• OVERVIEW •
Eb Standard, while most famously showcased by Jimi Hendrix in the late 1960s, has been in use for centuries. Countless artists have tuned ‘one semitone down’ over the ages – both as a timbral/register choice, and as a method of safely breaking in new strings on any chorded instrument. Total tension is ~11% lower than Standard, giving a noticeable ease of fretting (albeit along with a slight volume decrease), and bringing a subtle freshness to the over-familiarity of EADGBE.
Jimi had a mix of motivations for winding lower. Aside from matching better with his vocal range, the looseness allowed for wider bends and deeper whammy-dives, as well as reducing hand strain – a significant factor for someone so inseparable from his strings. Interestingly, his longtime tech Roger Mayer also describes how it helped to counteract intonation issues from playing ‘upside-down‘ (more below!). Since adopted by countless guitarists, often those wielding longer-neck electrics [e.g. Strats are ~3% longer than Les Pauls, meaning they can go lower with less buzz: although you can always just string slightly heavier].
Harmony: Ebm7(11) | 1-4-b7-b3-5-1
• TUNING TONES •
• JIMI HENDRIX •
Jimi Hendrix, my first musical hero, remains my favourite guitarist. So, here’s an overview of his incredible life and innovations…
- Childhood & family: Seattle struggles and one-string ukuleles
- Unstable employment: military mismatches and Chitlin’ tourin’
- Landing in London: the Experience and the Bag O’Nails
- American fire sacrifice: a psychedelic Transatlantic return
- Axis: Bold as Love: voyaging deeper into the studio universe
- Electric Ladyland: expanding his hyper-connected visions
- Countercultural stardom: respangling the stars & stripes
- Bonus: Woodstock ’69: what was the festival really like?
- Future and final days: infinite directions cut tragically short
- Hendrix on himself: reflected through his own rooms of mirrors
- Jimi and Eb tuning: why did he drop down lower & looser?
—Childhood & family—
James Marshall Hendrix, born in Seattle in 1942 to descendents of African slaves and Irish settlers, endured severe material and emotional hardships right from his earliest days. Al, his father, drafted into the army within a week of his wedding, was denied leave to be with his bride Lucille for Jimi’s birth (even having to be held in the Alabama stockades to stop him going AWOL to attend) – leaving Jimi’s mother reliant on assistance from others for the first months of her child’s life.
When Al did exit the army in 1945, he found steady work hard to come by, moving between houses and hostels while falling into regular bouts of alcohol abuse, domestic violence, and crushing poverty. The on-off couple gave up three of Jimi’s younger siblings to adoption, and divorced when he was 9 – before Lucille succumbed to her own addiction struggles, dying of alcohol-related causes aged just 33. Al forbade the 15-year-old Jimi from attending the funeral, instead giving him a shot of whiskey.
A 15-year-old Jimi shows off his first electric (1958)
Nevertheless, Jimi found joy in varied childhood pursuits. Ever-curious, he dove deep into books and comics (“I read a lot of science fiction…[and] fairy tales, like Hans Christian Andersen and Winnie-the-Pooh”), while also cultivating awe at the natural world (“I like to watch the lightning…the fields and flowers when I’m on my own”). His first instrument was a one-string ukulele, found in an old woman’s junkyard as the 14-year-old Jimi helped his father clear it out (she gifted it to him after he expressed intrigue: truly a hidden heroine of guitar history!). He used it to pick apart Elvis tunes by ear, also readily air-guitaring with household objects in front of friends – before getting hold of a $5 second-hand acoustic a year later, and, soon after that, the white Supro Ozark electric above (yeah: starting at 15 definitely isn’t ‘too late’…whatever that even means!).
His first axe icon was Mississippi bluesman Muddy Waters – with other formative influences, mostly gleaned from his dad’s record collection, including Elmore James, B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, and T-Bone Walker, plus “Robert Johnson and all those old cats”. As Al later recalled, “I used to have [him] clean up the bedroom…when I’d come home, I’d find a lot of broom straws at the foot of the bed. I’d say, ‘Well, didn’t you sweep up?’ and he’d say, ‘Oh, yeah’. But he’d [been]…sitting at the end of the bed, strumming the broom like a guitar“. Inevitably, he soon found his way to the stage, recalling that: “My first gig was at an armoury, a National Guard place…we earned 35 cents apiece and three hamburgers…”. One of his very next shows, held in the basement of a Seattle synagogue, saw him fired during the interval (as per one attendee, “he’d play this wild stuff, but the people couldn’t dance to it. They just stared…”).
