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Jimi Hendrix: First Hand Experience

It’s 40 years since Jimi Hendrix arrived in the UK and taught every band that has existed since "how” they should play. Well, rock bands at least. Four decades ago, an unassuming musician called Jimi Hendrix took a trip from his native United States and headed towards Great Britain. Little did the popular music listening community know what he had in store for them. Come to think of it, neither, probably, did Jimi…

James Marshall Hendrix was born in Seattle, Washington on November 27, 1942 and began playing guitar as a child. School wasn’t easy and the teenage Hendrix never graduated. After getting in trouble with the law, Jimi joined the 101st Airborne Division of the US Army in 1961, but it really wasn’t for him. Music was in this young man’s blood. 

After leaving the armed services early – he managed to finagle an escape the following March with his discharge papers citing the reason for his premature departure as "behaviour problems, requires excessive supervision while on duty, little regard for regulations, apprehended masturbating in platoon area while supposed to be on detail”. A perfect precursor, it seems, for the chaotic, boundary-breaking, hedonistic life of a rock’n’roll star that he would go on to lead.

After packing up his guitar and heading to Nashville, Hendrix scored gigs with Little Richard’s backing group, the Isley Brothers’ band and on the R&B Chitlin Circuit of the southern US, but he grew bored of being a sideman. He upped sticks and moved to New York City. And it was in the Big Apple that his journey to superstar would really begin. 

Once settled, he put together his own band – primarily made up from musicians he met at Manny’s [a large music store on West 48th Street in Manhattan], one of whom was a very young pre-Spirit Randy California. They called themselves Jimmy James & The Blues Flames, and quickly made something of a name for themselves on the New York scene, earning themselves a residence at Café Wha? in Greenwich Village. It was at this popular venue on MacDougal Street that Hendrix crossed paths with noted sonic experimenter/art rocker Frank Zappa who, history tells us, told Jimi all about a new guitar effect he had come across, the wah-wah pedal. An effect that would later become synonymous with the Seattle native.

In addition to meeting Zappa, it was at the Café Wha? where Jimi would hook up with British manager Chas Chandler. So impressed was he with Hendrix’s tremendous raw talent, Chandler immediately set about bringing Jimi to the UK.

Hendrix arrived in the UK in late September 1966, and within a few short weeks, the young musician’s life was to change irrevocably.  And so would popular music. Chandler introduced Jimi to the thriving London music scene – this was in the midst of the Swinging Sixties remember – by means of dropping by clubs and getting the guitarist to sit in and play. The truth was simple. The 24-year-old Jimi was like nothing anybody had ever seen before. Sure, The Beatles had been playing their loveable mop top pop and they had recently morphed into their lysergically-enhanced psychedelic phase and the Rolling Stones had been taking their own walk on the wild side, experimenting with drugs and alcohol, but Jimi was different. For starters, he looked unusual, and his presence was primeval – the record-buying public was just not used to seeing a black man playing so-called white man’s rock’n’roll. And Hendrix wasn’t just "playing” rock’n’roll, he was totally reinventing it. 

Hooking Hendrix up with jazz drummer Mitch Mitchell and understated bass player Noel Redding was a stroke of genius on Chandler’s part. The power trio – known now as the Jimi Hendrix Experience - would go on to usurp Cream as the leaders of heavy rock. And Jimi would go on to eclipse the latter band’s guitar man Eric Clapton – a man hailed as "god” at the time Jimi arrived in the United Kingdom. 

Noel Redding’s initial impression of Hendrix was not in terms of his guitar playing, rather he simply thought " Funny overcoat and weird shoes!” Although primarily a guitarist rather than a bass player, Redding was persuaded by Chandler to move to bass. His melodic sensibilities as a guitarist adding a distinctly different feel to his bass playing which characterised the Jimi Hendrix Experience. Drummer Mitch Mitchell came in a couple of days later. Mitchell had been employed as drummer with Georgie Fame & The Blue Flames, but then out of the blue the entire backing band were given their marching orders. "Apart from being pretty devastated, my first thought was, 'I'm 19 years old. What am I going to do?” Mitchell told Drum! magazine in 1998. He needn’t have worried – Chas Chandler called and invited him to come and jam with "this guy” that he’d brought over from America. "I went down to this little basement strip club in Soho and there was Jimi with a Fender Stratocaster upside-down with a kind of fake London Fog raincoat on, with his wild hair. I just took down a tiny little Ludwig drum kit and said, 'What do you want?' basically. 'What are you looking for and what's it about?' I remember to this day, these tiny little amplifiers, and Hendrix was not happy with these little amplifiers so he was starting to kick them around. Like a lot of auditions, it really came down to the lowest common denominator. We played a bit of Chuck Berry, a bit of this, bit of that.”
A few days later, the Jimi Hendrix Experience was born.

