No artist changed music as quickly as Jimi Hendrix. Though many will point to his and The Experience’s debut record Are You Experienced? as the seminal moment that the guitar virtuoso gave the swinging sixties the push it required, but it actually arrived a year or so before, during a show at Regent Street Polytechnic when Eric Clapton held out a figurative hand to a young guitarist who was desperate for a shot at the big time.
The 1966 event can be seen as a turning point for British music. It was at this moment, with an American musician making his way to London to put his name up in lights when it became clear that London was the new epicentre of rock and roll. Clapton and Cream performed at the student union and were asked by Animals bassist and Hendrix’s manager, Chas Chandler, to give the stage to the US axeman to see what he could do. Given the stage, Chandler sat back and waited for the room to erupt. He was quickly proven right as Hendrix wailed on the guitar and left Clapton exclaiming, “you didn’t tell me he was that f*cking good!“
Despite this initial clash of egos, Hendrix and Clapton became firm friends. The two men quickly became the pillars of blues guitar and quickly asserted themselves as figureheads of the movement. The real issue was ascertaining exactly what that movement was.
Clapton had already been in the John Mayall Blues band and was currently turning his slow hand to being in Cream alongside Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce. But for Hendrix, limiting oneself to a style or particular genre was counter-intuitive — he loved music, especially playing the guitar, because of how it freed him from normality. For the virtuoso performer, categorising oneself as Clapton had done sounded too much like the work of the establishment.
This didn’t stop music critics from making comparisons between Hendrix and Clapton. Even after the American had shared his first two albums with the Experience, noting those records’ expansive sounds, Hendrix was routinely put into the same category as Clapton. Despite their friendship, it was clear that Hendrix wasn’t ready to be lumped in with anybody. He was an individual.
This came to the fore during a conversation with music journalist Jay Ruby in 1968. Hendrix was discussing the idea of being critiqued for his art when he said: “That’s one thing I don’t like at all. First of all, they [compare me to Clapton], and then they say, ‘OK now, blues first of all.’ And we just say, ‘We don’t wanna play blues all the time.’ We just don’t feel like it all the time.”
Across the previous two LPs, Hendrix had done his swashbuckling best to ensure every twist and turn was completely unpredictable. In comparison to the staunch and strict blues record that were being released at the time, the albums were miles apart in direction.
For Hendrix, it was a frustrating proposition, “The blues is what we’re supposed to dig. But you see, there are other things we can play, too,” Hendrix told Ruby, sharing a few pointed words about the comparisons of himself and Clapton. “And we just don’t think alike. Sometimes the notes might sound like it, but it’s a completely different scene between those notes.”
These words weren’t aimed at Clapton directly. Hendrix was such a fan of music that it was clear he held a special place in his heart for blues guitarists such as Albert King, Muddy Waters and, of course, Clapton. But Hendrix, more so than any other artist, represented the changing of the tides when it came to genre and style. Hendrix made it clear that being a purist was a choice to make, just as being an individual was.
The poster boy of the counter culture movement, Hendrix’s wild performances would signify the moment the ‘musical artist’ idea was established. He wasn’t confined by a band nor held back by categorisation or style. Hendrix was a free man, saved by his guitar and determined to continue to embolden his spirit.