Tuesday (November 27) marks 70 years since the birth of Jimi Hendrix, the man who changed electric guitar and rock’n'roll forever. For the past few weeks, CBS Local has discussed the man’s impact with musicians who came after him, his peers, and even one of his main inspirations. Everyone felt his influence, whether it was on their guitar playing, or their singing. Some even found a new direction for their life thanks to Jimi.
With many, the first thing that caught their attention was Jimi’s look. Vernon Reid, who would later form the heavy rock band Living Colour, recalls, “I remember seeing him on the Dick Cavett Show, wearing a blue kimono. I was like, ‘Who is this person?’”
Guitarist Steve Vai, who played with Frank Zappa and David Lee Roth before going solo, also remembers Hendrix’s appearance: “He marched to the beat of his own drum. He wore the clothes that he wanted to wear.”
Those clothes weren’t merely a gimmick. They were another aspect of his artistic vision: wild, colorful and without limits. “He really dissolved the lines between convention and personal expression,” Vai says. “And he did it on many levels.”
(photo credit: Credit: Nigel Dickson / (c) Authentic Hendrix, LLC)
He also dissolved the lines between genres. In the space of four years, 1967 (when his debut album, Are You Experienced?, was released) through 1970 (when he passed away), his artistic evolution was astounding. Experienced? had the proto-metal of “Foxy Lady” and “Fire”; by 1969′s Electric Ladyland, he was experimenting with Curtis Mayfield-influenced R&B.
Tom Johnston of The Doobie Brothers said, “He was a big influence on everybody for the short period of time he was around. And it was a short period: he did a lot in those four years, ’66 through ’70. In the studio, he was a genius. He changed the way people thought about everything from feedback to backwards guitar solos.”
That impact was felt across genres: Robert Lamm of Chicago noted that The Jimi Hendrix Experience was a big influence on his band’s early improvisational style: “They were doing jazz without saying ‘I’m doing jazz.’ They were taking a jazz approach.” The Jimi Hendrix Experience brought extended improvising to rock’n'roll, without alienating a younger audience who weren’t necessarily interested in jazz. In effect, they helped to combine the two genres, an influence that extended way past Chicago to many of the jam bands of today.
Of course, Hendrix’s impact wasn’t limited to the experimental R&B of Chicago or the early jam band scene: nearly every heavy metal guitar player worth his or her instrument is a Hendrix disciple. Def Leppard guitarist Phil Collen dubs him “the most amazing guitar player of all-time.” Metallica is on the other side of the hard rock/metal spectrum, but guitarist Kirk Hammett echoes that sentiment: “He’s my favorite guitar player of all time. He was a really early influence. When I was 14 or 15, I became obsessed with him. I would say that, specifically, his performance at Woodstock is what inspired me to pick up a guitar.”
Hendrix had that kind of seismic effect on many. George Thorogood‘s primitive guitar style owes more to Bo Diddley and John Lee Hooker than to Hendrix, but he says that Jimi’s influence on his went far beyond guitar technique. In fact, it inspired him to become a musician, full-tilt, full-time. ”I saw Hendrix play live,” Diddley says. “I saw him play (his cover of Bob Dylan’s) ‘Like A Rolling Stone.’ After I saw that, I had to go to school the next day. (But) I was done with that. I couldn’t go pledge allegiance to the flag and do 40 pushups. I couldn’t take school seriously after what I saw the night before!”
(photo credit: William Warner / (c) Authentic Hendrix, LLC)
In the case of Motorhead frontman and metal icon Lemmy, who worked as a roadie for Hendrix for a time, the influence was more about being an individual artist. He recalls: “He helped me to cement my resolve as a singer. He hated singing, he would board himself up in the corner of a room with a microphone and he’s record like that. I still do that now, myself. He must have been insecure about his singing. I thought he was a great singer, he had a lot of soul.” Def Leppard’s Joe Elliott concurs: “As a singer, you realize that he was a singer who played guitar, not just the other way around.” Steve Vai adds, simply, “The way he sang was uber, ultra cool.”