- Mannish Boy (live) – Muddy Waters (1971):
“The first guitarist I was aware of was Muddy Waters. I heard one of his old records when I was a little boy, and it scared me to death…All of those sounds, ‘Wow, what is that all about?’ It was great! And I like Albert King…One of the funkiest I’ve heard. He plays it strictly that way.” (to Rolling Stone, 1968)
However, his burgeoning sonic obsessions were complicated by enlisting in the 101st Airborne aged 18 (chosen over a prison sentence after twice being caught as a passenger in stolen cars). Despite some early enthusiasm for the thrills of paratrooping, he soon lapsed into indiscipline, gaining a reputation for missing bed checks, sleeping on sentry duty, and skiving off to play guitar. In a letter to his father, he described “nothing but physical training and harassment…when you go to jump school, you get hell” – while his platoon sergeant appraised him thusly: “Private Hendrix plays a musical instrument…and has let this interfere with his military duties…He has no interest whatsoever in the army“.
He was duly discharged after just 13 months (possibly after faking a broken ankle: although alternate theories abound), and followed his bass-playing army buddy Billy Cox to Tennessee. They formed a band, The King Kasuals, gigging around Nashville, including a regular slot at the Club Del Morocco (the owner once bailed the pair out of jail after a 1962 Civil Rights march). Soon, Jimi found his way onto the ‘Chitlin’ Circuit‘, backing up R&B acts including Marion James, Curtis Knight, Ike Turner, Little Richard, and The Isley Brothers – most of whom ended up firing him due to a general mix of flamboyance, disorganisation, and distractibility (according to Robert Penniman, Little Richard’s brother and tour manager, “He was always late for the bus, and flirting with the girls…“).
- Shotgun – Buddy & Stacy with The Upsetters (1965):
“The Little Richard bandwagon passed through Nashville in July 1965, affording Hendrix the opportunity to make an early TV appearance on the local [WLAC show] Night Train…Richard himself did not appear, [giving] the spotlight to Buddy Travis and Stacey Johnson to perform a cover of Junior Walker & the All Stars’ Shotgun. Hendrix is immediately apparent in the background…handing his upside-down Fender with the ease and swagger that would soon make him famous…” (Jordan Runtagh)
Despite having now been let go by the likes of Little Richard, King Curtis, Ike Turner, and the US Army, Hendrix persevered according to his own inclinations – unwilling (or unable) to bend his imagination into the tightly-bound shapes required by these big-name bandleaders. He moved to New York’s Greenwich Village in 1966, starting his own group, Jimmy James & the Blue Flames, and gigging around the city for meagre pay. After his virtuosic stage trickery (playing behind his head, and with his teeth: see below) was spotted by Rolling Stones associate Linda Keith, he attracted the attention of former Animals bassist Chas Chandler, who was left awestruck by witnessing Jimi’s cover of Hey Joe at the Cafe Wha?, and signed him soon after (Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham failed to see the same potential, turning down his chance to offer a deal).
—Landing in London—
Chandler brought Hendrix, now 24, to London, arriving on Sep 24th 1966 (carrying only his guitar, hair curlers, face cream, and a borrowed $40). Within 24 hours, he had jammed at Soho’s Scotch of St. James club, and met his soon-to-be girlfriend Kathy Etchingham at the home of organist and bandleader Zoot Money (…a name suggestive of two things Jimi was probably craving that evening). Within a week, he had joined the mighty Cream on stage at London Polytechnic to cover Howlin’ Wolf’s Killing Floor (a song Clapton “loved…but had always thought [was] too difficult”). Clapton would later describe the encounter with awe: “He walked off, and my life was never the same again…”.
