If you ask any rock or jazz guitarist who came up since 1960 who their main influence is, almost unanimously, you hear Jimi Hendrix. Why? When he died in 1970, he had sounds trapped in his head that he couldn’t figure out how to get out of his guitar. You hear some of those sounds that escaped in the playing of Robert Fripp, Ritchie Blackmore, Eddie Van Halen, and even such feel-over-flash players as Eric Clapton, David Gilmour, and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
But Hendrix was unique for another reason. He was an American black man in the 1960’s whom everyone thought of as English. Not bad for a guy once fired by Little Richard for looking “too pretty.”
Hendrix started as a side man for Little Richard and the Isley Brothers. But it was his debut album with The Jimi Hendrix Experience that became a lightning rod for modern rock. Hendrix’s guitar was distorted and manipulated at a time when no effects pedals existed. Those sounds were supernatural. Those sounds had never been heard before. Even today, “Are You Experienced” sounds otherworldly.
Like Cream, Hendrix worked in a power trio. All he needed to do was use his guitar. His voice was adequate for what he wanted to accomplish, and he had a sort of cocky, sing-songy speaking style to his vocals filled with bravado. After all, it takes a confident man to set one’s guitar on fire while dressed in a feather boa.
But then if you never saw Jimi Hendrix, even in photographs, all you need to know is what comes out of the speakers. Nowhere is this more evident than his album Axis: Bold As Love. The trippiest song he ever wrote is on this album, “If 6 Were 9.” The song was laced with Hopi folklore (Hendrix was part Cherokee), and summed up the cultural upheaval at the end of the 60’s. Arguably, though, the song with the most impact on that album, indeed of Hendrix’s career, is “Little Wing.” It’s always a joy to listen to.
When I worked two jobs, I used to listen to Stevie Ray Vaughan’s instrumental version of “Little Wing” to come down from a long day. Vaughan’s version is actually better than Hendrix’s if only because Hendrix was no longer around to improve it himself. But if you listen to Vaughan’s, you hear Jimi Hendrix loud and clear. The student, Vaughan, learned well from the master and pays him proper respect with this cover.
I don’t think rock would have existed as it did in the 1970’s without Hendrix. Even the holy guitar trio of Clapton, Beck, and Page took their cues from the man from Seattle. Hendrix not only knew how to make the guitar do things it was never intended to do, but he knew better than most how to put songs together and even how to record them, something few musicians can claim.
As proof, look at what he did with Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower.”