Why is Jimi Hendrix so revered as a guitar player, when all he seemed to do was play blues scales with distortion? And he never seemed to play an acoustic instrument?
Written by Cedric Lucas on 26 March 2022
Edit, or, more accurately, a footnote: Stumble across this: Don’t think it negates my answer though, but if it doesn’t give you some reverence, I don’t know what will:
I know a big chunk of my answer is echoing some other posts here, but I’d like to elaborate on a few of those for a more complete response and a few original insights of my own.
First, why not acoustic? Hendrix not focusing on the acoustic side of things is the point of why he’s revered. It’s also why people like Pete Seeger and others had such a visceral horror to Dylan when he moved into using electric guitars and performing with a band. Even in the late ’60s, the electric guitar was still seen by a very large majority as not a legitimate instrument. You might also have a question about what’s the big deal about people asking “Beatles or Stones”? Aren’t they both pretty much the same? No, they’re not. When did the Beatles get real respect from the old guard? When they moved into experimenting in the studio and using (with the guidance, mentorship, and support of the classically trained producer, George Martin) complex arrangements along traditional lines; And even though they were weaving all that into pop and rock and it was avant guard at the time; that approach finally got some old school respectability and good reviews from the musical authorities of the time; while the stones, who experimented a little bit with this, probably out of musical rivalry, mostly just got grittier into the electric scene — giving them more rebellious street cred for staying closer to their jazz and blues roots. The point: Hendrix wasn’t Hendrix the Virtuoso-All-Revered-Bow-Before-His- Name guitar master until he became Hendrix, and that didn’t happen in an instant.
If he’d explored the acoustic side of rock, he’d have been just another player — uber-talented, sure, but you wouldn’t be asking the question because there would be no question to ask — he’d just be another really great session guy, but not a legend, and certainly not an innovator. Hendrix was pushing the boundaries of sound, not done by anyone before, and doing it on an instrument that was seen as a freak in the world of musical instruments.
Context: His audience was in their late teens and early 20’s. Their parents? When their parents were that age, their dads were soldiers in WWII or Korea and probably met their moms at a club playing live swing music and a 20 or 30 piece band — or maybe some at some country swing honky tonk. When their kids started blasting Hendrix out of their radios and turntables, these parents collectively wondered how on earth they could have given birth to children who brought that buzzing and squawking cacophony recorded from blowing electrically converted notes through 100 watt Marshall amplification (the iPhone of amplifiers, not that mom or dad even appreciated the idea of an amplifier, which was unnecessary to them when it comes to real music) and how the F—- it could be even categorized as music, not to mention, would have given any kind of respect for any artist, Jimmy Hendrix being just some negro dressed in those loud psychedelic feminines looking and clashing dungarees. Surely a sign of the apocalypse.
But their kids were a little put off too, not by the sound, what’s Hendrix playing? A Strat? Nobody cool plays a Stat anymore, right? By the late 60’s the real professional take-me-seriously rockers were playing Les Pauls or something in the Les Paul configuration (shorter neck, 500K pots, hollow/semi-hollow/solid body but with hollow body features). Strats were for beginners and marginally acceptable family-friendly pop, like the Beach Boys and other clean-cut surfer music or mainstream but with country music roots. It was also still seen by many as a cheap, mass-produced guitar for wanna-be nobodies, country-western rednecks, bar bands, cover bands, and maybe a backup guitar if you broke a string on stage — or you’re Townsend and you’re doing an early punk wrecking of your guitar at the end of every show and you need some cheap guitars to destroy.