Encouraged to write his own songs by Chas Chandler, Jimi did exactly that, and while he is known as a fearsome interpreter of other artists’ material – witness his versions of Bob Dylan’s ‘All Along The Watchtower’, The Troggs’ ‘Wild Thing’ or even ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ - it’s his own compositions that feature and highlight the most innovative of his playing. Despite initially being nervous putting his vocals down on tape, the recording of said compositions would come together surprisingly easy, as Noel Redding told Richard Allen in 1997. "We'd go in the studio late, normally,” he said. "Hendrix would say ‘I've got this song’. I'd say ‘What key is it in?' Mitch would ask ‘What tempo is it in?' We'd quickly learn it in the studio, because we didn't rehearse that much anyway, and we'd put it down. "There were times when Jimi showed me little licks but there again I showed him licks as well, on his songs, which I never got credit for. So it was basically very free form. It was rehearsing in the studio, at which point they were setting up the sound, and once we'd got the thing together they'd actually record it, without us knowing sometimes!”

You can hear this spontaneity on all three of the Experience’s studio albums – the freeform, squalling guitar jams caught on tape by audio engineer Eddie Kramer and producer Chas Chandler. "We were experimenting," Eddie Kramer told America’s National Public Radio. "That was the exciting part. Whatever he did in the studio we had to just keep up and try to figure out how to record it in a halfway decent fashion."

Are You Experienced was first out of the blocks for the band – an album that had a different track list depending upon which side of the Atlantic you happened to live. The trio’s interpretation of Billy Robert’s ‘Hey Joe’ (which didn’t make the original UK pressing) was the first single, backed with ‘Stone Free’ – and it went immediately into the Top 10. The crescendo with its rising scalic guitar playing brought Hendrix to the attention of the public, not just those who were hanging out in the trendy London haunts. Two more singles would be released before Are You Experienced reached the shops – the career- and sound-defining, wah-wah-drenched  ‘Purple Haze’ (‘51st Anniversary’ was the B-side) and the beautiful and haunting ‘The Wind Cries Mary’ (b/w ‘Highway Chile’).

Upon its release, Are You Experienced – with its lead-off track ‘Foxy Lady’ being one of Hendrix’s finest feedback wrangling moments – stormed the UK and European album charts. It was only kept from the top spot by The Beatles’ ‘Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band’. Earlier in the year Hendrix had played his own tribute to The Beatles while opening for The Who at the Saville Theatre, kicking off the Experience’s set with their own high-voltage version of Sgt Pepper’s title track – a song that had only been released a couple of days before. It was audacious moments like this that went on to characterise The Experience. In 1969, upon learning that supergroup Cream had broken up, Hendrix interrupted his band’s performance on Lulu’s television show mid-song to break into the power trio’s ‘Sunshine Of Your Love’ in tribute to the group’s demise. Jimi knew the rules. And he wasn’t afraid to break them.

Jimi’s choice of guitar wasn’t particularly unusual – he favoured a Fender Stratocaster, just as clean-cut pop stars such as Buddy Holly and The Shadows’ Hank Marvin had done before him. But the difference was that Jimi was left-handed, so he strung it upside down so the strings would be the correct way around. This simple trick, which in the days before the mass-marketing of specifically left-handed guitars was commonplace, gave an off-kilter look to his instrument and enhanced his seemingly alien image. So iconic was Hendrix’s inverted guitar that in the years that have followed, many right-handed guitarists have bought left-handed instruments so that they could string them upside-down so that their guitar mimicked their hero’s in as many ways as possible. But, of course, image isn’t everything – although Jimi’s shock of wild hair and flamboyant attire was certainly part of his appeal – what really put Jimi out there was his stunning guitar playing. As his former boss Little Richard enthused on a TV show Jimi "gave it all. And that’s what you want, isn’t it?” he continued. "You want it all.”

And Jimi gave it to us. His music was an amalgam of everything we knew (and a lot we didn’t) – he turned American music on its head. He embraced the blues, rock, traditional folk, country. Had hip hop been invented in ’67, Jimi would have found a way to have his guitar throw down beats and rhymes.

Jimi simply obliterated the way people thought about the guitar – rather than just play the thing, he used it as a performance piece – it was an integral part of his show. He played it behind his head, with his teeth, between his legs, smashed it up, he even – in June of ’67 at the Monterey Pop Festival - set it on fire. But none of this showmanship would have counted for anything if Jimi couldn’t have played the damn thing in the first place, although even the guitarist began to tire of the gimmicry. "I’m moving away from what I’ve done so far,” said Hendrix in 1969. "I don’t want to play the guitar with my teeth any more or clown around, but I did it because of the fans, having seen me do it once, expected me to do it always and I came to do it out of self-satisfaction." Buddy Guy may have been playing guitar behind his head and turning the blues into a theatrical presentation long before Hendrix arrived on the scene, but in the 60s Guy just didn’t have the crossover appeal. And this is where Jimi succeeded.

The Animals’ Eric Burdon was at one of Jimi’s first London shows – an impromptu jam at a small club. "It was haunting how good he was," Burdon told author Charles R Cross. "You just stopped and watched." He wasn’t the only one. Hendrix himself had trouble putting his music into words. In 1969 the musician tried to explain his brand of rock’n’roll to a Daily Mirror journalist. "I would describe my music as electric church music," he said, "‘Church’ meaning religion and not meaning God, that is.” At its core, Jimi’s music was (and still is) transcendental. In the 60s it transcended everything else that was saturating the popular radio airwaves. And, in the new millennium, the music is simply innovative enough to stand alongside anything that’s being written or recorded today.

