Culture  /  Book Review

The Beautiful Sounds of Jimi Hendrix

“Hendrix used a range of technological expand the sound of the guitar, to make it ‘talk’ in ways that it never had.”
Jimi Hendrix

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Trailer for "Jimi Hendrix: I Hear My Train a Comin'"

American Masters, PBS

Hendrix was on more intimate terms with his instrument than any guitarist in history. His only other “area of expertise,” as his friend Linda Keith observes in I Hear My Train A Comin’, was women, and they were a distant second. He was seldom without a guitar, even in bed. He played his guitar between his knees, behind his back, and upside down; he played it with his teeth, caressed its neck, and swayed with it as if it were an extension of his body. He set it on fire on stage with a butane lighter, a sacrifice of the thing he loved most. This act of creative destruction, premiered at the Monterey International Pop Festival in June 1967, launched his career in the United States.

Hendrix’s flashy moves on stage—and his frilly shirts, velvet pants, and feathered hats—made him one of the most visually arresting performers of the 1960s. It didn’t hurt that he was skinny and pretty, with languid bedroom eyes and a self-effacing, irresistibly polite manner. But today one listens to Hendrix in spite of the spectacle. He had an unforgettable sound, so powerful and distinctive that it has attracted a following far beyond the world of stadium rock. His improvisations are studied by jazz musicians and sampled by hip-hop artists. Classical composers like John Adams and David Lang have paid tribute to him; the Kronos Quartet has performed a transcription of “Purple Haze.” A Frank Gehry–designed museum was built in his honor by Paul Allen, one of the founders of Microsoft, in Seattle, his hometown. “The Star Spangled Banner” hasn’t been the same since Hendrix’s gnarled yet stately instrumental at Woodstock, which seemed to evoke a nation divided. (Hendrix told Dick Cavett that he was merely playing a song he knew from school.)

Hendrix’s place in the canon is secure. But which canon? He was, of course, a brilliant rock guitarist. Yet the fact that he played rock now seems almost incidental to his achievement. In Starting at Zero, he flirts with the neologisms “Electric Church Music” and “rock-blues-funky-freaky sound.” Rock struck him as too limiting; he particularly hated the label “psychedelic rock” often attached to his work. Race was one reason. Rock was his ticket to fame in white America, but it alienated him from black R&B audiences. As Greg Tate writes in a stimulating monograph on Hendrix, Midnight Lightning (2003), “No Black male has ever been as beloved by white men as Jimi Hendrix was.”