As ever, the city proved fertile ground for bold sonic experimentalism: just a month on from landing, he returned to the same Soho club with his own trio – The Jimi Hendrix Experience – featuring jazz-tinged drummer Mitch Mitchell and guitar-to-bass convert Noel Redding. After honing their chemistry with a quick tour of small theatres and working men’s clubs in the North (as well as a brief French excursion as Johnny Hallyday’s support act), they returned to the capital – causing an immediate stir amongst Britain’s blues-booming musical elites.
- Hey Joe (& stage trickery) – Jimi Hendrix (1966):
“It was so hard for me at first…when it was time for us to play onstage I was all shaky, so I had to play behind the curtains. I just couldn’t get up in front. And then you get so very discouraged…Different bands playing around you, and the guitar player always seems like he’s so much better than you…Sometimes you’re going to be so frustrated…but if you stick with it, you’re going to be rewarded…” (Jimi on his earliest stage experiences)
One particularly infamous night at the Bag O’Nails on Regent Street (Fri 25th Nov 1966) saw the Experience play two shows to a crowd studded with stars including Eric Clapton, Pete Townshend, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Jeff Beck, Eric Burdon, Donovan, Mick Jagger, and Keith Richards, with assorted bandmates also in tow. Vocalist Terry ‘Superlungs’ Reid recounts a singularly vivid atmosphere: “In one of his military jackets, hair all over the place…He was piling it on, solo after solo…When he finished, it was silence…Everybody was dumbstruck, completely in shock“. Brian Jones, hardly a rock newcomer, was reduced to tears, while Jimi afterwards remarked that “Britain is really groovy” (…tragically, no bootlegs of the occasion are believed to exist).
Even before this fateful show, rumours of a mysterious American virtuoso were beginning to permeate across Britain – but after it, Jimi’s stardom seemed inevitable. Predictably, the music press, while swooning, struggled to describe his sound (along with his heritage: e.g. lazily racist depictions of him as ‘The Wildman of Borneo’…only 12,000km off-base from his Seattle birthplace). In Jimi’s first interview, published under the title ‘Mr. Phenomenon’, he lays out a lifelong aversion to genre: “We don’t want to be classed in any category…If it must have a tag, I’d like it to be called, ‘Free Feeling’…a mixture of rock, freak-out, rave, and blues.” Elsewhere, he used terms such as “Electric Church Music” (“because it’s like a religion to us”), “a mix of blues, jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, and a lot of noise“, and “our beautiful rock-blues-country-funky-freaky sound.”
- When Clapton met Hendrix (1966):
“Down south at some funky club, some cat up there starving to death…he might be the best guitar player you ever heard, and you might not know his name…” (to Rolling Stone, 1968)
—American fire sacrifice—
Soon, Jimi’s experiments began to make their way around the world, filtering back across the Atlantic to his land of birth. The trio’s debut album Are You Experienced?, released in May 1967, was received with an appropriately heady blend of awe, acclaim, and bewilderment – catalysing, a month later, his addition to the star-stacked lineup of the Monterey Pop Festival in California (thanks to the personal insistence of Paul McCartney). Introduced by Brian Jones as “the most exciting guitar player I’ve ever heard”, the Experience pushed the venue’s pristine speaker system to its limits, firing through Foxey Lady, Purple Haze, The Wind Cries Mary, and other now-immortal classics.
Many among the 90,000-strong crowd had never even heard the name ‘Jimi Hendrix’ before – let alone seen him (or anyone else) ritually sacrifice their guitar in a swirling choreography of butane flames, sudden stage-smashes, and death-screaming feedback (below!). As per Lloyd Bradley’s evocative retrospective, Jimi “understood the blues as a spirit…and presented its power retooled in a way that musically made sense to hippies’ forward-facing ideologies…[a] bridge between the Black Arts movement of the early 1960s, and funk as a renaissance…This is peak Hendrixosity, a live performance that has probably never been bettered – or was never recorded if it was”.
While Jimi was far from the first guitarist to smash their axe on stage, few had ever performed the act with such an odd reverence. Other prominent instrument-destroyers of the era seemed to follow in a more schoolyard-style spirit of chaos-causing and mischief (e.g. Keith Moon rigging keyboards with firecrackers, and using ten times the approved volume of explosives to blow up his drum kit on live TV) – whereas Jimi’s fiery showcase seemed oddly non-destructive. In his own words, “You sacrifice things you love. I love my guitar“. [n.b. Zero shade on schoolyardish spirits – in fact, I regularly show both Jimi and Pete’s axe-smashing highlights to my primary school guitar classes in London, explaining that: ‘yes, if you practise really well then you’ll be allowed to burn guitars and do crazy stuff on stage…in fact, people encourage it!’ Also see Further Learnings below for a brief history of instrument destruction].
