From Guitar Player Magazine September 1975
THE FIRST TIME I SAW Jimi play he was Timmy James with the Blue Flames. I was performing with Paul Butterfield, and I was the hot shot guitarist on the block - I thought I was it. I'd never heard of Hendrix. Then someone said, "You got to see the guitar player with John Hammond." I was at the Cafe Au Go Go and he was at the Nite Owl or the Cafe Wha? I went right across the street and saw him. Hendrix knew who I was, and that day, in front of my eyes, he burned me to death. I didn't even get my guitar out. H bombs were going off, guided missiles were flying - I can't tell you the sounds he was getting out of his instrument. He was getting every sound I was ever to hear him get right there in that room with a Stratocaster, a Twin (amplifier), a Maestro fuzz, and that was all - he was doing it mainly through extreme volume. How he did this, I wish I understood. He just got right up in my face with that axe, and I didn't even want to pick up a guitar for the next year.
I was awed. I'd never heard anything like it. I didn't even know where he was coming from musically, because he wasn't playing any of his own tunes. He was doing things like "Like A Rolling Stone," but in the most unusual way. He wasn't a singer; he wasn't even particularly a player. That day, Jimi Hendrix was laying things on me that were more sounds than they were licks. But I found, after hearing him two orthree more times, that he was into pure melodic playing and lyricism as much as he was into sounds. In fact, he had melded them into a perfect blend.
Jimi told me he'd been playing the chit-lin' circuit, and he hadn't heard guitarists doing anything new. He was bored out of his mind. He was a real shy talker, and often spoke in riddles, though he could be quite lucid if pinned down. He explained that he could do more than play backup guitar in the chitlin'circuit. And though he was a rotten singer, he knew that he had alot going on electric guitar. Jimi said he had never heard anyone play in his style.
We both performed around Greenwich Village for months, but I didn't know that Hendrix wrote his own music, and he never sang. He would mumble a song. Right around the time he was playing with John Hammond, Chas Chandler got hold of him and said, "You'll sing how you sing. Don't worry about it, man; you've got enough going for you."
There was no great electric guitarist in rock and roll that Jimi didn't know of. I could ask him about records that I knew had real fancy guitar parts, where the performer was ahead of his time or playing funky on a record that wasn't particularly funky. For example, Jimi knew all about avery early Righteous Brothers record on which there's a guitarist who plays very advanced rock and roll guitar for that time. There's another record by Robert Parker, who made "Barefootin"" called, "You Better Watch Yourself," that has a real hot guitar player with a style more like Hendrix than most session players. Jimi said it wasn't him, but that he knew the guy -somebody named Big Tom Collins. He knew every hot guitarist on record.
When Are You Experienced came out, it was fantastic. But I was even more impressed with Jimi's second LP, Axis: Bold As Love. It was fabulous, utterly funky. I'd heard the Who and Cream and much loud electric power music, but I had never heard a trio that really worked and was so danceable. Hendrix defined how a trio should sound. He had such an orchestral concept that Are You Experienced negated everything I had heard in the English lead guitar power trio field.
Jimi had been fooling with feedback, but when he heard the Yardbirds, he realized its huge potential. Hendrix would sustain a note and add vibrato so that it sounded just like a human voice. He used an immense vocabulary of controlled sounds, not just hoping to get those sounds, but actually controlling them as soon as he produced them. I have never heard such controlled frenzy, especially in electric music. Jimi said that he went to England to wipe them out, and he did.
When he came back to the U.S., he jammed a lot. He was in the habit, around 1968 or '69, of carrying two very good home recorders with him, and every time he jammed he would set these up so that, with the two four-track machines, he was getting eight tracks of recording. God knows who has these tapes, but Jimi was a massive chronicler of his own and other people's jams. I personally saw at least ten jams that he recorded. The Cafe Au Go Go in New York also had extremely good recording facilities, and I believe they recorded every time Hendrix jammed there; he did that countless times.
