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Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton: A Consideration of 1967 Trios

A rumination on the limitations, benefits and outcomes of three-instrument bands

November 9, 1967
Jimi Hendrix, archive, Jimi Hendrix Experience, guitar, voodoo child
Jimi Hendrix circa August 1967.
Monitor Picture Library/Getty

It is only natural that as part of the overall experimentation going on in pop, attempts at using new combinations of instruments would be tried. The earlier pop groups of the new wave, starting with the Beatles, the Animals, the Stones, and the Beach Boys, were all four-instrument groups, and tended to influence others in that direction. But from the beginning some American groups have attempted to enlarge this concept.

Over two years ago Paul Butterfield was touring with six instrumentalists, and soon after that the Blues Project emerged with five.

The result has been a certain denseness in the music of these expanded ensembles, with the West Coast in particular developing an ornamental sound, emphasizing lots of embellishment, and lots of interaction among soloists.

Oddly, in England the trend has been in the other direction. The Who, the current Yardbirds, the Cream, and Jimi Hendrix are all three-instrument groups. They represent attempts to tighten the music, to eliminate the superfluous, and to get closer to the mythical nitty-gritty. In some cases they are going so far as to eliminate the distinction between background and foreground sounds.

In considering the work of two major new trios, the Cream and Jimi Hendrix, it must be remembered that there is no point in eliminating the rhythm instrument if it is a group's intention to play the kind of rock in which it is important to have one. Any rock form in which there is a solo-accompaniment idea, such as the blues, or hard rock, will require more than a bass and drums for rhythm. It is therefore self-defeating to start a three man group to play those types of music. Hendrix has been more successful in realizing this and in using the three-instrument idea more meaningfully.

Eric Clapton, of the Cream, is still very tied to the blues and doesn't seem to know which way to go. On the Fresh Cream album he fools around with attempts to make the straight three man thing work but dubs a fourth instrument on several tracks. The results are pretty confusing.

First of all, in terms of his own performance, when he does a straight blues he sounds bored. He has done it all before and it isn't likely that he will soon surpass his blues playing on cuts like "Have You Heard" from the Blues Breakers album. Hence, on a cut like the totally charming "Sleepy Time Time" he doesn't really get into it. Most of the instrumental excitement of the cut is instead created by Jack Bruce's full and imaginative bass playing. Bruce's bass is recorded very loud to compensate for the lack of rhythm, yet the total sound remains thin and, on this cut, the fourth instrument is very much needed.

On another blues cut, Muddy Waters' "Rolling and Tumbling," they try it without a bass. Guitar, harp, by Jack Bruce, and vocal all play identical lines in an attempt to create a harsh, unified, violent effect. It is a good attempt at a three instrument thing, but unfortunately, Bruce's poor harp solo destroys the concept and prevents the cut from fulfilling itself. (It is absolutely beyond me how three such technically gifted musicians were unable to spot this fact in listening to the playbacks.)

On "Four Until Late" the group turns in a tight but conventional performance which is quite effective, without relying on dubbing a second guitar. And on "Cat's Squirrel" they get into a real three-instrument thing and it works wonderfully, giving us a real taste of Clapton's marvelous chord style.

The real standout on the album is "I'm So Glad," primarily because it is one of Eric's few really creative moments on this record, and because the vocal arrangement is so fine. His solo is beautifully constructed and shows off his capacity to improvise harmonically off the melody line to excellent advantage. Few rock guitarists have this capacity and none more so than Clapton. However, on the solo he felt the need to dub a second guitar which again illustrates the limits of three instruments for this kind of material.

As good as Ginger Baker is on the drums, he can be faulted for failing to move out in the manner of Keith Moon, or Mitch Mitchell, when the group's instrumental sound takes off.

When the Cream does make good music, as on their last single, "Strange Brew," it isn't because they are doing anything really new, but because they are doing the old thing, the blues, extremely well. And to work in this idiom they know they need the extra guitar and dub it in to give the arrangement more substance.

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