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  • Writer's pictureJay EuDaly

Thoughts on Jimi

Updated: Apr 26

One of my personal students recently texted me this question,

"Got a question...would you consider the way Hendrix played an advanced playing style? How difficult is it to learn...?"

My answer to that is complicated, and is a matter of opinion - my opinion; some might not agree.

"Advanced"? There are two questions that need to be talked about:

  1. The musical content of his playing; what kinds of chords, what scales?

  2. The artistry; how unique was he? How did he fit into the times? How important and influential was he?

The short answer to number 1: In relation to his musical content, that is, the scales and chords that were the bulk of his vocabulary, he was a typical R&B/Soul guitar player - Caveat: on acid!

The bulk of his soloing was pentatonic &/or based on major triad shapes/arpeggios. For minor tonalities he used the relative major triad shapes/arpeggios. You can find other things here and there, of course (his solo in Purple Haze was mostly Dorian).

His chords were typical R&B/Soul chords (basic Bar Chords, 7th and 9th chords) and triads - although he exposed an entire generation of guitar players (including myself) to the Dominant sharp 9 chord. So much so that it has become known as the "Hendrix Chord."

The way he used triads was creative and original. The dyad figures based on triad shapes was something fresh, although not completely unprecedented.

Triads are a common thing in R&B and Soul music, which was his background. In the early and mid sixties he played the chitlin circuit as a sideman with the Isley Brothers, Little Richard, Sam Cooke, Ike & Tina Turner, and Wilson Pickett among others. So that was the context from which he came.

According to the common history, he moved in 1966 to New York City's Greenwich Village, which had a vibrant and diverse music scene. He formed his own band, Jimmy James and the Blue Flames, which included future Spirit guitarist Randy California. It was there that he began developing his guitar style and material that he would soon use with the Experience.

In my opinion, the cultural milieu of that time and place - which included psychedelia - had a lot to do with that evolution. Thus my characterization that he was an R&B/Soul player - on acid.

The avante-garde elements of his playing; the use of feedback and the whammy bar, the extreme distortion, the use of effects like the wah-wah pedal, setting his guitar on fire etc., are all characteristics pertaining to the obliteration of boundaries and categories, which is one of the results of hallucinogenic usage. I know this firsthand.

So...take a typical R&B/Soul guitar player of the early to mid-sixties, sprinkle in liberal use of hallucinogens and other mind-altering substances, place him in a counter-culture setting that was having a major effect on the society-at-large, coupled with a personality that doesn't do well with societal norms, boundaries and authority (he was discharged from the Army in 1962 because of it) and you have Jimi Hendrix.

All he needed was someone to manage him and he found that in Chas Chandler - or rather, Chas Chandler found him, and the rest is history. That's my theory anyway.

Hendrix (on the left) in 1964 as a sideman in the Isley Brothers Band
1967 - the Jimi Hendrix Experience with Mitch Mitchell on drums

Is it difficult to learn?

I have a saying about "difficult": it's only difficult if you can't do it. If you want to do it bad enough, you practice it till you can; then it's easy.

Now, as for number 2:

The artistry; how unique was he? How did he fit into the times? How important and influential was he?

In my opinion, he was super important. Certainly to me personally. I remember exactly where I was when I first heard "Are You Experienced?" in 1967. I also remember exactly where I was when I first heard of his death in September of 1970.

No one sounded remotely like him, and he didn't sound like anybody. He was a watershed in rock guitar playing. He burst on the scene with seemingly no warning, no lead-up and no precursors or forerunners. He was his own category. His influence continues to this day:

Yeah, if you dig deep enough you can kind of figure out where he came from (the R&B/Soul background - see above) but, because of the cultural milieu I spoke of, the impact and influence was massive.

It was the right time - 1966 - and the right place - London. The British Invasion was happening; the British musicians were obsessed with American Blues and Jimi was a direct connection to that, filtered through the spirit of the time.

For me personally, Jimi was a total package; the look, the attitude and of course, the guitar playing was front-and-center. It was improvisational and dramatic. To be honest, I preferred the later, more serious Jimi - think Band of Gypsys, rather than the early Jimi - think 1967's Monterey Pop with the antics; playing with his teeth, behind his head, setting his guitar on fire. It was always about the music for me. He was one of the reasons that when I was exposed to jazz a few years later I "got it." It's no secret that one of the main influences cited by Jimi's drummer, Mitch Mitchell, was the jazz drummer most associated with John Coltrane, Elvin Jones. Boundary-pushing was in the genetics of Jimi's playing, just as it was in Coltrane's music.

I'll never forget seeing Jimi in the Woodstock documentary when it hit the theaters. During his performance of what was later titled "Villanova Junction," you can see him mouthing the chord changes to his bass player, Billy Cox.

"Holy crap!" I thought, "He's making that up on the spot!"

Talk about balls...he's throwing something off the cuff at his band onstage at the biggest gig ever up to that time.

Even if he already had it in mind, the band certainly hadn't rehearsed it, otherwise why would he be feeding changes to the bass player?

Another thing about "Villanova Junction" is that the head is played with octaves. Wes Montgomery anyone? Wes died in 1968 before I ever knew he existed (I discovered Wes in 1976), but I could already play octaves - thanks to Jimi.

One thing that bugged me about him was that, on live recordings especially, there were times when he was horribly out-of-tune, due to his aggressive use of the whammy bar.

I struggled with the same thing back in my early days. I used to put Vaseline in the string-grooves of the nut to help keep the strings from hanging up and going out of tune. It helped but didn't completely solve the problem. Thanks to Eddie Van Halen and Floyd Rose, that is no longer an issue. I wish Jimi would've had the advantage of a locking tremolo system. It would also have been interesting to see how he adapted to evolving technology. Alas, we will never know.

As you can probably tell, I have a soft spot in my heart for Jimi Hendrix. He is one of the formative influences that shaped the way I play today. Along with Cream, Jimi is one of the ramps that led me into jazz, which in turn informs my rock playing. When I cover Jimi Hendrix tunes, I bring my "jazz attitude" to the table which, it could be compellingly argued, I originally picked up from Jimi.

Though it could be said that my perspective is skewed because I'm a professional guitar player, I think his effect on me can be used as an illustration of his impact and importance on the culture-at-large. Huge.

I never got to see him live. The closest I came was November 1, 1968.

The Jimi Hendrix Experience was playing Municipal Auditorium in Kansas City. I was at an event at the Music Hall right next door. The two venues are in the same building and have a common wall.

I ignored what was going on in the Music Hall and sat by myself with my ear against the wall, listening.

Jimi Hendrix at Municipal Auditorium, Kansas City, MO 11/1/68
Jimi Hendrix at Municipal Auditorium, Kansas City, MO 11/1/68
Jimi Hendrix at Municipal Auditorium, Kansas City, MO 11/1/68
Jimi Hendrix at Municipal Auditorium, Kansas City, MO 11/1/68

A local fan found out where the band was staying (a cheap motel across the river in Kansas City, Kansas) and snapped this photo the next morning, November 2, 1968, as Jimi emerged from his room.

Jimi Hendrix outside his motel room, Kansas City, Kansas November 2, 1968
November 2, 1968

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