100 Greatest Artists

6

Jimi Hendrix

Illustration by Cynthia von Buhler

Jimi Hendrix is one of those extraordinary hubs of music where everybody lands at some point. Every musician passes through Hendrix International Airport eventually. He is the common denominator of every style of popular music. Was he a bluesman? Listen to "Voodoo Chile" and you'll hear some of the eeriest blues you can find. Was he a rock musician? He used volume as a device. That's rock. Was he a sensitive singer-songwriter? In "Bold As Love," he sings, "My yellow in this case is not so mellow/In fact I'm trying to say it's frightened like me" — that is a man who knows the shape of his heart.

So often, he's portrayed as a loud, psychedelic rock star lighting his guitar on fire. But when I think of Hendrix, I think of some of the most placid, lovely guitar sounds on songs like "One Rainy Wish," "Little Wing" and "Drifting." "Little Wing" is painfully short and painfully beautiful. It's like your grandfather coming back from the dead and hanging out with you for a couple of minutes and then going away. It's perfect, then it's gone.

I think the reason musicians love Hendrix's playing so much is that the language of it was so native to his head and heart. He had a secret relationship with playing the guitar, and though it was incredibly technical and based in theory, it was his theory. All you heard was the color. The math is what's been applied ever since.

I discovered Hendrix by way of Stevie Ray Vaughan. I heard Stevie Ray do "Little Wing," and I started working my way backward to Hendrix. The first Hendrix record I bought was Axis: Bold As Love, because it had "Little Wing" on it. I remember staring at the album cover for hours. Then I remember spending months listening to Electric Ladyland, which was very creepy. There's something dark about it in certain places that maybe Hendrix was too honest to hide.

Hendrix invented a kind of cool. The cool of a big conch-shell belt. The cool of boots that your jeans are tucked into. If Jimi Hendrix is an influence on somebody, you can immediately tell. Give me a guy who's got some kind of weird-ass goatee and an applejack hat, and you just go, "He got to you, didn't he?"

Hendrix has the allure of the tragic figure: We all wish we were genius enough to die before we're 28. People want to paint him as this lonely, shy figure who managed to let himself open up on the stage and play straight colors through the crowd. There's something heroic about it, but there's nothing human about it. Everybody is so caught up in his otherworldliness. I prefer to think about his human side. He was a man who had a Social Security number, not an alien. The merchandising companies put Jimi Hendrix's face on a tie-dyed T-shirt, and somehow that's what he became. But when I listen to Hendrix, I just hear a man, and that's when it's most beautiful — when you remember that another human being was capable of what he achieved. Who I am as a guitarist is defined by my failure to become Jimi Hendrix. However far you stop on your climb to be like him, that's who you are.

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