Melissa Etheridge says that she was struck by how Hendrix was comfortable being himself. “He’s a light to musicians about how to stay on your path, and stay on your journey, and how you can embrace all those mystical things about rock and roll.” Vai, meanwhile, says that Hendrix took his influences and made something completely new: “He did things with the guitar that he was hearing in his head. Where did he get that stuff from? There was no place where he could copy that from. It stands up today – to this day, I still marvel at the notes and the way he played the guitar. When I look back (at the era) before Hendrix was around, it’s like dead space.”
Vernon Reid references one of Hendrix’s legendary performances with his Band Of Gypsys: “When I think of him playing ‘Machine Gun,’ he’s playing this thing and in the middle of it, he’s playing with the springs on the back of his guitar, it sounds like something not of this earth.” These days, Reid plays in a band called Spectrum Road with Jack Bruce of Cream, who was a star on the British rock scene when Hendrix arrived. His take: “He wasn’t really just a guitar player, he was a musician. And if he had played any other instrument, he would have been equally as astounding, saxophone, trumpet, slide trombone. I think it was something innately in him.”
Apparently, it was something that was in him from the time that he became a bandleader. After years of being a sideman for artists including The Isley Brothers and Little Richard, he formed The Jimi Hendrix Experience (with British musicians Noel Redding [bass] and Mitch Mitchell [drums]) and quickly began blowing minds with his live performances. Jon Anderson hadn’t yet formed Yes when he first saw the Experience at a small club in Germany, and his memory of the show remains vivid all these years later: “I saw him playing with The Experience at a small club in Munich, about 250 people. He’d just released (his debut single) ‘Hey Joe,’ the album (1967′s Are You Experienced?) was coming out that month. It was remarkable, the energy that was coming off stage, I’d never seen anything like it in my life, and I’d seen a lot of people by then.”
A young Peter Frampton hadn’t yet joined Steve Marriott in Humble Pie when he saw Hendrix in a British club, and he was knocked out as well, despite the fact that there was a lot of great guitar talent in England (including Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton) by then: “He’d blown everyone away at that performance. Clapton’s blues style was very sophisticated and charming. Very ‘on the money.’ Hendrix comes over… (His playing) wasn’t ugly, but it was more ballsy. A little out-of-tune, but it was full of passion. I think it’s his passion that I love most of all.”
Musicians are quick to heap praise on Hendrix, as evidenced by the many testimonies above. Perhaps Hendrix would be most proud of what Buddy Guy said to CBS Local about him. Apparently, the only time Hendrix ever missed a gig was to catch Buddy performing across town. “He said that he wanted to see me play and he cancelled a show that night to see me play. As creative as he was, he didn’t have to miss no show to see nobody! Man, that guy did so much for guitarists… you can’t find a guitar player in the world who hasn’t used one of his licks, including myself.”
Ultimately, Hendrix’s enduring legacy isn’t just about any one thing — guitar playing, fashion or singing — but a combination of everything that made him unique and helped him to realize his vision, a vision that still resonates today. Tragically, Hendrix died after releasing only three albums: Are You Experienced?, Axis: Bold As Love and Electric Ladyland. But he wrote and recorded at a furious pace, and his record labels and his estate has consistently issued “previously unreleased” music for decades, and there’s more to come. His sister Janie Hendrix, the President and CEO of Experience Hendrix, recently told CBS Local about two upcoming projects: an album of studio recordings called People, Hell & Angels and a live album and documentary around Hendrix’s performance at 1968′s Miami Pop Festival.
There’s little chance that anything that has come out since Hendrix’s passing will ever have the impact of his first three studio albums (and a handful of live documents, specifically his performances at Woodstock and Monterrey). But they give a good, if foggy, vision of what may have been if the man survived into his thirties and beyond. At the least, they enhance the body of work that lasted a short time, but whose impact continues to resonate, over four decades later.
– Brian Ives, CBS Local with additional reporting by Heather Stas