It was the early 80’s when I first became aware of Jimi Hendrix. I was around 12 years old, and was told “If you play guitar, you have to listen to Jimi Hendrix.” When I heard his music, I thought it was ok, but I wasn’t knocked out like when I’d first heard Eddie Van Halen.
Van Halen had burst onto the scene a few years earlier and his playing represented the new cutting edge. Jimi meanwhile, sounded like a different era. His tone was fuzzy and noisy while Eddie’s sounded crisp and flawless.
Van Halen’s music brought to mind flashy cars, keg parties and bikini clad models. Jimi’s songs conjured up images of Vietnam War helicopters, student riots and hippies. As a pre-pubescent male in Northern California in the early 80’s, it seemed unquestionable that Van Halen would have a more profound influence on me. But feeling it was my duty as a guitar player, I decided to take a closer look at Jimi.
I went out and bought “Are You Experienced?,” ” Axis: Bold As Love” and “Electric Ladyland,” (the three essential studio albums) listening to them as a student rather than as a fan. One of my early guitar teachers, Mark Strandberg, showed me the simpler stuff, like “Hey Joe,” and “Purple Haze.” Then we moved on to “Foxy Lady,” “Spanish Castle Magic,” and the intricate chord patterns of “Little Wing.” Learning these tunes enabled me to become adept enough to learn licks on my own. Soon I was transcribing every lead break in “All Along The Watchtower” and “Voodoo Chile: Slight Return” These licks were not only a study of great bending, but also of great vibrato and position changing. I was gaining strong musical foundation which carried over into all the other music I was learning, including Van Halen.
I was just getting ready to move on from my Jimi phase, when someone suggested I check out a live recording entitled “The Jimi Hendrix Concerts.” Jimi’s live versions of “Red House,” “Voodoo Chile” and “Stone Free,” (with it’s a capella guitar breakdown section), were like nothing else I’d ever heard. These were not the songs that were played to death on the radio; this side of Jimi was like a well kept secret. I ate up the the licks on these tracks like they were candy.
No longer listening and playing out of a sense of duty, an interesting thing happened: I began to feel Jimi’s music not just technically but emotionally. This represented a breakthrough. I heard his music coming from a place of yearning deep within the soul which I recognized within myself. All my pain from childhood through the present was felt through the notes I heard him play as well as those I played on my own guitar. What was this and where was it coming from?
The answer was the blues. Jimi was, at his core, a blues guitarist. When you here his blues interpretations, on “Red House,” “Killing Floor” and “Hear My Train a Comin'” it’s very clear. But even in psychedelic excursions such as “If 6 was 9,” and “1983: A Merman I Shall Turn To Be,” the blues is always there.
Years later, I saw a comedy film “White Men Can’t Jump,” where Woody Harrelson plays a skilled white amateur basketball player who’s a Hendrix fan. His African American rival, played by Wesley Snipes, taunts him: “You listen to Jimi. But you don’t HEAR Jimi. I listen to Jimi. And I HEAR Jimi.” Somehow, I knew exactly what he meant.
It’s difficult for us in the present to grasp the magnitude that certain music had in the past, especially when it’s been rammed down our throats via the radio. In the case of Jimi, it took some time and discipline in order to develop a connection with his music. Had it been the 60’s, I probably would have been immediately hit over the head with Jimi’s music as so many were.
When considering Jimi, one must take into account the musical landscape during the time he emerged, when the most exciting thing in rock guitar was surf music and early blues rock (Eric Clapton, Peter Green etc..). Jimi’s appearance must have been like a volcano erupting. He mixed the sounds of blues, jazz, soul, space ships, oceans all into his own brand of hard rock. It was as if he was channeling the planet Earth and all its wars, revolutions and social unrest.
One must also ponder the fact that Jimi’s influence has been felt in radically diverse genres of popular music throughout the 70’s, 80’s, 90’s and 00’s. As quick examples of each, take P-Funk, Prince, Pearl Jam and even John Mayer (say what you want about “Your Body Is A Wonderland” and all his tabloid coverage, but John Mayer’s a great guitarist who’s clearly done his Hendrix homework). Even pop artists like Billy Joel and Sting, as well as the late jazz arranger and Miles Davis collaborator Gil Evans have been largely influenced by Jimi and covered his songs. You can’t just can’t say that about Van Halen.
There is no question Eddie Van Halen has done some of the most influential rock guitar playing of our lifetime. There are not too many people you can say that about. I still love to listen to his classic playing and place him among my all time favorites, along with Jimi and Jeff Beck. Van Halen’s music is a perfect document of good time hard rock from that era. Van Halen, the band, took the intensity of Black Sabbath and replaced Sabbath’s plundering darkness with a party rock atmosphere and stellar musicianship. It was as if they were working in tandem with their keyboard driven pop peers to collectively capture the happy mood of the Reagan era.
But Van Halen was never meant to be ‘serious’ music that had an impact on society. I’m not sure Jimi intended this for his own music, but he achieved it. It may have been the circumstances of the time period or fate himself, but Jimi’s music and playing became the embodiment of ‘socially significance.’
So in the grand scheme of things, it’s an unfair comparison to put Eddie next to Jimi. Hendrix’s infuence extends beyond the guitar itself. If you play music, not listening to Jimi is like not listening to the Beatles, regardless of what genre you play. There has never been any guitarist as influential as Jimi Hendrix, and probably never will be again.