- Wild Thing (Monterey sacrifice) – Jimi Hendrix (1967):
“Before the tour’s first show [at] London’s Finsbury Park Astoria, [a] journalist suggested that it would be cool if the guitarist played ‘Fire’, then actually played with fire. A roadie was sent out to buy some lighter fluid, and Chandler concocted the plan. After the Experience concluded their opening set…Chandler doused the Stratocaster in the fuel. Hendrix…knelt beside it and, after a few burnt matches, set it alight…The flames soared to a height of four feet, burning [his] hands…Although Hendrix was able to perform the finale on another guitar, he was later treated for his injuries at the hospital.” (Bryan Wawzenek: The Day Hendrix Set his Guitar on Fire for the First Time)
—Axis: Bold as Love—
Keen to further explore his homeland – which he had departed as a penniless unknown a mere nine months before returning to co-headlining Monterey – the Experience commenced a hastily-arranged American tour. Nights at the Fillmore and the Whisky a Go Go were followed by a free outdoor concert near Golden Gate bridge – and then an awkward pairing as the Monkees’ support act (…they were dropped after only six gigs: while Monkees member Micky Dolenz remembers their backstage jams with fondness, he admits the pairing was “weird…and not exactly a hit with the [audience] of mostly 12-year-old little girls”).
By now, he had already begun hitting the studio to start work on his second record – Axis: Bold as Love. Augmented by a fresh array of amps and pedals (as well as the engineering sorcery of Eddie Kramer), he also began to investigate the unique powers of mics, mixing desks, and magnetic tape manipulations – evident right from the opener (EXP), which sends wails of feedback whirling back-and-forth amidst interplanetary soundbites (reflecting a lifelong obsession with science fiction). These expanded ambitions also encompassed time-reversed solos (Castles Made of Sand), tasteful use of the wah pedal (Up From the Skies), and a more poetic sophistication in both his lyrics (Bold as Love) and lead lines (Little Wing: based on his memories of Monterey) – as well as a DIY recorder improv on the oddly proto-punk If 6 was 9 (featured in the 1969 counterculture classic Easy Rider, accompanying sweeping shots of Peter Fonda & Dennis Hopper’s motorcycle-riding exploits – and also in the 1991 crime thriller Point Break).
Despite a few logistical mishaps along the way (Jimi lost one side of the master tape in the back of a taxi shortly before the final deadline, necessitating a rushed overnight mix-master-edit session), the record was released on schedule in Dec 1967. Described in the liner notes as drawing from “the great bluesmen such as Buddy Guy, soulsters like Curtis Mayfield, and jazzmen like Wes Montgomery“, it became a resounding success with critics and the public. (Although full recognition was, and probably still is, somewhat overdue: now, as then, many cite it as being slightly weaker than his other albums – a sentiment which has always mystified me. Perhaps it’s because all the studio-specific wizardry prevented most of the tracks attaining iconic live-set status…although his on-stage arrangements of Little Wing and Spanish Castle Magic are predictably spectacular!).
- Axis: Bold as Love – Album Tales (1967):
“Hendrix said [Axis] was influenced by his Cherokee culture, and he wanted that highlighted on the album cover, [requesting] an ‘American Indian style’. However…his record label misinterpreted this reference to ‘India’…and therefore superimposed a photo of Hendrix and his bandmates…onto a famous Hindu image of the Supreme God Vishnu [‘Virat Purushan-Vishwaroopam‘]. This undermines the religious significance of the original image [and] points to ideas about orientalism and its effects.” [n.b. Jimi, while admiring the cover’s artistry, disliked it for this misrepresentation] (Pedro Caballero: Eastern Religion in Psychedelic Rock Culture)
Despite the Experience’s prolific musical and financial successes, their path was not without interpersonal strife. As ever, group tensions sprung from several sources: aside from the inevitable pressures of relentless touring and rising fame, Noel Redding pined for a return to his original six strings, and Chas Chandler became increasingly exasperated with Jimi’s chaotic studio routines, which now saw a rotating cast of friends and guests turning up to play at all hours of the day and night. Mitch Mitchell (who, as a former child acting star, was somewhat more accustomed to the glare of showbusiness) fit into the maelstrom more harmoniously: reliably churning out inventive grooves, working closely with Jimi on demystifying new studio tech, and gladly sharing percussion duties – including with Buddy Miles, a funk-inclined multi-instrumentalist who had been jamming with Jimi sporadically since his pre-fame days.