I don't think Jimi used anything but Stratocasters very much. If he used another guitar, that was probably because his wasn't around, or he just wanted to see what another was like, or - as in the caseof the Flying V in the Hendrix documentary film - he was at a point where he didn't care about anything. I think the Flying V was something they stuck in his hands. He played real sloppy, and that was the only bad playing I ever recall seeing or hearing by Hendrix.
I never saw anything customized on any of his guitars, except he told me that his wang bar was customized on all of his guitars, so he could pull it back much farther than a whole step. He wanted to be able to lower it three steps. He had no favorite guitar; they were all expendable. Buddy Miles has some of his Strats, and all the ones that I've tried are hard to play -heavy strings and heavy action. I'm amazed that he could play as facile as he did.
Jimi's musical approach, as he explained it to me, was to lay out the entire song and decide how it should be - horns, strings, the way it would wind up. He would play the drum beat on a damp wah-wah pedal, the bass part on the bass strings of his guitar, and the pattern of the song with just the wah-wah pedal. Then he would flesh the pattern out by playing it with chords and syncopation. He was extremely interested in form. In a few seconds of playing, he'd let you know about the entire structure. That's why he liked rhythm guitar playing so much; The rhythm guitar could lay out the structure for the whole song. He would always say,"This is a world of lead guitar players, but the most essential thing to learn is the time, the rhythm." He once told me he wanted to burn Clapton to death because he didn't play rhythm.
Jimi would play a bass pattern, and then fill it in with chords. And at the exact same time he would play lead by making a high note ring out while using very unorthodox chord positions. He had a massive thumb, which he used like an additional finger, so his hand positions were unconventional for every chord.
Once we played a gig at The Shrine inLos Angeles, and we were backstage fooling around with our guitars. Hendrix was playing with his toggle switch. He was taking the toggle switch of the guitar, tapping the back of the neck, and using vibrato,and it came out sounding like a sirocco, a wind coming up from the desert. I have never heard a sound on a Hendrix record that I have not seen him create in front of my eyes.
I don't know how he kept the guitar in tune. If you jerk a wang bar, your guitar goes out of tune. But his didn't, apparently.He could bend it in tune.
Somehow, by tapping the back of his guitar neck (which he constantly did) and by using the bar, Jimi could control feed back. You would hear a rumbling start. He knew which note would feed back and what harmonic he was shooting for, and then he controlled it. Somehow, when he had all the notes open, he would raise the pitch level by using the bar and he'd get a higher note to feed back, or he would make the bass note feed back harmonically. He was listening for such things,and I believe he heard them on the English records, particularly by the Yardbirds and Jeff Beck. He was very modest. He never said he took feedback further than theYardbirds. He said, "I fool with it, and what I'm doing now is the fruits of my fooling around."
You couldn't even tell what Hendrix was doing with his body. He moved with all those tricks that black guitarists had been using since T-Bone Walker and Guitar Slim playing behind his head and with his teeth. He took exhibitionism to a new degree. He used to crash his guitar agains this hip. It was a bold gesture, and he would get a roaring, fuzzy, feedback sound. His body motion was so integrated with his playing that you couldn't tell where one started and the other left off.
Many of his sounds were things that Jimi stumbled on, and a lot he shopped for. They became part of his musical language. It wasn't something he could just tell you how to do. You had to understand the whole way he heard sound, the way he wanted to feel sound and get it out to create music.
I remember going to his hotel room. He had a little Kay amp against the wall, and he had his guitar out. Immediately he was getting new sounds out of it. He never stopped playing. His guitar was the first thing he'd reach for when he woke up. Wewere bopping around New York once, and I said, "Let's find some girls." He said,"That can wait; there's always time for that. Let's play, man." He was the most compulsive player I've ever run into. That's why he was so good.
Melodically, he used two basic scales:The blues minor scale and its relative major. If he was playing A minor, he would go to C major and make it a major seventh scale. "All Along The Watchtower" is a perfect vehicle for minor or blues scale improvisation, while "Bold As Love," "Little Wing," and "The Wind Cries Mary' were perfect for major key explorations.
