was performing at the time. The duo complained that Hendrix kept on upstaging them, and in 1964 they decided to give him the boot. It may have felt like a step backwards at the time, but Hendrix’s expulsion, in forcing him to go solo, set him on the road to stardom.

Today, the guitarist’s status as one of rock’s greatest showmen speaks for itself.