Jimi’s own focus was also shifting. Intrigued by the fresh possibilities now offered by his homeland, he assembled a truly Transatlantic pool of collaborators for his next album: Electric Ladyland. Recorded across several studios in Britain and America, the double-LP featured stars such as the Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones (percussion on All Along the Watchtower) and session supremo Al Kooper (piano on Long Hot Summer Night), as well as Traffic’s Steve Winwood and Jefferson Airplane’s Jack Casady (Hammond organ and electric bass on the extended Voodoo Chile) – plus vocal quartet The Sweet Inspirations (harmonies on the harpsichord-laden Burning of the Midnight Lamp, led by Emily ‘Cissy’ Houston: Whitney’s mum and Dionne Warwick’s aunt).
(Hendrix and the Experience in Stockholm)
More perfectionistic than ever (Gypsy Eyes required over 50 takes), Jimi filled both sides of the double-LP with genre-dissolving sonic experiments, switching seamlessly between multiple musical modes: everything from heavy, hard-drivin’ rock (Crosstown Traffic) to avant-garde sound-collage (…And the Gods Made Love), via cascading tales of social injustice (House Burning Down), mellifluous band contributions (the Redding-penned Little Miss Strange), and a pair of inspired covers (Earl King’s Come On and Bob Dylan’s All Along the Watchtower: who later said of the rework: “It overwhelmed me”).
Scattered with plenty of playful moments (e.g. the ‘talking wah‘ intro of the sax-laced Still Raining, Still Dreaming), the record also saw Jimi sing with greater confidence (e.g. Have You Ever Been?: although he sometimes still felt nervous enough to obscure himself with screens in the vocal booth). Eager to stretch out – notably on the 15-min Voodoo Chile jam – he expanded on past sci-fi themes, taking his Afrofuturistic visions underwater on the rhapsodic 1983: A Merman I Should Turn to Be (also featuring flute, a ‘flexatone’ musical saw, and “seagull sounds produced by manipulating microphone feedback”).
Nowhere does Jimi’s interconnected quest culminate with more power than on the closing track: Voodoo Child (Slight Return). Despite being released over 50 years ago now – a full 9 months before man had set foot on the moon – I’d still choose Voodoo Child as my one guitar record to send into space. I’ll never forget the day my dad first played it to me as an 11-year-old – listening wide-eyed to the clashing textures and explosions of tone-colour, arriving from unseen directions before fading away to some hidden realm of future six-string discovery. No other track gave me more motivation to start learning the guitar – and today, two decades on, it’s still my favourite single showcase of the electric’s very best energies. (n.b. Esteemed musicologist Hulk Hogan clearly agrees, having chosen the song as his walkout music in the WWE. And, 20 years on from that first listen, I find myself working on an all-acoustic Voodoo Child arrangement: in the slack-wound C-G-C-F-Bb-C tuning for added growl. Video coming soon…ish!)
- Voodoo Child (Slight Return) – Jimi Hendrix (1969):
“Well, I stand up next to a mountain
And I chop it down with the edge of my hand…
Well, I pick up all pieces and make an island
Might even raise a little sand…“
Having now recorded three studio albums with the Experience in just two years, Jimi looked to reshuffle his cohort of sonic companions. Aside from the aforementioned Electric Ladyland guests, he brought back Billy Cox – his bass-playing army buddy from the pair’s pre-fame days in the King Kasuals – who regularly took over low-end duties as an increasingly disengaged Noel Redding was away with his own freshly-formed Fat Mattress group. In a November Melody Maker interview, Jimi announced that the Experience would soon disband to pursue individual projects.
