Hendrix’s Simple Setup
by Daniel Brooks
Music is by far the most abstract of all the arts, an unfolding architecture of vibrations with its own meaning and emotional impact that cannot be adequately defined in any other form. It is an ephemeral expression of an even more intangible inspiration, communicated almost entirely by the relationships of frequency, time and rhythm. It is a universal language of sound with an inherent and immediate accessibility for any human being who will listen, and it is available as a means of expression to anyone who is more or less familiar with a traditional musical vocabulary.
Despite the ephemeral nature of music itself, the centuries-old tradition of creating music is preserved in well-annotated manuscripts and, for the past hundred years or so, in actual sound recordings. We can know, exactly, the frequency and duration of each note in an inspired composition created years, decades or centuries ago and recreate it, right here and now. An overwhelming majority of respectable musicians find great inspiration, community and gainful employment by traveling the paths created by those geniuses who have come before them. Each of these paths, and the momentum of the community that follows it, creates a musical tradition like Classical, Jazz, Blues, Rock and Roll, Reggae and so on, each with its own set of conventions and expectations. As is the case in any tradition, these norms can seem stifling to the playful, free-range creativity of the would-be artist, but they can also liberate the individual from the effort of having to invent everything from scratch, allowing a master of the form to contribute new, inspired works to the tradition.
Occasionally, however, a musician will take the effort, re-examine the basic fundamentals of the art and emerge with completely new insight to redefine the possibilities. Jimi Hendrix was one of the first and, arguably, the greatest guitarist to do this. Over the four decades that have passed since his premature death at the age of 27 on September 18, 1970, Hendrix has consistently been recognized by musicians of virtually every genre as the most important and influential guitarist in the history of popular music. His virtuosity, creative drive and pioneering experiments with effects and studio techniques expanded the musical vocabulary of the electric guitar in a variety of ways and to an extent that no musician had ever done before, with any instrument.
Born in Seattle, Washington on November 27, 1942, Jimi was raised by his single father, Al Hendrix, who gave him his first guitar at the age of 15. The guitar provided the perfect escape from poverty and the recent death of his mother, Lucille. Hendrix spent hours practicing, studying blues records by Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Howlin' Wolf and Robert Johnson and learning from other more experienced guitarists. He quickly became good enough to play in local bands.
When he was 18, Hendrix was caught riding in a stolen car and given the choice of serving two years in prison or joining the army. His enlistment, short and less than exemplary, got him out of Seattle and introduced him to bassist Billy Cox. After his discharge from the army in 1962, Hendrix and Cox formed a band and eventually moved to Nashville, Tennessee, where Jimi began playing with artists on the Chitlin’ Circuit, a series of African-American friendly venues throughout the South and up the East Coast to New York. It was while playing with artists like The Isley Brothers, Little Richard, King Curtis and others that Jimi put in the long hours that shape every musician. By the time he finally got his big break, he was ready.
In 1966, Chas Chandler was ending his tenure as the bassist for The Animals and was looking for an act to manage. He had seen Hendrix at the Cheetah Club in New York and was quite impressed with his version of Hey Joe. He brought Hendrix to London, signed on as his manager, along with Michael Jeffery, and helped him put together the Jimi Hendrix Experience with Drummer Mitch Mitchell and guitarist-turned-bassist Noel Redding. Chandler introduced Hendrix to Eric Burden, Pete Townshend and Eric Clapton, arranged for Jimi to sit in with Clapton and his newly formed trio, Cream, and booked appearances on British TV shows Top of the Pops and Ready Steady Go! As his reputation spread rapidly throughout the London scene, Hendrix’s extraordinary virtuosity and stage presence earned the admiration of some of the big names in London’s rock scene, like Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Brian Jones, The Beatles, the Who and others.
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Despite the fact that he had never written a song before, and had rarely even sung, Jimi Hendrix went into the studio in late 1966 and began creating songs for Are You Experienced? Jimi’s fundamentally new approach to the guitar’s creative potential earned the attention of musicians around the world. Using a Stratocaster for almost everything (except for a Telecaster, borrowed from Noel Redding, on “Purple Haze” and a Les Paul on “Red House”), a 100 watt Marshall amp and the few effects pedals that existed at the time, namely a Dallas-Arbiter Fuzz Face that delivered an abundance of fuzzy texture, and Roger Mayer’s Octavia pedal, which doubled any fingered note an octave higher and added it to the mix, Jimi created one of the masterpieces of the era. Songs like “Purple Haze,” “Love or Confusion,” “Third Stone from the Sun” and “Are You Experienced” pushed the sonic, compositional and experiential boundaries of rock music beyond anything previously imagined.
For his second album, Axis: Bold as Love, released only a few months later, Jimi developed both his songwriting and his sonic palette even further. His backward guitar solo on “Castles Made of Sand” the manual flanging heard on “Bold As Love” and his use of the Leslie Rotating speaker with which he got that ethereal warble on “Little Wing” have since inspired the creation of some of today’s staple effects. Of course, he had an entirely new kind of effect that would open up a whole new world of expression. Eric Clapton had introduced Jimi to his wah pedal, which somewhat radically varied his guitar’s tone with the sweep of a pivoting foot pedal. Jimi’s new Wah pedal would inspire “Up from the Skies” and "Little Miss Lover" and would, of course, really come into its own on his third and final studio album.
By the time Jimi was halfway through the painstaking, year-long process of recording Electric Ladyland, Chas Chandler had lost his patience with Jimi’s obsessive recording techniques and bought his way out of his management contract. The result is Hendrix’s only self-produced album, a full-blown musical experience of 1960’s psychedelia with classics like the remake of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” as well as his own "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)," “Crosstown Traffic” and "1983... (A Merman I Should Turn to Be)." His innovative drive found new expression in a whole range of new techniques such as stereo panning, backward tape recording, flanging, and chorusing.
A contractual obligation Hendrix had entered into years before led to Jimi only live album. Recorded on New Year’s Eve, 1969 and New Year’s Day, 1970, Band of Gypsys featured Jimi’s army buddy, Billy Cox, on bass and Buddy Miles on the drums. As the story goes, Bill Graham, the owner of the Fillmore, where the Band of Gypsys were playing, was standing offstage watching Jimi do his show. At the end of the set, Jimi came over and asked what he thought. Graham told him he was wasting his talent with all of the showmanship tricks for which Jimi was known, playing with his teeth, behind his back and all that. When the next set started, Jimi stood in one place and delivered a transcendent performance. With the ethereal warble of his UniVox Univibe, Jimi gave us “Power to Love,” and “Machine Gun.”
Sadly, these are the only albums Jimi Hendrix would complete in his lifetime. His death on September 18, 1970 cut short a life of music that now can only exist as speculation. With the equipment he had at the time, he reinvented rock guitar in only a few short years. You have to wonder what he would have done with the brilliant effects available to us today.