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Guitar Gods

Some of the world's best guitarists talk about their own axe idols in this 1999 cover story

April 1, 1999
jimi hendrix rolling stone cover guitar gods
Jimi Hendrix on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Illustration by Mark Ryden

In his first Rolling Stone interview, published in March 1968, Jimi Hendrix described the moment that changed his life forever: "The first guitarist I was aware of was Muddy Waters. I heard one of his old records when I was a little boy, and it scared me to death . . . 'Wow, what is that all about?'"

The history of rock & roll guitar is writ large and loud in its signature licks, riffs and solos: the barnyard bounce and pink-Cadillac shine of Scotty Moore's epochal break in Elvis Presley's "That's All Right"; Keith Richards' distorted three-note stomp in the Rolling Stones' "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction"; Kurt Cobain's fireball power chords in Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit."

But rock & roll's infinite capacity for renewal and surprise is packed into the lightning-bolt impact of those Great Guitar Moments – the way a simple hook, a feedback squeal, even a cocksure pose can send a kid over the moon and then reaching for his or her own instrument. The following pages are a celebration of those flashes of discovery, related by more than thirty-five master players in rock, blues, folk, punk and hip-hop – an extraordinary testament to the enduring power and magic of the electric guitar.

It's Jimi Hendrix, from 1968: On Early Influences, 'Axis' and More

The instrument is a lot older than rock & roll itself. Les Paul, a pioneer in guitar design and multitrack recording, was playing a primitive electric guitar as early as 1928, using his parents' radio as an amplifier. In 1937, Eldon Shamblin of Bob Wills' Texas Playboys was the first country musician to play a solid-body model, a bantam-size Rickenbacker Electro Spanish – until his boss told him to stop, claiming that the damn thing didn't look like a proper guitar.

But in rock & roll, the whole point of the guitar is to be anything but proper. Everything you need to know about the implicit sexuality of the guitar, and its potential for exuberant violence, can be seen in 1950s stage photos and footage of Presley – his guitar hanging over his waist like a tommy gun, banging into his pelvis with rhythmic authority. Amplification liberated the instrument from the rich, warm but literal sound of wire resonating against wood. It could sound like a wounded animal, a runaway train or, in Hendrix's Woodstock recasting of the national anthem, America going up in flames. Citing the Who's Pete Townshend as an influence, Carrie Brownstein of Sleater-Kinney notes the way Townshend used his guitar, and its ferociously abused sound, as an extension of his body – and, in turn, of his personality, his fears, his dreams.

The guitar is not the only rock & roll instrument capable of expressing uninhibited joy and explosive honesty; the piano and the saxophone are part of the bedrock architecture. But the guitar remains a barometer of purity and commitment for the same reasons it was rock's primary agent of change: affordability, accessibility and the fact that all you need to play it are desire and imagination. Technical competence is still optional. These interviews, featuring our finest guitarists talking about their own heroes and gods, show how the guitar transformed American popular culture – by putting immortality within arm's reach.

Lenny Kravitz
Jimi Hendrix was just so fluid. His hands were connected to his soul, you know? His playing was just so emotional. You could feel the fire, you could feel the blues. You could feel the sadness. It's unbelievable.

What did I learn from him? What you can do with an electric guitar. And how to blend rock & roll and blues all together in songs.

I didn't really get into Hendrix until I moved to California from New York and I was about twelve or thirteen. I moved to L.A. and heard Smash Hits. It was unbelievable. It was everything: It was psychedelic, it was funk, it was blues, it was rock.

My favorite Hendrix song is "Have You Ever Been (To Electric Ladyland)." It's just so soulful, so electric. It's like floating in water.

Mike McCready (Pearl Jam)
I fuckin' love Hendrix. He's all-encompassing. His song-writing ability was amazing, his leads were genius – he was so far ahead of his time.

My dad was in Vietnam, and he had Hendrix's Band of Gypsys record on his carrier. He brought that back when I was seven or eight, and I put it on not really knowing that much about rock & roll. I remember going, "What the hell is this?" I was pretty young, and it was so other-worldly. When I started understanding guitar more, I realized that Hendrix was so far above the level that a lot of other guitar players were at.

There's a feeling you get sometimes playing leads – it's like you're out of your mind, you're in a state of nirvana. It sounds silly, but it's spiritual. I get that when I hear "Machine Gun" and he's playing that one fucking note and it brings you to tears. I'm constantly striving for that kind of feeling, a feeling that will bring across an emotion to an audience or to myself.

Kirk Hammett (Metallica)
My favorite guitar player is Jimi Hendrix, hands down. It started when I was five or six years old – hearing "Purple Haze" and thinking it didn't sound like anything on AM radio at the time. Then in 1976, I went to one of my first rock concerts. Between bands, they played "Purple Haze" on the PA, and I freaked out. The first thing I did when I got home – I was thirteen or fourteen – was go out and buy a Hendrix album. And that got me to play guitar. The first song I ever learned was "Purple Haze." Within two weeks I formed a band, and we did a thirty-minute version of "Purple Haze." That was the only song we knew.

His music was so visual. When he played a song and wanted sea-gull sounds in it, he would get those sounds. If he wanted his guitar to sound like it was underwater, he could do that. And in the live "Machine Gun" from Band of Gypsys, he goes into that whole thing where he's mimicking the bombers coming in, dropping bombs, the voices crying out. Hendrix had a way of saying something political without speaking outside his own musical language. He said it in sonic terms. And his guitar tone is something he completely invented. There is no one who sounded like him, before or after. He invented the Church of Tone. He had monster tone, monster technique, monster songs. And soul to spare.

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