Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton: A Consideration of 1967 Trios

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

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

Ultimately the Cream will have to decide if this is what they want to continue to do or not. If they do, they may eventually find it aesthetically advantageous to add another instrument. If not, then perhaps they will evolve their own version of a three-instrument group, in which case, with their vast individual talents, they will really come up with something.

On the British Are You Experienced? album there is a straight blues called "Red House." Prior to his guitar solo on that cut, Jimi Hendrix announces, "I've still got my guitar." It's a good thing, because Jimi is neither a great song-writer nor an extraordinary vocalist.

He is, however, a great guitarist and a brilliant arranger. On "Red House," the only straight blues he has recorded, (He wrote it himself, but it sounds like B.B. King) he establishes himself as an absolute master of that musical form. The blues and hard rock used to be Jimi's forte when he toured the country in bands fronted by Little Richard and Joey Dee, the latter being the place where Felix Cavaliere and Eddie Brigati got their starts, but he is no longer interested in those seemingly limited musical forms. In a way it's a shame because for me this simple little blues is the most exciting cut he's yet recorded. Even Jimi seems to realize this when he says to the engineer, at the end of the cut, with the smug confidence that has become his trademark, "How about that one?"

On the American album we find a totally unified presentation of a sound altogether different from that of "Red House." Unlike Clapton, Jimi really does think in terms of three instruments, and despite some small amount of dubbing, he has given us the first really new sound in this idiom since the Who's first album with its "Out in the Streets," and "My Generation."

Jimi relies exclusively on his drummer, Mitch Mitchell, for his whole rhythm concept. Mitchell has clearly been influenced by the best of all British drummers, the Who's Keith Moon, and goes after that heavy metallic tone that Moon introduced two years ago. He is an extremely busy drummer who has better technique than most and a very clear concept what he is trying to do.

Noel Redding is likewise a fine bass player and rhythm guitarist, but unlike Jack Bruce, he doesn't feel the need to compensate for the lack of another rhythm instrument and therefore tends to limit the range of his playing a great deal more.

And then there is Jimi himself who feeds and fuzzes just about everything, knows every gimmick in the book, and has a fantastic touch. On some of the cuts he goes to a bassier guitar sound than is usual for this kind of playing, ("The Wind Cries Mary") and on some cuts he concentrates on just a few lengthily sustained notes, ("Fire") but on most of the others he just pulls out the stops and what results is indescribable.

"Purple Haze" is the perfect beginning for this album because the intro is a perfect expression of Jimi's charismatic style. In words it seems to be saying, "Now, dig this." There is no real sense of foreground-background once Jimi starts to sing on the cut, as is often the case. Only on "Hey Joe" and "The Wind Cries Mary" does Jimi play in a more conventional style and on these cuts he gives us a brief taste of his melodic sense – on the solos, – which in both cases is perfect. On the latter he uses the eclectic perfectly, placing a country and western based guitar solo right where it belongs.

Everything else is insane and simply a matter of either you dig it or you don't. Basically I don't for several reasons. Despite Jimi's musical brilliance and the group's total precision, the poor quality of the songs, and the inanity of the lyrics, too often get in the way. Jimi is very much into state-of-mind type lyrics, but even so, lines like "Manic depression is a frustrating mess," just don't make it. It is one thing for Jimi to talk arrogantly, and without any pretense at artistry; it's another to write lyrics in that fashion. In this context "I Don't Live Today" can be seen as both the best and worst cut on the album. The best because it is performed with such exquisite precision and control, and the worst because what Jimi is trying to get across is such a drag: "There's no life nowhere."

On the Are You Experienced album Jimi has made a tremendous technical advance in the use of three instruments. The superfluous has been eliminated, the tightness of the arrangements is total, the ornament and the background-foreground concept have been limited, if not eliminated, and the level of individual virtuosity is extraordinarily high. But, in Jimi's case, the sum total of all this is pure violence. Above all this record is unrelentingly violent, and, lyrically, inartistically violent at that.

Dig it if you can, but as for me, I'd rather hear Jimi play the blues.

This story is from the November 9th, 1967 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 1: November 9, 1967