The Who’s Pete Townshend paid tribute to Hendrix when Rolling Stone magazine voted him the greatest guitar player of all time in 2003. "He did this thing where he would play a chord, and then he would sweep his left hand through the air in a curve, and it would almost take you away from the idea that there was a guitar player here and that the music was actually coming out of the end of his fingers,” Townshend eulogised. "And then people say, ‘Well, you were obviously on drugs’. But I wasn't, and I wasn't drunk, either. I can just remember being taken over by this, and the images he was producing or evoking were naturally psychedelic in tone.”

Hendrix’s sound was a sonic maelstrom of squalling feedback, fuzz-drenched riffs with a remarkable sense of melody wrapped around it. The dissonance of unexpected chords clashing together was all part and parcel of Jimi’s magic. He took the six-string from a gentle whisper (‘The Wind Cries Mary’, ‘May There Be Love’) to a banshee wail (‘Purple Haze’, ‘Foxy Lady’) via cosmic blues through enigmatic chordal explorations to what bordered on jazz-inflected art-rock solos. It wasn’t just Hendrix’s virtuosity on his chosen instrument – he was expanding boundaries by pushing the technological advances of the day to the very limit.

In 1964, a young engineer named Roger Mayer turned his hand to making guitar effects pedals. Inspired by a pre-Zeppelin Jimmy Page, Mayer developed the first proper fuzz box - the result was a device that not only gave an electric guitar the brutal overdriven tone, but also allowed for amazing sustain. After that, as Page told Guitar World’s Brad Tolinsky in 1999, Mayer "swept through the British music scene. He made one for Jeff [Beck], one for the guitarist in the Pretty Things, and then he started working for Jimi Hendrix. After that he made a ring modulator [a device that manipulates sound waves  – think of the vocal effect of one of Doctor Who’s Daleks] and I thought that was a bit too wild. But the next thing was that he teamed up with Hendrix. I saw him and I said, "How you doing?” And he said, "I’m doing Jimi’s sound now.” "What about Jimi? He stole my fucking fuzz box! I can’t see what all the fuss about that left-handed…” Jeff Beck laughed in part of the same article. "Actually, he inspired me to try to play left handed, just to see if there was any oil in that well—but there wasn’t.” "At that time I was working for the British Admiralty in the field of vibration and acoustic research which was all to do with naval underwater warfare,” recalls FX genius Roger Mayer. "This scientific background has led me to approach acoustic problems from different angles and I think it is fair to say that most of the effects that I produce have an original and unique flavour.” No kidding. 

Despite Jimi’s ferocious talent, the Jimi Hendrix Experience would never have sounded the same were it not for Mayer’s involvement. "I met Jimi Hendrix first in 1967 in a club and in two weeks time we were in the studio overdubbing the solo to ‘Purple Haze’ using the Octavia that I had invented,” Mayer explains on his website. "My association with Jimi grew and grew at a rapid pace and I spent a lot of time going to gigs and in the studio creating new sounds with him. I was present with him at Olympic Studios for nearly all the session for his next album Axis: Bold As Love and of course you can hear the unique tones I had a part in creating.”

Another piece of kit that helped define Hendrix was his Marshall amplifer. Shortly after landing in London, Jimi made the acquaintance of Vic Briggs, guitarist with Brian Auger’s Trinity, and one of the owners of one of the first batch of Marshall amps. Plugging in, Hendrix turned all the dials to 10 and unleashed a wall of ear-bleeding feedback. We’d never heard anything like it. "Everyone’s draw dropped to the floor,” Auger said. "The difference between him and a lot of the English guitar players like Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Alvin Lee was that you could still tell what the influences were in Clapton’s and Beck’s playing. But Jimi wasn’t following anyone – he was playing something new.” Needless to say, Jimi soon put an order in for his own set of Marshalls.

It’s perhaps BB King who manages to sum up Jimi Hendrix the best. While the veteran blues artist was aware of the fledgling guitarist as a sideman during the package tours of the early 60s when Hendrix was in Little Richard’s backing band, he realised along with the rest of us that he had transcended the boundaries of rock’n’roll and made the art form his own. Asked by UniVibes magazine if there was anything in particular that he admired about Jimi’s playing, King’s answer couldn’t have been more perfect."Yes,” said the blues legend. "He was Jimi Hendrix! He didn't sound like anybody else but himself. He was like Charlie Parker in his way of playing, he played well, he was a person that made waves. When you heard Jimi Hendrix you knew it was Jimi Hendrix, he introduced himself in his instrument... You know, many radio stations play records and a lot of the times they don't call out the names who you just listened to, but when they play Jimi Hendrix, you don't have to tell me, you know it's Jimi Hendrix...” 

And some forty years on, it’s still the truth.

Siân Llewellyn

© Planet Rock


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