What Made Jimi Hendrix So Good
The guitar legend who electrified the world with his playing.
Who is the Greatest of All Time? That’s a question that spans every genre of every discipline of every profession. Whether it asks for the greatest basketball player of all time or the greatest actor of all time, the question aims to establish a pinnacle of achievement, a symbol of mastery and legacy for the world to study in awe. This debate is usually unsettled in most realms. People struggle to decide between Jordan and Lebron, Messi and Pelé, Mozart and Beethoven, the list goes on. Depending on who you ask, you may get a different answer for who the greatest guitarist of all time is. However the answer largely remains the same: Jimi Hendrix.
To say that Hendrix was an enigma is an understatement. He was a mild-mannered man who never seemed to acknowledge his greatness, but when he slung over the guitar, he turned into a fiery performer that could light up the world with his aura. His music defied traditions of the time, as he melded genres from rock to blues to R&B to pop and more. His short career only does more to strengthen his legend as his absence from any recent memory renders him as a legend, like an alien or god who descended to bless his disciples for only a short time. Whatever he was, man or god, he could sure as hell play the guitar.
Jimi Hendrix, first and foremost, was an innovator. He innovated the guitar and amplifier in close to every way imaginable. He unleashed the guitar’s true potential by using it in a way that it had never been used before.
Hendrix wasn’t afraid to go loud. Like really loud. He was one of the first to substantially incorporate the fuzz pedal into his work. He electrified the world with his grainy, distorted, and loud guitar sound. To anyone who has ever even scratched the surface of his catalogue, the opening eight, fuzz-driven notes of “Purple Haze” are unforgettable and immediately remind the listener of what they are in for. The fuzz pedal, since Hendrix first used it, has become a staple of rock guitar playing. Its larger than life presence, along with its grainy distortion has been the sound of rock music for decades.
Additionally, the sight of a Marshall stack is almost synonymous with Hendrix’s performance at Woodstock where he blew the minds of basically everyone who was even a little attuned to what was going on in music. The power and distortion that came from his pedal and amp setup provided the legs for the electrifying and sometimes manic performances that he would perform on stage.
Not to mention that Hendrix turned a right handed guitar upside down, when afforded no adequate instrument, and restrung it so that it could accommodate his left-handedness. In a strange sense, he established his uniqueness as a left handed guitarist, and brought further emphasis to this uniqueness by playing an upside down guitar.
Beyond the physical and tonal changes that Hendrix ushered into musical consciousness, he drastically changed the face of guitar and rock music as a whole. He took common blues and folk songs, electrified them, and performed them in his own inimitable style. Take “Hey Joe” for example. Most people probably think it’s a Hendrix original. You would be wrong to think that. It’s a blues standard that Hendrix put a spin on by layering unique and novel rhythm and lead playing. Another example of this is “All Along the Watchtower”. Although most know that it’s originally Bob Dylan’s song, most will agree that the Hendrix version is far more iconic and impactful both in terms of guitar and music more broadly. The chordal flourishing and strained lead lines provide for extraordinarily exciting experience, one that retains its novelty with each listen.
So what? you might ask. He just took a few songs, and changed them around a little. Such an assessment would be fundamentally flawed, however. Hendrix not only introduced a new perspective on already existing songs, he also wrote some of the greatest songs in the history of the guitar. Songs like “Voodoo Child” display Hendrix’s ability to write his own blues-influenced songs, ones which incorporated the aforementioned heavy and grainy tone that came from his fuzz pedal and Marshall amps. His soloing on “Voodoo Child” in specific makes for some of the most memorable lead lines in rock history. His magnum opus “Little Wing” is perhaps one of the most delicately balanced songs to ever be written. Its combination of both bluesy and melodic sounds is the most tasteful of Hendrix’s and perhaps any song ever written. Not to mention, the way he melded both lead and rhythm guitar on “Little Wing” was absolutely magisterial.