He also looked towards the live arena for fresh direction, reaping the freedoms of his now firm-rooted stardom with a range of Transatlantic tours and TV appearances over the course of 1968-1969 – including shows in France, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, and Austria, as well as numerous jams across Britain and America (often at New York’s Record Plant Studios: e.g. with Stephen Stills, John McLaughlin, Dave Holland, Johnny Winter, and The Cherry People). A Jan trip to the BBC, while deviating from plan (if there ever was one), was all the better for it. Appearing on the mild-mannered Happening for Lulu show, the Experience unleashed a scorching version of Voodoo Child, then started a shakily-tuned take of Hey Joe – before Jimi abruptly paused, proclaiming: “We’d like to stop playing this rubbish, and dedicate a song to the, uh, Cream“, and launching into a breakneck rendition of the recently-disbanded trio’s Sunshine of Your Love – before being pulled from the airwaves mid-song (and, according to rock rumour, banned from the BBC).
- BBC Lulu Show incident (Jan 1969):
“We use electric guitars…electricity to the people! That’s why we play so loud! Because it doesn’t actually hit through the eardrums like most groups do nowadays…We plan for our sound to go inside the soul of the person, and see if they can awaken some kind of thing in their minds…” (Jimi on volume)
Woodstock, in Aug 1969, while serving up many of Jimi’s most iconic moments, wasn’t his most consistent performance – but the set’s highlights are true treasures for the ages. His loosely-named ‘Gypsy Sun and Rainbows‘ group – comprising Cox on bass, Mitch Mitchell, Juma Sultan, and Jerry Velez on percussion, and the little-known Larry Lee (another friend from his Nashville days) on often-inaudible rhythm guitar, face completely obscured by a headscarf – took to the stage at 8:30am, almost a full night behind schedule. Striving to push through the collective sleep deprivation and pharmacological haze, Jimi’s quintet ran through hectic takes of Fire, Izabella, Red House, Stepping Stone, Voodoo Child, and other classics, before bringing the festival to a close with a ear-melting end-sequence of The Star Spangled Banner, Purple Haze, and Villanova Junction (plus an encore of Hey Joe: the track that sparked his New York cafe discovery just three years earlier).
While interpreted by many as an explicit political signal – perhaps an anti-war protest, or a rejection of racially-selective American patriotism – Jimi’s own anthemic intentions seem to have been somewhat simpler. Appearing on the Dick Cavett Show a fortnight after the festival, Jimi explained the motivated behind his rework (well, reworks: he also performed it many other times pre- and post-Woodstock): “All I did was play it. I’m American, so I played it…They made me sing it in school, so it was a flashback, you know?…It’s not unorthodox: I thought it was beautiful.” Elsewhere he told journalists that, “We’re all Americans…it was like ‘Go, America!'”, while adding, “We play it the way the air is in America today. The air is slightly static, see.”
Then again, it’s not as if battleground visions were far from his imagination either – no surprise given his (and his father’s) time in the army, and also the political prominence of the Vietnam War (plus plenty of other ongoing neo-imperialist military projects under Nixon & Kissinger: e.g. the illegal carpet-bombing of Cambodia, which killed 4,000 civilians, and, soon after, orchestrating an anti-democratic coup in Chile: see Charango tuning). Martial themes turn up in other songs too – e.g. Castles Made of Sand (the ill-fated “fearless warrior Indian Chief”), Izabella (“Girl, I’m fighting this war for the children and you…”), Purple Haze (named after the landing-zone flares used by paratroopers), and the more explicitly titled Machine Gun (“tearin’ my body all apart…”). Whatever may have fed into his on-stage energies at Woodstock, Jimi’s experiment is now cherished by many Vietnam veterans – while also forming (at least in retrospect) a fittingly ambiguous anthem for the complex legacy of late 1960s counterculture.