Oh, wait, you say, that’s not true! What about Clapton? He was “god” right, what about him? He plays a Strat. Well, more accurately, he’s associated with a Strat now, but then he was mostly playing a Gibson 355 — until Hendrix showed what was possible with Buddy Holly’s novelty guitar. Now, you might know that Hendrix wasn’t just playing any Strat, he was playing a pre-65 Strat with a few of his own unique modifications, such as the flipped headstock, and so on, but that wasn’t the perception playing a Strat sent at first look. Fender sold to CBS in ’65 and nearly destroyed the brand with quality cutbacks and some created-by-committee design alterations. Think of it as an Apple product after the first Macintosh and before Jobs came back to Apple and introduced the iPod. The PC folks just rolled their eyes at this closed system all-in-one “toy computer” and Apple, during the Jobs-in-Exile period, attempted to “improve” it as well.
To mix my metaphors here you have to consider the context — Hendrix was getting impossible sounds out of what, at the time was considered not only a de-legitimized instrument in general (electric guitar) but one that was getting a laughable reputation among even those that honoured it as a serious instrument. So the metaphor: The dude showed up to Monterey and Woodstock driving the musical equivalent of a Yugo. And in doing so, he ended up lapping every other formula one racer on the track! Hendrix almost single-handedly revived not just the brand that otherwise would remain a footnote in Nashville circles: Buddy Holly, Buck Owens, and so on. How quaint. We really only see the Start again (speaking again from a culture-altering standpoint) as the headstock on the famous poster for Woodstock. And why? Woodstock wasn’t planned to become a cultural touchstone for an entire generation. It was simply organized to be the electric rock version of Monterey folk and Jazz festivals as a secondary venue because the mainstream music world blackballed their evolving take on alternative original folk/Rhythm and Blues after crashing their otherwise pure festivals of what was then seen as the only legitimate music). And the image was chosen — the new guy, that freaky weirdo Jimmy Hendrix who played a Strat.
Now, who knows what sound he imagined vs. what he was able to create from this common everyman Fender electric guitar, but whatever it was or wasn’t, an acoustic instrument wasn’t going to get him there. An additional metaphor: He wasn’t trying to fly a plane; he was an astronaut wanting to fly a missile into space. That said, had he lived, who knows what other instruments he might have explored in the ’80s or ’90s. . . But at the time, Hendrix was figuring out how to ride a bottle rocket to the moon.
Regardless, what doesn’t work on acoustic is distortion — not the way Hendrix was approaching it, so let’s talk overdrive. A better question than the OP in terms of overdrive would be to ask why a band like ZZ Top is given any status since virtually every one of their songs are slight variations off of an A5, D5, and E5 progression — just distorted at max levels. Not only that, by playing almost exclusively power chords, they’re only working on two or three strings. Where’s the musicianship in that? The answer: technique. Billy Gibbons and Dusty Hill get clear and distinct notes that cut through that distortion, making one, and sometimes two guitars, (sorry Mr Berry) ring like a bell. You’d think a ZZ Top song would be the day one, page one, equivalent of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” in every rock guitar lesson or music book ever printed. However, you’ll find their pieces in the precision portion in the advanced lesson books. The chords might be as basic as they get, but duplicating that technique to get such a sound out of your guitar and amp cranked to 11, that sh!t requires about a thousand hours of practice, and the patience to keep going while you keep trying to get those notes to cut through but keep sounding like a diseased seal puking up mud. And who is the father of that clear-as-bell while still distorted virtuosity? That, my friend, would be Mr Hendrix as well. Hendrix didn’t just play the blues loud, he was able to play the blues clearly and blow your hair back while doing it. Clapton, ZZ Top, and others took that and continued to refine it, but it was primarily Jimmy Hendrix who took rock and roll and solidified it into hard rock.
So, I get it. After Hendrix’s legacy, his many musical children have populated the r&b, rock and roll, and hard rock map, and if you’ve come along since then, or haven’t studied what came before, it might not seem like the man was doing anything particularly original. But that’s what 19th-century composers thought about Mozart after Mozart was gone and his work had become mainstream. But like Amadeus, Jimmy brought us a sound, a style, and even an instrument, that, during his time wasn’t fully appreciated, accepted, and in many cases, even acknowledged, yet afterword, has been more thoroughly developed by his disciples and has only very slightly ever been improved on or surpassed.