Hendrix, as I’ve already stated, is considered to be the greatest guitarist of all time by many, if not most. However, this claim often comes from an examination of only his lead playing, his bendy solos and memorable riffage. I would argue that Hendrix’s rhythm playing was actually better than his lead playing. Rhythm guitar, in general, is not as big a topic of discussion among guitarists, yet it is responsible for the majority of any given song, and is the driving force behind music. Hendrix’s rhythm playing did this, and then some. His chord flourishes added life to his music, in a way that was never heard before. There was flavor and tact when he played rhythm. Just listen to “Little Wing” or “Hey Joe”. Hendrix did not play a simple up down up down rhythm pattern. He went on miniature lead runs while also playing triads to both outline and expand on the chord progressions in his songs. His rhythm style, in both its simplicity and intricacies, provided a liaison between the typical rhythm playing of his time and lead playing, giving his music an extra kick, especially considering that he typically didn’t perform with a second guitarist. While Hendrix’s rhythm playing can never truly be emulated with total accuracy, it still ought to be looked to as the cornerstone of rhythm playing for all guitarists.
Hendrix knew how to perform. He was never afraid to be bold and do things on stage that had never been done before. Like I said, the man was mild-mannered, but when he slung over the guitar, it was like he donned a cape. Woodstock is perhaps is most iconic performance, and watching videos of him playing at Woodstock is awe-inspiring. He completely let loose when he was on stage, letting his songs run rampant with incredible lead lines and flourishing rhythm playing. Watching him play is like watching van Gogh paint “Starry Night” or watching Lionel Messi run down the right flank and effortlessly beat seven defenders.
He had numerous iconic performances. One such performance was his rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner, where he took the normally proper and refined song, distorted it, and used his guitar to emulate the sounds of machine guns to convey the violence that the United States was engaging with in Vietnam. His performance of “Machine Gun” is another such performance, where he used left-hand muting to rake the strings and emulate the sounds of a machine gun firing rattling bullets, as well going on fast lead runs to convey the chaos and fear that often existed in the jungles of Vietnam.
His performance of “Voodoo Child” live in Maui is another one of his iconic performances. He completely lets loose in this performance of his classic song, producing an act for the ages. Even with his Marshall stack standing tall in the background, he still was larger than life with his playing. His playing was so electric that he made sure that every hippy who wasn’t tripping on acid was still sent to another dimension. He went on immaculate lead runs, and made sure that every note plucked fit the song perfectly. He had a knack for leaving the right amount of silence in between notes, and in his performance of “Voodoo Child,” he absolutely did.
There are probably hundreds of other Jimi Hendrix performances out there, but those are the ones that have stuck in my mind since I first listened to them. Regardless of what you listen to of Hendrix, there remains the same intelligent musical brain. He expertly combined melodicism and blues, feel and shred to create some of the most iconic songs in the history of rock music.
Not only is Hendrix the greatest, but he is the most influential guitarist of all time as well. He will forever be known as the catalyst for a new movement within the guitar.
As I already discussed, his rhythm playing was not only innovative but also served as the blueprint for future players. I personally love to incorporate the embellishments that Hendrix played with in my own rhythm playing. Guitarists like John Mayer and Stevie Ray Vaughan used and continue to use Hendrix-esque rhythm playing.
His innovative lead playing, too, serves as a map for novice and expert guitar players alike. It is not overly complex so a newbie can’t get a hang of it, but it is still tasteful enough so that a seasoned pro has something to learn. Hearing “Voodoo Child” for the first time was enough to strike awe in the guitarist in me, and I’m sure the same can be said for other guitarists. Literally every guitarist that came after 1965 was influenced by Hendrix. George Harrison, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, B.B. King, you name them, they’ve surely taken inspiration from Hendrix in their playing.
Even his influence on the Fender Stratocaster, his axe of choice, cannot be understated. It’s well known at this point that Hendrix played the guitar upside down, but it was in this transformation that he re-emphasized the guitar itself, casting the world’s eyes on the Strat as probably the most iconic guitar of all time. I think it’s safe to say that without Hendrix performing some of the most iconic songs with some of the most iconic sounds, the Strat would not have the status it has today.
It’s truly a shame that Jimi Hendrix left too soon. In his brief career, he made the world reimagine rock music and the guitar. It’s hard to tell exactly what he would’ve done if he was alive for longer. If one thing is for certain, though, it’s that we should all be grateful that he was around for any time at all.
And with many phenomenal guitarists still alive, there remain enough talented musicians to carry his torch.