One need only listen to the first few seconds of "Purple Haze" to understand the volatility and ground breaking guitar experimentation of Jimi Hendrix, whose music epitomizes not only the late 1960's psychedelic era, but also rock guitar in general. His ability to push the boundaries of the sounds an instrument was capable of producing paved the way for future guitarists, and although it is more accessible, can in many ways be compared to the work of John Cage.
This is not to say that Cage influenced Hendrix, but rather to explore the topic of artistic invention. Just as Cage believed that any sound could be considered as music, Hendrix employed the use of distortion, feedback, and a multitude of flashy, yet ingeniously crafted effects that shattered the perception of what the guitar could do. Hendrix introduced a whole new vocabulary and emotion to rock guitar, an innovation that spans generations and genres continuing to influence and astound musicians of a variety of styles including Jazz (Miles Davis), Minimal music (Laurie Anderson), Rap and hip-hop (Public Enemy/Chuck D.), and nearly every rock guitarist thenceafter.
James Marshall Hendrix was born in 1942 in Seattle, Washington. As a self-taught musician he drew influence from early Chicago blues guitarists such as B.B. King, Muddy Waters, and Robert Johnson. After leaving his broken home in Seattle, he joined the military as a paratrooper. Following his discharge from the Army in 1961 due to injury, he began playing back up for blues musicians around the Nashville area, eventually working with R&B acts such as Sam Cooke, James Brown, Ike and Tina Turner, and Little Richard. Although his experience with such prominent acts yielded no musical significance, by 1966 he had relocated to New York City and formed his own band, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, which allowed the guitarist to launch his soaring talents.
The first impact of Hendrix's music was felt in London with the 1967 release of the trio's explosive debut album, Are You Experienced. The first single, "Hey Joe" (See video), originally recorded by a Los Angeles band called The Leaves, initiated a sequence of incendiary psychedelic hits including "Purple Haze", "The Wind Cries Mary", "Foxy Lady", and "Manic Depression."
Hendrix's success in the United States was literally and figuratively ignited following his appearance at the famed San Francisco Monterey Pop Festival in the spring of 1967. When he proceeded to set his Fender Stratocaster guitar ablaze, coaxing the flames out of it's body like a shaman, audiences were riveted. Are You Experienced shot to number five on the US charts and Hendrix brought the group back to the United States.
His guitar gymnastics were of particular fascination as he played passionately with his teeth, lips, tongue, and a variety of body parts. Although Hendrix would dazzle audiences playing the guitar behind his back and over his head all the while using a right handed Fender Stratocaster held upside-down and played left-handed, the showmanship in no way diminished his astonishing ability and dexterity.
After releasing just two more albums, by 1969, The Experience broke up. In the same year Hendrix played Woodstock featuring his ferocious signature version of "The Star Spangled Banner", followed by the formation of his second group, Band of Gypsies, who would release only one album in Hendrix's lifetime. Although the group recorded Band of Gypsies 2 (released in 1986), and began recording a third album, the project was cut short by the untimely death of rock's premiere guitarist. The pressures of success, and propensity for heavy chemical excess mounted, eventually claiming the life of another icon from the psychedelic era. On September 18, 1970 Jimi Hendrix died from an overdose of barbiturates.
Often during discussions pertaining to rock history the question of who was the best rock and roll guitarist of all time is posed. Although the question is subjective, it's not unrealistic to say, with a high degree of certainty, that Jimi Hendrix often tops the list. More important, however, is the reason why Jimi Hendrix is among history's top guitar legends, especially when considering the fact that his solo career only lasted five years. There is little doubt that he pushed the guitar farther than anyone before him.
Page author: A.E.