Jimi Hendrix at 80: The guitar sorcerer 

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How can we measure greatness? What does it look like? Is it visible from the moment someone is born? In the case of James Marshall Hendrix, better known as Jimi, the answer would likely be no.  

Born 80 years ago on Nov. 27, 1942, in Seattle, Washington, I doubt anyone could have predicted that this African-Native American boy would alter the face of popular music forever.  

When it comes to American musicians, Jimi Hendrix is in the most sacred of halls. He has recordings in the Library of Congress and even has an asteroid named for him — fitting considering his music often takes the listener on cosmic journeys. Every life touches people in some way, but it is a special type of life that impacts people in such a way that Hendrix did. More than 50 years after his death, he is still nearly universally regarded as the greatest ever in what he did, and is someone of relevance in our daily lives.  

Hendrix was the greatest guitarist of all time. While that is an opinion, it bears repeating that no one changed the scope of the instrument or used it in the ways Hendrix was able to.  

The American Rock and Roll Hall of Fame takes it one step further, saying “Jimi Hendrix was the most gifted instrumentalist of all time, a self-taught electric guitarist whose fluid, immersive style was perfectly suited to embrace — and then revolutionize — the late ’60s psychedelic rock movement.”  

Hendrix taught himself how to play, which makes sense in hindsight. It is hard to imagine anyone being able to teach Hendrix most of the techniques that he would end up employing in his music. Things like feedback, tremolo bars, extreme volume and distortion were all around before Hendrix; but he channeled them into something new and altogether separate from what came before.  

The blues of the deltas, bayous and juke joints of the American south had its origins in the music of Robert Johnson, T. Bone Walker, Albert King, Muddy Waters and BB King as interpreted by generations of African Americans dating back to slavery. Hendrix, on the other hand, allowed the music to be given a hazy and cosmic mysticism that made it his own. 

As Tyler Larson said of Hendrix “If Curtis Mayfield showed Hendrix three colors in a paint pallet, Hendrix figured out a way to paint a thousand more.”  

He was truly special and an artist like that truly comes once in a generation. 

With a career of only four years, Hendrix produced three albums routinely declared some of the greatest ever: “Are You Experienced?”, “Axis: Bold as Love” and “Electric Ladyland.” Each contains legendary cuts from the psychedelic rock classic “Purple Haze” to his masterful cover of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower.”  

But more than that are the moments that stick with listeners to this day. There is the legendary moment at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival when Hendrix lit his guitar on fire. Keeping in mind that this was his first major performance in the United States with his new band, it is hard to imagine a more fitting introduction. There was also his legendary performance of the track “Machine Gun” performed on New Year’s Eve of 1969 at the Filmore East; the event evoked sympathy for the victims of the Vietnam War, acting as a powerful anti-war creed. But it is his unforgettable performance of “The Star Spangled Banner” at the Woodstock festival in 1969 that likely serves as the most known and seen evidence of his genius. He combined effects, incredible volume, intense distortion and a masterful command of feedback to create a version of the United States’ national anthem that reflected the deep divisions of the nation at the time.  

With that being said, we are left with just three studio albums, several live recordings and uncompleted studio tracks for the career of Hendrix. What do we make of him? Hendrix was a guitar virtuoso who combined old techniques and invented new ones to paint sonic pictures of a world of imaginary and visionary fantasy and sometimes painful, brutal reality. He will be remembered as one of the greatest musicians of all time and one of the premier artists of any medium to come out of the United States. He truly was the sorcerer of guitar and he always will be the gold standard. 

2 COMMENTS

  1. Nothing not any word format, adjective, etc… in any language here in this world could possibly define , describe, submit to artful expression the wizardry, the passion, let alone the magic of this artist performing live or the recorded music he left us ……

    • Of course not. Hendrix is an artist whose impact goes beyond mere description. It’s a feeling. A very deep rooted one too. I grow sad thinking how much more he could’ve given, but what he gave us was already beyond priceless.

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