The electric guitar is an instrument whose history can be divided up into two eras: Before and after Jimi Hendrix. Before Hendrix it was a musical device that politely accompanied swing bands, blues, and R&B singers as well as early country & western rockers. After Hendrix, amplified guitar became more akin to Godzilla. It breathed radioactive fire and made whole cities quake whenever it put the stomp down.
Born in Seattle, Hendrix was a serious student of everybody who ever plucked a six-stringer. He loved the blues masters most of all—Muddy Waters, Elmore James, T-Bone Walker, Guitar Slim, B.B. King, Freddie King, and especially Albert King—but he knew his jazz and country cats too—Charlie Christian, Wes Montgomery, Barney Kessel, Glen Campbell, Scotty Moore, Chet Atkins—and the R&B kings Ike Turner, Jimmy Nolen, Curtis Mayfield, and Steve Cropper. He sponged all their styles and stole liberally, but he had sounds in his head nobody had ever thought possible on guitar—jet engines, oceans, exploding suns, and planets, wounded wildebeests, weeping seagulls.
He learned his craft and earned his bones playing in R&B bands on the legendary chitterling circuit with the likes of Wilson Pickett, Little Richard, and The Isely Brothers. This left him barely fed and nearly homeless in Harlem after only a couple years of active touring. He got even broker doing his own thing in the same East Village dives that had launched the career of his songwriting and singing inspiration Bob Dylan. A former girlfriend of Rolling Stone Keith Richards introduced him to his first manager, Chas Chandler, who took him to England in 1966... and the rest is rock & roll history.
Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Pete Townsend had been mucking around with feedback, distortion, and high volume but Jimi pushed everything to extremes. The world tuned in and got turned out by how Jimi shaked, rattled, rolled, and psychedelicized those strings. Guitar wanking as we know it begins with Jimi, sad to say—but his legacy isn’t built on just freestyle handjobs.
On the occasion of the 41st anniversary of his earthly transition (he died on September 18th, 1970, at the age of 27), we offer twelve exemplary reasons why Jimi Hendrix was a master composer and improviser of late 20th century American classical music.