For decades, a belief has taken hold among guitarists — to prove your ability, you must pay homage to Jimi Hendrix.
He was hailed by the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as “the most gifted instrumentalist of all time.” Hendrix’s virtuosity looms so large that many guitarists still vainly attempt to emulate him. Just as whiz-kid classical pianists flaunt their chops by interpreting Mozart, so have guitarists such as Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Prince and John Mayer felt the need to perform Hendrix classics such as “Hey Joe,” “Little Wing” and “Foxey Lady.” That’s why rock’s magazine of record, Rolling Stone, named Hendrix the greatest guitar player ever.
While Hendrix’s guitar artistry is indisputable, it‘s ultimately a puzzle piece of his panoramic talent. He was also a composer of accessibly complex songs, and a poet-caliber lyricist (“a broom is drearily sweeping / up the broken pieces of yesterday’s life …”). The rock legend has posthumously earned multiple Hall of Fame Grammy Awards, including the Recording Academy’s prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award.
But just what makes Hendrix rock’s greatest expressionist? His live performances were at times distractingly sloppy, his guitar tone ear-piercing. Curiously, it’s these stylistic eccentricities that make him singular. For Hendrix, music wasn’t about note-perfect performance, but rather a constant search for truth. If that meant playing long, solo-intensive songsillustrating the savageness of war, then so be it.
By the time of his death in 1970, Hendrix had so thoroughly changed musical perceptions that even jazz legends such as Miles Davis and Gil Evans were taking cues from him. It’s almost impossible to imagine influential jazz-fusion albums like Davis’ Bitches Brew — or acid-funk masterpieces like Funkadelic’s Maggot Brain — without Hendrix having laid the groundwork.
He leaped effortlessly from metallic fury to gossamer balladry and jazzy excursions. Arguably, Hendrix’s freakish talent is best demonstrated on his Woodstock performance of the “The Star-Spangled Banner,” where he performs guitar emulations of artillery and air-raid sirens in an audacious condemnation of American militarism.
Since his demise, a horde of guitarists has challenged Hendrix’s primacy, yet none have matched his genius. Sure, Eddie Van Halen is brilliant, but his solos tell us little about him, or his time.
By contrast, a Hendrix masterwork like “If 6 was 9” allows us a glimpse into the mind of a nonconformist and his anti-establishment generation. That’s why in the world of electric guitar, there are two ages — the monochrome era Before Hendrix, and the limitless, kaleidoscopic period After Hendrix. – Bruce Britt