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Music

Why did Jimi Hendrix call Terry Kath ‘the best guitarist in the universe’?

@SamWKemp

Terry Kath’s bravado was the key to both his success and his tragic death. The New York Times reported that the Chicago guitarist had spent the afternoon of January 23rd, 1978, at the Woodland Hills home of his crew member Don Jonhson. After hours of drinking with his friends, the party was broken up, leaving Kath and Johnson alone. Kath was looking for a little excitement, so he pulled out his pistol and started cleaning it with the safety latch off. Johnson told him to put the gun down, but Kath just laughed and told him to stop being so dramatic. “Don’t worry,” he said. “It’s not loaded, see?”.

To prove to him that there was nothing to be afraid of, Kath showed Johnson his John Wayne impression, pulling the gun from its holster and twirling it on a single finger before putting it to his head and pulling the trigger. What he didn’t realise was that there was still a single bullet in the chamber, a bullet that ripped through Kath’s head, killing him instantly. He was just 31.

Terry Kath left behind a stunning legacy. His fretwork with Chicago landed him a reputation as one of the most technically gifted players on the circuit. Still, his talents are rarely spoken about in the same way that those of Eric Clapton or Jimmy Page. According to Chicago trumpeter Lee Loughnane, it was Kath’s exuberant performance style that convinced the group to move towards long hair music, ditching their previous image without hesitation. “We only lasted about six months before Terry came onstage at Barnaby’s on State Street one night and ripped the suit right off of his back,” he said. “And it was t-shirts, jeans and long hair from then on”.

Around that time in the late ’60s, Chicago played a few shows with legendary guitarist Jimi Hendrix. Like pretty much everyone who came to see the band perform, Hendrix was mesmerised by Kath’s guitar playing, going so far as to claim that he thought the Chicago guitarist played six strings better than he did, naming Kath the “best guitarist in the universe”. High praise indeed.

Hendrix was spot on in his estimation of Kath. Just listen to ‘Free Form Guitar’ from Chicago’s 1969 debut, a highly experimental piece that sees Kath transform a piece of wood with six amplified strings into a gargantuan powerhouse of fuzz. Or what about Kath’s solo for ‘ 25 or 6 to 4’, a high-octane slice of angular rock guitar that makes the likes of Clapton and Page look like they’ve only just learned how to play a G major chord. It’s no wonder Hendrix was a fan of Kath’s guitar playing, the pair had a great deal in command – both using their wah pedals to create extraordinarily complex textures. It’s such a shame that Kath doesn’t get the same level of praise as Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jeff Beck or Duane Allman. For me, he stands head and shoulders above all his contemporaries for the simple reason that he has this fantastically left-field sensibility that sees him use his guitar as a tool of sonic exploration. Like Hendrix, Kath pushed the guitar to the very limits of its capability. For that, we should be truly grateful.

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