Read the full article
This article was originally published in issue #60
To read the article in its entirety, view the digital magazine
In the mid-1960s, there were many British blues-rock luminaries drawing on the stylings of bluesmen like Freddie King, Buddy Guy and Muddy Waters. Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page each channelled the pentatonic based licks, screaming bends and stinging vibrato of early electric blues music, but none of them contributed as much to the vocabulary as Hendrix.
If you play the electric guitar, odds are you owe everything you do to the innovative musicianship of Jimi Hendrix. A bold claim? Perhaps, but once we’re done I’m fairly confident you’ll agree. Almost half a century on from the electric guitar icon's passing, Nick Jennison explores the impact that Hendrix still has the electric guitar today and breaks down some of the key factors that made his playing so influential and groundbreaking.
As an instrument, the electric guitar has reached a state of “maturity” with a wealth of “standard” repertoire, universally agreed-upon playing techniques and fairly rigid boundaries for how an instrument should look, play and sound. Despite this, it’s still a fairly young instrument when compared to the likes of pianos, cellos, trombones etc. In 1959, when a 15-year-old Jimi Hendrix received his first “proper guitar” (a Supro Ozark), the instrument was still in its infancy. The first electric guitar had been invented less than thirty years ago, and the first Marshall amplifier wouldn’t exist for another three years. It wasn’t even half a century since Segovia was trying to convince the conservatoires of Europe that the guitar was worthy of serious study.
Think about that for a moment. Most of the techniques, sounds and styles we take for granted had yet to be discovered. Most of the gear we take for granted hadn’t been invented yet. Luckily for us, we had Jimi to write the rulebook for us, and he did it in just four short years between the formation of the Jimi Hendrix Experience in 1966 and his tragic and untimely passing in 1970. Let’s take a look at Jimi’s legacy as a player, and how his influence shaped the way we play the guitar to this day.
BLUES ROCK LEAD STYLE
Pentatonic-based blues rock lines are completely ubiquitous to the guitar when used as a soloing instrument. Ask any non-guitar player to mimic the sound of a lead guitar and you’ll probably get something along the lines of “weeeaaaaaaaww! meedlymeedlymeedly-weaaaaaaaaaw!” (most likely accompanied by a pained, teeth sucking expression that’s somewhere between concentration, anguish and arousal). Throw in the gamut of expressive techniques commonly used in this style - bending, vibrato, slides, whammy bar abuse - and you have the quintessential voice of the guitar.
In the mid-1960s, there were many British blues-rock luminaries drawing on the stylings of bluesmen like Freddie King, Buddy Guy and Muddy Waters. Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page each channelled the pentatonic based licks, screaming bends and stinging vibrato of early electric blues music, but none of them contributed as much to the vocabulary as Hendrix. Take string bending for example. While Clapton, Beck et al was extremely accomplished with the technique, the sheer range of bends at Jimi’s disposal was unparalleled. Within a single phrase, Jimi would blend quick upward jerks, slow elegant sweeps, drooping pre-bends, exchange bends, unison bends, harmony bends - the entire lexicon of modern bending techniques. While his contemporaries used a great many of these techniques to powerful effect, Jimi used them all - and in some cases, invented them!
How about vibrato? Not only is it the most important technique for a soloing guitar player to master, but it’s also a player’s sonic fingerprint. While many of the early electric blues players and Hendrix’s British contemporaries had superb and instantly recognisable vibrato (BB King and Peter Green being two notable examples), they tended towards a narrow, fast “stinging” delivery. Jimi’s vibrato was slow, wide and languid - qualities we’d see in many of the great rock and blues vibratos of the 70s and onwards. Eddie Van Halen, Malmsteen, Michael Schenker, George Lynch and even Stevie Ray Vaughan have much more in common with Hendrix than then do with Page or Clapton in this regard.
BLENDING RHYTHM AND LEAD
Perhaps Jimi’s most famous contribution to the guitar vocabulary is his celebrated “rhythm/lead” style heard on tracks like Little Wing, Angel and Wind Cries Mary. It’s something we associate so deeply with Jimi that it even prompted Guthrie Govan to coin the term “Hendrixian Noodles”. So many titans of the guitar playing world have formed the core of their rhythm styles around Jimi’s approach - John Mayer, John Frusciante and Steve Vai, to name but three. Modern blues and neo-soul stylists like Eric Gales, Mateus Asato, Chris Buck and Gary Clark Jr continue to push the boundaries of this approach, but prior to Jimi, this style of playing simply didn’t exist.
Back then, “rhythm” and “lead" playing were two very distinct and separate disciplines - so much so that Gibson saw fit to label their pickup selector rings “rhythm” and “treble”, while Fender’s Jazzmaster sports a “rhythm/lead” switch with separate circuits for each. Stemming in part from the Gypsy jazz tradition that was popular in the 1930s, rhythm guitar referred almost exclusively to chordal strumming and arpeggios, while lead meant single note melodies and solos.
