The late 1960s was a period of intense creative energy. All over the world, people were rocking to a new groove, and at the centre of it all was Jimi Hendrix. Alongside Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Keith Richards and bluesmen like B.B. King, Hendrix uncovered the true potential of the guitar, turning it from a humble instrument hovering in the background of jazz outfits to a tool of astonishing virtuosity.
When Hendrix tragically died at the age of 27, the world lost a pioneer. So many decades later, those who had the opportunity to play alongside him are still recalling his mesmerising technical ability. Roger McGuinn was one of those lucky enough to jam with Hendrix before his death in 1970. As if that wasn’t enough, The Byrds’ frontman was joined by Eric Clapton, creating a holy trinity of rock guitarists.
Formed in 1964, The Byrds were an essential link between the American folk revival and the blistering tones of rock and psychedelia. McGuinn and co cemented their place in the annals of rock history with their debut single, a cover version of Bob Dylan’s ‘Hey Mr Tambourine Man’, which rocketed to Number One in 1965, putting an end to the British Invasion’s year-long reign of the US Top 40. However, in the UK, the group’s blend of jangly folk-rock never really caught on. During a conversation with The BBC, Hendrix acknowledged this, adding, “The Byrds are pretty good too, though I know you don’t dig them over here. They’re on a different kick. I like them.”
Hendrix had cause to respect The Byrds. They and the Jimi Hendrix Experience released different covers of ‘Hey Joe’, a track originally written by Billy Roberts in 1962, just a few months apart in 1966. Whatsmore, both artists became best-known for songs written by other people – The Byrds with Dylan’s ‘Hey Mr Tambourine Man’ and Hendrix with ‘All Along The Watchtower’.
Speaking to Classic Rock in 2016, Roger McGuinn recalled jamming with Hendrix and Eric Clapton in the late ’60s: “I also had the rare opportunity of jamming with Hendrix and Clapton in a loft in New York. We were at a club somewhere. Eric came over and said: ‘Hey, I’ve got a loft nearby. Do you guys wanna come over and jam? I’ve got amplifiers up there.'” McGuinn leapt at the opportunity: “So the three of us went to Eric’s loft. It was wild. I remember we played all these old blues songs. Not really whole songs but a lot of riffs and licks. There was healthy competition between Clapton and Hendrix.”
That friendly competition McGuinn witnessed was likely a product of Hendrix and Clapton’s respect for one another’s playing. The guitarists performed alongside one several times before Hendrix’s death, becoming friends after Clapton agreed to let him play a few songs at a Cream gig in London. “He played just about every style you could think of, and not in a flashy way,” Clapton recalled in 1989. “I mean he did a few of his tricks, like playing with his teeth and behind his back, but it wasn’t in an upstaging sense at all, and that was it… He walked off, and my life was never the same again.