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I don't really remember the first time I heard the name Jimi Hendrix. He was always one of the artists I just seemed to know about from day one... as was his legendary prowess on the electric guitar. I don't really remember the first time I heard a Hendrix song either, but I do remember the first Hendrix album I bought, and the subsequent days I spent listening to it, soaking in as much as I possibly could. Suddenly all the stories of this infamous guitarist were true... I knew he was the guitar master and I never really even thought to question why.
Once I started playing guitar myself and really digging into the theory, technique and potential of the instrument, a lot of other great guitarists came into view, many that certain logic might dictate are "better" than Jimi, and yet Hendrix is almost universally considered to be the master of the electric guitar. Now maybe you disagree with that statement, but to me, there are a number of reasons that Jimi is the number one guitar legend.
I've written about Jimi's guitar work before, but I thought it was time to really expand upon why I like it so much. This is a little three part piece about why I think Hendrix is THE guitar master. The first part is dedicated to Jimi's the innovative technique, the second will be about subtlety and the third about soul.
For people who aren't guitar players, or electric guitar players, just how difficult plugging into a couple of Marshall stacks, setting the amp to 11 and playing a screaming, feedback laced, massively epic guitar solo... with your teeth... might not be apparent. It's certainly not easy by any stretch of the imagination and so there's something to be said purely for the raw technique. As anyone who's ever tried to learn a Hendrix tune or two can attest (which is like everyone who's ever picked up an electric guitar), Jimi's music is hardly easy to play. A song like "Voodoo Chile (Slight Return) is a good example with it's high speed lead playing with plenty of rock and roll energy. Learning such a song in it's entirety is hard enough, but then you've also got to learn to play it with all the added flash that were Hendrix trademarks... like playing with your teeth, behind your head, or just at such a massively overdriven volume that you can use feedback to harmonize... a lot of which has to be improvised on the spot.
Along with impressive and exciting techniques, there's nothing simple about Jimi's rhythm playing either. Songs like "Purple Haze", "Fire", "Izabella"and 'Gypsy Eyes" are no walk in the park rhythmically with advanced chords and or complex transitions that require plenty of practice to master. The last of these songs was always especially complex in my mind, with it's unique rhythmic style, but there's also a certain jazziness to some Hendrix chords and chord progressions as well, that demonstrates a pretty advanced chord knowledge and dedication to creating exciting rhythm parts. Of course being the guitar master, Jimi goes one step further and even adds improvisation to his chord progressions often throwing in little passing notes that add depth and extra color, making these rhythm parts more than just chords. That type of improvisation takes a tremendous knowledge of the instrument... to know exactly how certain notes will sound over a specific chord or chord progression and then be able to add them in for color and texture at will is not something easy to master. Plus, although there's is usually a good basis to his music, Jimi was always pushing the boundary rhythmically, making each song completely unique.
Sure, complex chords and high speed playing are all impressive, but I think what is most often associated with Hendrix are the advanced techniques he employed in creating massive psychedelic freak outs. Feedback and volume play a big part in the Hendrix techniques... both of which had and were being used at the time by a number of other guitarists (Clapton with Cream comes to mind). Jimi's use of the whammy bar combined with feedback to create these screeching howls is pretty unique (at the time), making him one of the first to really put it all together into a complete sonic palette. Take a song like "Third Stone from the Sun"...a massive psychedelic bit of acid jazz and experimentation with noise rock... or the infamous "Star Spangled Banner" performance from Woodstock. The shear dedication it takes to be able to perform these types of pieces is impressive. Although it may seem easy to create noise on the electric guitar, doing so in a way that it actually conveys something is not... just another sign that Jimi was dedicated to mastering his instrument in his own unique voice.
Now, although technique isn't everything when it comes to great guitar work, it is one of the most noticeable things about Jimi's playing and no conversation about Hendrix as the guitar master would be complete without discussing it. Even people who are not guitarists can usually appreciate some of Jimi's advanced techniques. At the same time though, like all great musicians, often times Jimi made it seem a lot easier than it really is, so take another listen to some of the songs I've mentioned here and see if you can hear a little of that advanced technique... or better yet, if you're a guitarist, try to play a song or two yourself to gain some appreciation.
As I said, technical prowess isn't the end all and be all with guitar playing, and it certainly isn't the only thing that makes Hendrix great. There has been plenty of players who can play faster, use more complex chords and have mastered better and flashier techniques. Jimi was one of the first to really master the electric guitar though, and his technique is definitely part of his legend. It's only part 1 though...
Click here to read part 2 of this three part series:
Why is Hendrix the Guitar Master: Part 2 - Subtle Beauty