Jimi tore this page out of the book and set it on fire when he first draped his thumb over to the guitar’s neck to fret notes on the low E string. This in itself was anathema to the prevailing wisdom coming from the classical school. I’m sure we’ve all been instructed by a well-meaning teacher at some point that the thumb should always remain behind the neck and never creep over the top. However, it is precisely this rule-breaking behaviour that freed up his fretting hand fingers to play beautiful and intricate melodies while still holding down full 4 and 5 note chords. This, combined with the strong rhythmic sensibilities and tight pocket Jimi honed backing R&B acts like Little Richard, Sam Cooke and Wilson Pickett (and driven by the boredom and frustration his role as a sideman caused him) formed the nucleus of Jimi’s incredible chordal playing.
GUITARS, AMPS & EFFECTS
Now more than ever, the guitar is functioning as a textural instrument. Our pedalboards are expanding as quickly as our sonic horizons. Whether we’re talking about 80s pioneers like Andy Summers and The Edge or avant-garde mavericks like St. Vincent and Ed O’Brien, pedals offer guitarists a way to transcend the guitar’s inherent sonic limitations. And Jimi did it first.
While Hendrix’s eventual pedal setup of wah, Fuzz Face, Octavia and UniVibe seems positively spartan by today’s standards, in the late sixties it was light years ahead of the “guitar, cable, amp” setup used by many of his contemporaries when it came to sonic exploration - featuring just about every pedal on the market at the time. He was even known to bring out an Echoplex from time to time, although this was mainly reserved for studio shenanigans. With electronics guru Roger Mayer on hand to deal with any issues stemming from the rather sketchy build quality of these early stompboxes, you could also argue that Jimi was one of the earliest users of “modded” pedals!
It’s not just the pedals that we have to thank Jimi for though. His experiments with the use of feedback as a musical tool (previously thought of as an undesirable technical flaw) would eventually be used by bands like Sonic Youth and Nirvana, as well virtuosi like Gary Moore, who would use feedback to create the kind of unbelievably long sustained notes that had guitar nerds around the world reaching for their stopwatches (literally - people actually did that).
Yet another example of Jimi’s innovation is his use of the whammy bar on his strats. While players like Hank Marvin were already using the strat’s trem for subtle vibratos and pedal steel type lines, Jimi’s whammy bar usage was as wild as his on-stage antics. Howling dives and rhythmic slacking of the strings evoked the chaos of war during his controversial performance of The Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock. Not only was this the precursor to the outrageous and virtuosic whammy stylings of Eddie Van Halen, Steve Vai and Jeff Beck, it was also a powerful political statement made wholly with the electric guitar. Tom Morello would carry this spirit on in the 90s and beyond.
Of course, how could we talk about Hendrix without mentioning his outrageous live performances? Sure, performers like Little Richard and Chuck Berry were strutting and gyrating in outlandish costumes long before Jimi started shopping at Carnaby Street, and this kind of rock star behaviour goes as far back as 19th-century firebrands Niccolo Paganini and Franz Liszt. What sets Hendrix apart as a showman is how many guitarists have imitated him. Whether it was showing off by playing with his teeth, upsetting the parents of young Monkees fans with his hypersexual posturing or committing wanton acts of gear destruction, Jimi’s antics have been copied by so many guitarists down the years almost to the point of parody. That doesn’t make it any less awesome though.
So yes, we’ve got a whole lot to thank Jimi for - and we haven’t even discussed his contributions to songwriting, harmony or the broader cultural impact of his life and work. Hendrix was the man that single-handedly kicked off the electric guitar's half-century-long dominance of popular music, and in the process wrote the blueprint for how we’d be playing the guitar to this very day. If there was a “guitar Mount Rushmore”, you could argue for Django, Les Paul, Robert Johnson, Wes Montgomery, Eddie Van Halen and many others, but there are only two heads that would unquestionably have to be up there: Andres Segovia and Jimi Hendrix.
What can I say about Hendrix that hasn’t been said a thousand times already? He was (and remains) the most influential, innovative and well documented electric guitarist of all time, and pretty much every aspect of his unique and highly idiosyncratic playing style has been poured over by experts for decades.
Jimi’s style was so deep and nuanced that it would be impossible to cover everything in a single sitting. Rather, what I’ve attempted to present here is an overview of three aspects of Jimi’s playing:
- Heavy blues-rock riffing and lead style (reminiscent of tracks like Manic Depression and Voodoo Chile)
- Intricate “chord melody” playing (as heard in Angel and Little Wing)
- High octane psychedelic funk playing (inspired by tracks like Stone Free, Ezy Ryder and Stepping Stone)
If I could make you sound like Hendrix in a few sentences, I’d almost definitely be a millionaire by now. Unfortunately, his style goes way beyond just “playing the notes”. There are a few fundamental principles that’ll get you in the ballpark, though.
- Touch: Producer Eddie Kramer and electronics guru Roger Mayer have both spoken at length about Jimi’s light touch, particularly his picking hand. In addition, he used a rather light and flexible pick. If you batter the strings too hard, you’ll struggle to get the Hendrix tone.
