Twenty years after his death, Jimi Hendrix is still inspiring legions of guitar-hero hopefuls. His pioneering use of feedback and distortion has been widely imitated but never quite mastered. In the years since his death, the music world has yet to see another guitarist who could speak that nether-worldly six-string language as fluently as Hendrix did. As a tribute, we asked five of today’s most accomplished axe slingers to remember the man who almost single-handedly changed the face of rock guitar.
I must’ve been sixteen or seventeen when “Purple Haze” came out. I remember thinking, “Now we’re getting radio from Mars.” The guitar sounded like a monster coming out of the speakers.
Once in a while, somebody comes along and moves the instrument ahead, but not in the way Hendrix did. Jimi took it from black and white to multicolor.
I always think of this old picture of him – I think he was playing background for King Curtis. He was wearing a suit, and, I don’t know, he just kind of looked like a geek. A few years later, he was at Monterey, lighting his guitar on fire.
He’s still my absolute favorite. I still get chills when I hear his stuff.
When he died, I made a decision that I would play. I was suited up and ready to start football practice, and one of the guys on the team just sort of casually mentioned that this guy Hendrix had died. It devastated me. It was one of the first times I felt real loss. Those records were important to me being able to get along where I was growing up. Hendrix records were my little saviors. And the thought that it was all over didn’t seem right. I turned in my equipment and told the coach I was quitting. I went back and listened to the records, stared at the posters on my wall and said, “I’m gonna play guitar for real.”
I took two guitar lessons from this guy. I brought him “Purple Haze” and said, “Can you teach me how to do this?” He started to play it, and his version was so horrible that I said, “This is something that I should never attempt. I should never defile this music ever again.” For years, I never bothered playing the stuff. I thought it was sort of a sacrilege.
Hendrix had a different relationship with his instrument – it was a total extension of him, something he was in love with and made love to. He ‘would squeeze sounds out of it that were buried within him.
I know guitar very well. I can hear what he’s done and know exactly how he did it – but the question is, how did he think of it? What gave him the courage to do it? Other people may come along who will advance the instrument and bring it to a different dimension, but it will never, in the eyes of people, equal what Hendrix did.
He was the one to make it cool to play guitar. Listening to Eddie Van Halen and then listening to Hendrix, I realize how much he influenced a lot of people with the little things that he did. I mean, the sound he was making with just an amp – the Beatles were doing their little twangy thing, and here was Hendrix doing dive bombs and squeals and screaming and feedback. He must’ve looked like Satan to people, you know? Like, where did he plug in, and who told him to do it?
I remember seeing him on the Dick Cavett show when I was a kid. He didn’t actually play – they played a bit of footage, and he came out and spoke. Cavett brought up the fact that Hendrix was in the 101st Airborne, and brought up “The Star-Spangled Banner,” because at that time people were up in arms about it. Now it’s Roseanne, but then it was Hendrix. And Hendrix just tried to clarify that he thought it was a real compliment the way he did it, not derogatory.
As a guitar player, people are always handing you tapes of undiscovered Hendrix stuff. To me, the best stuff was that real kind of clean, song-oriented stuff. I mean, he was fucking brilliant at everything, but I personally really love all those great chord things that he did.
Hendrix’s playing was a lot more dangerous than anybody else’s who’s come since. You were hit with this whole three-dimensional personality. You could really escape with his whole thing, just fall into this world he created. I mean, the guy wrote the gospel on the guitar. Everybody else is just wearing the shoes that he left them.
This is a story from the December 13th, 1990 issue of Rolling Stone.