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(Credit: Far Out / Picryl / Alex Azabache)

Music

Why Jimi Hendrix played guitar with his teeth

Jimi Hendrix was a hoot, a heretic, a harbinger of noise, and a handyman on the guitar. Indeed, he was unhurried in everything in those frenzied, furious guitar solos that allegedly shook Eric Clapton to his core when he heard the American guitar player tackle those bellowing solos. But like everyone on this planet, including those who are reading this piece at this moment in time, the man had his influences, and there were people who showed him to improve both as a person and an artist.

In the documentary Becoming Jimi Hendrix, guitarist Alphonso Young suggests that he was the one who gave the guitarist some of the theatrical flourishes that became a part of the guitarist’s stage-set. “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.”

Hendrix was eager to impress women, but by doing so, he needed more than technical skill to pull it off, so he decided to take a more theatrical approach to his stage performance. But it was this flair for theatricality that got him booted from The Isley Brothers in 1964, who were reportedly tired of him trying to upstage them with his guitar acrobatics. As it happens, the guitar player felt brave enough to compose his own material, which came to the public head when he arrived in London in the mid-1960s.

There, everyone from Keith Richards to Pete Townshend was using stage theatrics, bolstered by deep-rooted tradition-based on-stage performances, and boisterous, powerful poetry readings that stemmed from the barn halls that decorated the country. In England, Hendrix found a country that was more open to the loud flourishes and kitschy style that was opening up in the eyes of the public at large that was more liberal to the different constructions and archetypes.

“Jimi was okay but had trouble getting a steady gig anywhere by himself in Nashville,” singer Jimmy Church said in Becoming Jimi Hendrix. “He wasn’t a Black act. He was left-handed and had a little effeminate thing about him.” American audiences were used to putting musicians in a particular style or box, but London was a different kettle of fish altogether. It was prouder of its heritage, clearly happy to be in the realm of vaudeville, presenting a mosaic of voices that were as entertained by the guitar being thrown in the air as they were by the pummeling riffs that came from it.

But there’s no denying the fact that Hendrix’s propulsive guitar playing was the work that showed his vitality and vigour as a performer, and it’s the explosive demonstrations that ensured his legacy as an artist. Charm and candour got him so far in life, but it was his musical passages, his flair for contrast and contradiction, and his exhibition of melodic hooks and chords. Hendrix was a singular artist, who made an impression on the world both by his fire and talent, and a little bit of teeth.