Fifty Years of Great Music: The Top 100 Artists (#17)


Another day, another chip off the ol' Top 20. Today it's #17. Check it out after the break.

If you live in a monotheistic society, then there can only be one guitar god, and that deity must be Jimi Hendrix. Is there any acclimation that can be more widely agreed upon by an entire planet? Is it even up for debate anymore? Can they just list it as a career statistic in the Rock and Roll Hall of jimihendrix1Fame? Bullet point: The greatest guitarist to ever live. Certainly the greatest electric guitar player to ever wield an axe.

He’s on a completely different level than anyone else. What he did for electric rock music in less than four years is staggering. Much will be made of the cosmic sound, a sense that he’s inhuman, that his guitar was plugged into his soul and not an amplifier. But that gives short shrift to his technique, a suggestion that it was an alien force and not technical skill and supreme talent that made those sounds. If you strip away his instrument, Hendrix was just a man. Well, he’s still just a man even with the wild fashion, unflappable sense of fiery cool, and that guitar of his racing through sounds that require a range beyond the limitations of language. A man not necessarily blessed by some supernatural force to move people in unfathomable ways, but one who’s style could almost be elevated to a philosophy. Hendrix’s world was rich with garish color and he painted those hues through vivid rock n’ roll music, his paintbrush a Fender Stratocaster.

Hendrix’s legendary solos have a poetry to them that few can even hope to attain. They’re not particularly “showy” displays—not the usual predictable chord changes and speed picking/fingering that dazzle with precision, velocity and power. He rarely even played fast tempos and much of the jimihendrix2exactness was masked by an inability to gaze through the emotions and images they summoned to simply look at them for technical details. Whether mellowed or a full-blown firestorm, they erupted from “all of these emotions of mine” and from the wide range of colors he described in the same song (“Bold As Love”). When performing live, he would hit wrong notes, but rather than rush past the gaffe to keep the riff going, he’d bend that wrong note—almost as if bending it by sheer will alone—until it became right, something substantial, expressive and sensible within the context of where he was just at and where he was going.

It’s been widely discussed how Hendrix was a self-taught guitarist, never taking lessons and playing alone as a teenager for hours almost every day perfecting his craft. This, of course, makes for the stuff of legend, but it’s impractical—he would never have become a master if this was the extent of his training. He also studied the music of bluesmen like B.B. King and Muddy Waters, listening to their records constantly and figuring out how to produce those notes. He learned a lot of moves and methods from local musicians, and developed several of his trademark maneuvers (like playing the guitar with his teeth) from them. As the cliché goes: “When the legend becomes jimihendrix3fact, print the legend,” but that myth is insensible. It was that passion for those bluesmen and Little Richard and Elvis Presley and other rock n’ roll pioneers that made Hendrix want to blow our minds. The fusion of disparate styles produced his musical voice. Being just some prodigy with otherworldly craft and showmanship is boring—the passion and spirit made him divine.

His career began in earnest during the early 60s as a session musician for numerous groups both large and small, including the Isley Brothers and a turbulent stint with Little Richard. Producer/manager Chas Chandler saw potential in Hendrix and helped him form the Jimi Hendrix Experience with bassist Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell. After receiving little notice in the States, the Experience relocated to the UK where they found great success throughout Europe, especially England where their debut album Are You Experienced? missed the top of the charts only because Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band proved (temporarily) unbeatable. Despite low sales for his early singles in the US, he returned to the west coast for the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, and soon after the Experience’s international success finally translated to popularity in America.

With the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s second LP, Axis: Bold As Love, Hendrix the guitar virtuoso strived to establish his skills as a songwriter. The results were similar to the diligence he exhibited on Are You Experienced? but with less emphasis on bluesy riffs and more on mellower, more imaginative pop songs like “Wait Until Tomorrow,” “Castles Made of Sand,” and “You Got Me jimihendrix4Floating.” It was also a marvel of studio recording technique, making great use of echo and wavering effects for a purer psychedelic sound. Those efforts seemed like baby steps compared to the lengths taken on Electric Ladyland, with flanging, pedals, backward tape and more emphasizing acid contrails streaking through Hendrix’s fierce blues songs—“Voodoo Chile” and “Voodoo Child” represent flip takes on Muddy Waters-indebted blues chronology but full of spaced-out twists and loopy guitar effects.

Because Hendrix was so far gone as a performer and force of nature, it’s easy to overlook the contributions of Redding and Mitchell to the Experience. As far as power trios of the day (or all time) went, it was Cream and the Experience battling for supremacy, and it’s shocking to admit (but difficult to deny) that Jimi was actually above Eric during the peak of Clapton’s powers. But Redding and Mitchell also rivaled Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce in much the same way, especially on their emphasis of funk-style rhythms that stagger as merciless as Hendrix’s improvisations. But Gypsy Jimi was the star of the show, emphasized when the Experience dissolved after Ladyland and Hendrix carried on with the Band of Gypsys that featured Billy Cox and Buddy Miles for a brief set of shows and self-titled live album, notably featuring “Machine Gun,” with its unforgettable guitar expressionism and rat-a-tat drum jimihendrix5bursts. The Experience reconvened shortly after, with Cox permanently replacing Redding, but they only had a handful of shows left before Hendrix passed.

It’s been speculated over how much Hendrix’s early death affected his legacy, increased the mystical aura that glowed brighter than the infernos he’d build on his guitar. It’s a fair if skeptical question—the only suggestion as to where Hendrix could have gone from there is provided by the seemingly endless parade of posthumous releases that featured unfinished songs, demos, live takes, covers and more. It seems impossible to keep going up from Electric Ladyland; it seems unlikely he’d ever release a tighter, more consistently astounding set of songs than on Experienced. But it also seems too far beyond earthly means that Hendrix could do the things he did with his guitar, a superlative combination of prowess, feeling, manipulation, perfectionism, experimentation and willpower. Who knows what else was possible? All that matters is his nearly flawless body of work, the imagination he forced future guitarists to plumb as inspiration, and the realization that as a simple, humble man he reached superhuman heights on his path to becoming a very mortal but very magnificent god among musicians.

Stone Free
Red House
May This Be Love
Burning of the Midnight Lamp
Little Wing
If 6 Was 9
Bold As Love
Castles Made of Sand
Have You Ever Been (To Electric Ladyland)
Crosstown Traffic
Gypsy Eyes
All Along the Watchtower
Voodoo Child (Slight Return)
Machine Gun
Night Bird Flying
Dolly Dagger
Star Spangled Banner
…and the album Are You Experienced? (US edition)

Also endorsed: B.B. King, Albert King, Moby Grape

[Intro & Runners Up] [100-91] [90-81] [80-71] [70-61] [60-51]
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Matt Medlock


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