Quick, name the best and/or most important rock guitarist of the past fifty years.
There certainly are no shortage of viable candidates, whether it’s Jimmy Page, some guy with the last name of Van Halen, never-graduating schoolboy Angus Young, plus more contemporary contenders like Metallica’s Kirk Hammett or even Jack White.
It’s a bit of a trick question actually given that as of September 18, 2020, Jimi Hendrix will have been gone for five full decades. There are circumstances surrounding his death and things such as being arrested for drug possession in Toronto that linger to this day, but one thing is for certain – Not many artists of any genre accomplished so much, so fast, and so well that Jimi Hendrix’s music has endured and as a result still sounds revolutionary to anyone lucky enough to feel its rush for the first time.
Like the reincarnation of a psychedelic Robert Johnson, Hendrix literally set the world on fire at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival backed by his new “Experience” band after having toiled earlier as a second banana for the Isley Brothers and Little Richard. Before his induction into the infamous 27 Club, Hendrix had achieved the title of world’s highest-paid entertainer, headlined Woodstock where he essentially became immortal, as well as had Electric Lady Studios in New York City custom-built to keep his creative juices flowing. At least that was the plan.
Jimi Hendrix was not the first person to put his own sped up spin on the blues in the ’sixties. No one has done it with as much gusto and flair. Or should that be flames? Hendrix was shredding to the point of spontaneous combustion prior to the term “heavy metal” being coined. When he wasn’t busy picking a fretboard with his teeth during a solo, that is. Hendrix’s instrument wasn’t so much an extension of a limb as it was a romantic partner he had no problem publicly displaying affection towards. Even if the relationship sometimes took a violent turn. “The time I burned my guitar it was like a sacrifice,” Hendrix was once quoted. “You sacrifice the things you love. I love my guitar.”
Although his career with the Experience was meteoric, it yielded several of the greatest inverted-stringed songs the rock canon has known. “Purple Haze”, “Foxey Lady” and “Fire” – from Hendrix’s Are You Experienced debut – all made Rock 95’s most recent Top 500 Countdown. If that isn’t sufficient testament to a lasting legacy, it’s mind-boggling to start thinking about all the axemen (and women) he’s influenced or simply inspired to pick up an instrument over fifty years, and not just air guitar heroes such as myself. Forget blues being rediscovered every couple of generations by Gary Clark Jr.-come-latelies. Funk rock from Eric Burton’s War onwards is pretty much indebted to Jimi Hendrix, and homage-paying hip-hoppers have either rapped about him or sampled his riffs so as to introduce his music to new fans.
If Sir Mick Jagger is talking about when The Rolling Stones may play next in a post-COVID world, there’s no reason to believe Jimi Hendrix wouldn’t be strumming a guitar somewhere had he not taken too many of his girlfriend’s sleeping pills one fateful night. Regardless of the direction his art may have been going in 1970, Hendrix would have at the very least had a front row seat to the impact he made. I wonder which of his tracks he would put on a Best of Jimi Hendrix playlist?