- Strings: Jimi used pretty light strings, which contributed a lot of the “twang” and “snap” that characterises his tone. We used a Rotosound 8-38 set (with a 9 for the high E) on our Mexican Classic Player strat - my regular 10-52 set just sounded “wrong”. Be careful, because it’s really easy to play out of tune with super light strings; something you’ll hear on lots of the live Hendrix bootlegs out there.
- Pickups: Jimi’s strats didn’t have the 5-way selector found on modern strats. Avoid using positions 2 or 4 if you want to sound truly authentic.
- Fuzz: You absolutely do not need to buy a specific fuzz (or for that matter, any specific gear beyond “a strat, an amp and a fuzz”) to get close to the Hendrix tone. We used a Suhr Rufus Reloaded in both the green (regular) and red (octave fuzz) modes, but any decent fuzz should do. We ran this into a Marshall Bluesbreaker set just past clean, to take the edge off the fuzz somewhat. The fuzz was on throughout the entire session, and the “clean” tones came from rolling the guitar’s volume control back.
- Vibrato and bending: Hendrix’s bends and vibrato are a huge part of his tonal fingerprint. To emulate this, your vibrato should be medium-slow, fairly wide and very smooth. Fast “BB King” or excessively wide “Zakk” vibrato just won’t cut the mustard here. On the subject of bends, pay close attention to the “arc” of your banding. A good guideline is “up fast, down slowly”, but that’s not always the case. You really have to pay attention and use your ears.
Swell your volume while giving the 9th fret double stop some serious vibrato. The uni-vibe is optional, but I thought it sounded cool.
Our “riff” for this first section. The chord in question is the ever-popular 7#9 shape made famous in “Purple Haze”, while the chunky low string riff is inspired by “Freedom”.
The first lead break. Pay close attention to the note durations and the arc of the bends. The staccato notes are crucial to getting that Hendrix vibe.
More riffing, this time with a sliding flourish in the middle and a whammy bar dive at the end. This is a gentle dip, not a full-on dive bomb, although it’s interesting to see where whammy bar virtuosi like EVH and Steve Vai got the idea from!
More lead work, this time more frenetic and furious than the previous break. The timing on the first lick is a little strange, so it’s probably best just to target the 9th fret notes on the high E and the 11th fret bends on the G and lets the other notes fall where they may.
We return to the riff one last time, before embarking on some thumb-bass chord work. To get the bass notes, drape your thumb across the low E string. This leaves your fourth finger free to “decorate” the chord. For these first two, we’re throwing some 4ths on top to create a major-to-sus4 movement.
The high slide is a nod of the head to “Little Wing”, while the low hammer-ons are characteristic of Hendrix’s lead-in fills that start tracks like “Hey Joe”. Switch over to the middle pickup on your strat and roll the volume back to clean up the sound.
Some very tricky parts here, especially the F#m line in bar 25. For this, strum the chord before breaking into the 2nd fret barre necessary for the “twiddlier” lines.
The challenge here is very much the timing of the hammers and pulls. There’s a combination of regular “in time” notes and short “grace notes”. Pay close attention, and use your ears.
Time to kick on the octave fuzz (although it’s totally not essential) for some sliding lines inspired by “May This Be Love”. Switch to your neck pickup and wind the volume back up full. The slide and bend in bar 33 should be one continuous sound, tricking the ear into thinking you’re bending a whole octave!
A little quote from “Wind Cries Mary” here. Roll the volume back to clean things up.
We’re in funk territory now, with some spanky E7#9 chords, followed by muted strokes on the low and high strings to simulate (or exaggerate) the opening and closing of a wah.
More high octane lead work, this time with some exchange bends. To execute these, bend up on one string while catching the next string down as you bend up. At the apex of the bend, switch to the lower string and release the bend.
Another whammy bar lick innovated by Hendrix that we more readily associate with players like Vai, Satch or even Gary Moore. Once again, the open string dive is only a gentle dip rather than a full-on slack-stringed “dive bomb”.
Back to our funk riffing one last time, with a syncopated F7#9 figure and a tremolo picked slide up and down the low E string. Don’t worry about hitting any specific pitches here, just slide and pick (and maybe thrust your crotch at the audience, if that’s your sort of thing!).
Here we have more of a psychedelic style riff, which makes use of the “Wind Cries Mary” figure from bar 35. There are essentially three “fills” the bracket this riff - one chromatic low string figure, one sliding line on the G string and one choppy muted idea.
A unison bend reprise of the previous riff. To execute a unison bend, fret a note on a given string (in this case, the B string), while bending a note on the next string down until both notes are at the same pitch. Once you’re here, some subtle vibrato will give the bend a “crackling” kind of sound, almost like it’s on fire!
Ascending 7#9 chords bring this session to a dramatic close (reminiscent of the outro to “Freedom”). The best way to keep this in time is to play a muted downstroke followed quickly by a fretted upstroke before sliding up to the next position.
And there we have it! A brief and necessarily cursory look into the playing of the legendary Jimi Hendrix. It’s been an incredible privilege for me to put this breakdown together for you, and I hope you’ve enjoyed working through it. Consider this a “jumping off point” for getting into the stylings of Jimi Hendrix - it goes a lot deeper than what we’ve discussed here. There's a lot to experience when it comes to Hendrix.