But it was no big thing for Hendrix to play melodies; he wanted to play like anorchestra. This is the crux of his music. it's not just lead guitar, it's orchestral guitar, like Segovia, Chet Atkins, Wilburn Burchette, Ry Cooder, and George Van Eps. Jimi Hendrix was the most orchestral of all. Have you ever heard "The Star Spangled Banner" on Rainbow Bridge? That's recorded like a huge symphony.
I recall Jimi saying that he wanted to get a band together that was not like theExperience, one with a lot of interplay and more equality, with guys he could learn from as much as they from him. With the Experience, he played bass half the time on record. He wanted a trio with percussion and a horn or two, with singers more voices than his own. If anyone was a one-man band, it was Jimi. He'd tap his foot and would have a drum; that's all he needed. Perhaps the burden of being the whole orchestra was too much.
Hendrix was by far the greatest expert I've ever heard at playing rhythm and blues, the style of playing developed by Bobby Womack, Curtis Mayfield, Eric Gale, and others. I got the feeling there was no guitaring of any kind that he hadn't heard or studied, including steel guitar, Hawaiian, and dobro.
In his playing I can really hear Curtis Mayfield, Wes Montgomery, Albert King, B.B. King, and Muddy Waters. Jimi was theblackest guitarist I ever heard. His music was deeply rooted in pre blues, the oldest musical forms like field hollers and gospel melodies. From what I can garner, there was no form of black music that he hadn't listened to or studied, but he especially loved the real old black music forms, and they poured out in his playing. We often talked about Son House and the old blues guys. But what really did it to him was early Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker records, that early electric music where the guitar was hugely amplified and boosted by the studio to give it the effect of more presence than it really had. He knew that stuff backwards. You can hear every old John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters thing that ever was on that one long version of "Voodoo Chile" (ElectricLadyland].
I never heard Jimi play anything that sounds like jazz, though I have heard him play like Mahavishnu [John McLaughlin]. He learned to apply melodic ideas to permanent sustain, tied in with feedback from the Yardbirds and other English groups. I think he even mentioned Beck's "Bolero."
Jimi's lyrics and folkadelic clothes were all stone white, but he's as black as they come. He applied all of his techniques, which he mostly got from rock and roll and English groups, to black melody lines and bluesy scales. There's very little recorded of Hendrix playing blues, other than the two "Red House" cuts, but he was an unparalleled blues guitarist. However, I remember him saying that he found playing blues boring.
Though I watched Hendrix perform many times, I couldn't understand his hand positions or the chords he used. He could play left or right-handed with equal facility. Sometimes, he didn't even re-string his guitar; he just played it upside down.
I feel that Hendrix was one of the most innovative guitar players who ever lived. He was the man that took electric music and defined it. He turned sounds from devices like wah-wahs into music. They weren't gimmicks when he used them. In fact, they were beyond music. They were in the realm of pure sound and music combined. Every time I ever saw l Jimi play, I felt that he was an object lesson for everything that I should be and wasn't. But I could never say something like that to him, because he was a super modest guy.
I didn't see Jimi for a long while, and when I did, he had the stink of death on him. He smelled like he was rotting from the inside out. He had that rock star look that was fashionable then, the look of starving: no food, no sleep, very sallow. I couldn't talk to him because it was so shocking and horrible that I didn't want to confront that.
One of the traits of barbiturates is that you can taste them. If a capsule breaks before it gets into your stomach and lodges in your throat, it acts as an emetic and forces you to vomit. I'm sure that's what happened: A few capsules got caught in his throat, forced him to vomit, and he died. I'm positive he didn't commit suicide. But I'm also positive that if some one hadn't taken him in hand, he would have burned out anyway, because when I saw him before he died, he was a wreck. Too much of being a product was killing him. Maybe he didn't want to stop, or maybe he didn't know how. Ultimately, it's in the artists hands. Obviously Jimi didn't stop.
The Record Plant, New York City 1968