50 years on: Was Jimi Hendrix the greatest guitarist of all time?
PUBLISHED: 18:00 14 September 2020 | UPDATED: 18:20 14 September 2020
Remembering Jimi Hendrix, the world’s greatest guitarist, 50 years after his untimely death. We take a look at an amazing career that lasted for just four short years but spawned a legacy that will last forever
Next week it will be 50 years since the world lost, arguably, the greatest guitarist of all-time. On September 18, 1970, Jimi Hendrix was discovered dead in his London flat.
He had been out the night before. Eric Clapton, a friend and a fan, had planned to meet up with him and had bought him a left-handed Stratocaster as a present, but the pair only acknowledged each other at a distance as crowds conspired to keep them apart.
Eric said in a 1970s interview: ““The night that he died I was supposed to meet him at the Lyceum to see Sly Stone play, and I brought with me a left-handed Stratocaster. I just found it, I think I bought it at Orange Music. I’d never seen one before and I was gonna give it to him.
“He was in a box over there and I was in a box over here. I could see him but I couldn’t… we never got together. The next day, whack! He was gone. And I was left with that left-handed Stratocaster.”
Jimi Hendrix was a force of nature. In four short years he changed the face of music forever influencing everyone from then current guitar heroes like Clapton and Jimmy Page to fresh-faced upcoming youngsters like Jeff Beck, Richie Blackmore and Brian May.
His style was as eclectic as it was electric. It went from the down home blues of The Red House, Voodoo Child and Hear My Train A-Comin’, to the ethereal Little Wing and Third Stone From The Sun to the driving rock of Hey Joe, Purple Haze, Machine Gun and Voodoo Chile (Slight Return).
Although, the world continues to wonder at the music he would have gone onto make, tracks that he had laid down for his unfinished 1970 album First Rays of the New Rising Sun suggest that he was going to be exploring a more free-form jazz-like sound, utilizing the freedom of the long-playing album format rather than being restricted to a three minute single.
As we all know, there is no such thing as an overnight success – every ‘overnight success’ has toiled away from the limelight honing their skills – Jimi was probably as close as you would ever get. He spent years playing lead guitar in other people’s bands – notably for The Isley Brothers and then Little Richard – but once he and his guitar found their collective voice there was no looking back, the music just flowed.
In the space of a few months Hendrix went from being a complete unknown to being a global superstar. An indication of just how quickly Hendrix’s life changed can be gauged from the fact that in May 1966 Hendrix was struggling to earn enough money to put food on the table. He was so desperate for cash that he briefly rejoined Curtis Knight and the Squires while still performing with his own band Jimmy James and the Blue Flames.
As luck would have it Chas Chandler, bass player in the British blues band The Animals was in Greenwich Village one evening and caught Jimmy James at the Café Wha? and was blown away with Hendrix playing Hey Joe.
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Knowing that he was soon to be leaving The Animals to start a new management/production career he decided on the spot that Hendrix was his first discovery and in September 1966 signed him up and brought him over to London.
Hendrix made an immediate impression on the British capital. On October 1, 1966, Chandler took Hendrix to the London Polytechnic at Regent Street, where the newly formed Cream were scheduled to play one of their first gigs.
Chandler took Hendrix backstage where he was introduced to Eric Clapton. Clapton said later: “He asked if he could play a couple of numbers. I said, ‘Of course’, but I had a funny feeling about him.” Halfway through Cream’s set, Hendrix took the stage and performed a frantic version of the Howlin’ Wolf song “Killing Floor”. In 1989, Clapton could still recall the performance vividly: “He played just about every style you could think of, and not in a flashy way. I mean he did a few of his tricks, like playing with his teeth and behind his back, but it wasn’t in an upstaging sense at all, and that was it ... He walked off, and my life was never the same again.”
It is one of the great ironies of modern music that one of the greatest blues and rock players, a genre born in the American South and Mid-West, needed to come to London to be ‘discovered’ and then re-exported back to his own homeland as part of a ‘British Invasion’ in order to be a success.
In May 1966 Hendrix was virtually destitute living on people’s couches in New York’s Greenwich Village by November of that same year he was the toast of London and had recorded a Top Ten single, was about to headline his first tour and was part way through recording his first album, Are You Experienced? which would be released the following May.
It was at this point the world sat up and took notice. Hendrix, seemingly aware that his time was short, became a writing and recording machine. When he wasn’t gigging he was writing and recording material like there was no tomorrow.
December 1967 brought his second album of the year, Axis: Bold As Love, which fully embraced the psychedelic Summer of Love spirituality that defined those months. As he toured that album he began work on his double album masterpiece Electric Ladyland which would come out in 1968 and feature a more earthy, stripped back sound. Although, named after the Manhattan-based recording studios he invested in, the majority of the album was laid down at Hendrix favourite London haunt, Olympic Studios in Barnes, simply because the kitting out of Electric Ladyland wasn’t complete until the mixing stages of the album.
Then as 1968 blurred into 1969, Hendrix did the unthinkable, he broke up a winning team. He, drummer Mitch Michell and bass player Noel Redding collectively The Jimi Hendrix Experience went their separate ways.
Hendrix flirted with a more free-style form of playing which he dubbed The Electric Church before forming The Band of Gypsys which recorded a live New Year’s Eve album but never recorded in a studio before Hendrix assembled The New Experience bringing back Mitch Mitchell on drums and Billy Cox from Band of Gypsys on bass.
Work started in earnest on the new album but Hendrix’s drug-taking had exploded during the past year resulting in him becoming less focused and reliable and studio dates becoming more jam-sessions than the disciplined recording exercises of the past. Nevertheless, the sheer volume of material he committed to tape in those final months is breath-taking as are his levels of invention.
Tom Morello, frontman of Rage Against The Machine, when nominating Hendrix for Rolling Stone magazine’s Great Guitarist of All Time list wondered, had Hendrix lived, whether he would have stayed as creative or as brave in his musical choices, or would he now be another of Rock’s elder statesmen and be introduced at charity gigs as Sir Jimi Hendrix.
In a way it doesn’t matter if he did become Sir Jimi. Just as Paul McCartney and John Lennon’s position in history was secured by their work with The Beatles, so Jimi Hendrix will be forever defined by a trio of albums that will stand the test of time.
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