Side note: Chaos at Woodstock [click to expand]…
As an avid teenage fan of the Woodstock soundtrack album (ripped from a local library CD), I always assumed that Jimi saying, “You can leave if you want to…” after Voodoo Child was just a joke (I mean, who would walk away from such an iconic musical moment?) – however, after watching the concert film, I saw that attendees really were leaving in droves. This unlikely mass exodus was driven by a general state of exhaustion, hunger, and dehydration, exacerbated by the band’s ultra-late starting slot (itself the result of waterlogged electrical equipment). Having drastically underestimated the attendance figures, which further swelled after fences were torn down, organisers struggled to maintain basic infrastructure – with bands having to be helicoptered in due to jammed-up local roads, and shortages of food, water, sanitation, and medical supplies hitting hard from the second day onwards – all amidst near-constant fears of rainstorm-related electrocution risks around the stage.
John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival described the crowd for their set (a few hours before Jimi’s) as “a Dante scene: just bodies from hell, all intertwined…covered with mud” – while other attendees recalled how “the place looked like a bomb hit, there wasn’t a blade of grass left…The ground had been violated.” Thus, the crowd – which at its peak had numbered nearly half a million – had dwindled to only around a tenth of that size by the time Jimi walked on. While plenty of those left had presumably managed to recharge somewhere along the way, I can barely comprehend how intense it must have been for any robust three-day trippers who stayed awake through the whole program. The final day of a festival is always a strange headspace, but my god: having all the sounds, sights, and spirits of Woodstock poured into your wide-open mind over the course of a long sleepless weekend on LSD is just…levels beyond, man. Even taking a day to trip on acid and watch the Woodstock DVD with friends can be pretty intense (or so I’m told).
Despite all this material chaos, risks from human malice were few and far between. Remarkably, official police writeups record zero reported instances of criminal violence – as reflected in the personal account of a 27-year-old Brooklyn cop who worked there: “Having been on the enforcement side of the Vietnam protests, the civil disturbances of the 60’s, and college sit-ins, I was absolutely amazed to see 400,000 plus people together at one venue interacting harmoniously, without the incidence of crime, or disturbance or disruption of peace and tranquility.” Despite all the hunger, dehydration, and off-grid scheduling issues, serious harm befell very few – largely due to some ingenious logistical improvisation between organisers, attendees, locals, and nearby farmers, who collaborated swiftly to draft in massive amounts of food, water, and medical supplies. Only two deaths were recorded: one from an insulin overdose, and another due to being run over by a tractor after falling asleep in the wrong field (tragedies balanced at least numerically by the two births which also took place…).
- Woodstock: The Groovy Port-o-san (1969):
“Two companies provided 650 individual toilet seats and 200 urinal spaces. This number was planned to serve 60,000. Servicing was difficult due to crowds, stalled cars, and mud. There were long lines at some of the toilet sites; however the spirit of helpfulness and sharing allowed maximum use – not to mention the lack of inhibition on the part of the Aquarius generation…” (Sep 1969 New York State Health Department report)
But while it’s important to celebrate the festival as a genuine demonstration of non-violence, this fact stands out for a reason – especially against the tumultuous context of the late 1960s. Visions of peace and love can definitely mask us from sharper realities: for one thing, the mostly harmonious relationship between police and attendees – while in keeping with the festival’s everyone-get-along mentality – is not exactly indicative of the era’s major social struggles (…very possibly due to the skin colour of the crowd). Later in 1969, Black Panther activist Fred Hampton was gunned down in his bed by the Chicago police – and, a few months into 1970, the Ohio National Guard shot and killed four unarmed protesters at, of all things, an anti-war rally at Kent State University (as recounted in CSNY’s Ohio). Inevitably, the festival’s long-term legacy also presents further contradictions: Swami Satchidananda Saraswati – the Indian mystic who opened the weekend with a mass Hari Om chant (also of Journey in Satchidananda fame) – would later go on to face serious sexual misconduct allegations from his students.
So, while I will forever cherish Woodstock as a towering moment in human creative culture, this is no reason to over-romanticise it. I’m definitely not trying to say it ‘wasn’t a place of peace and love, actually’ – more just that any phenomenon of this creative magnitude deserves to be examined for the fullness of what it really was…after all, why not look closer at what you love? On this theme, check out the entertaining array of eyewitness accounts collected by the Bethel Woods Center (including recollections of “naked folks swimming…tables of organic food”, “people sleeping in chicken coops”, and “sharing a coffee can of water with a monkey”).
More Woodstock trivia:
- The rain issues did at least open up a couple of delay-filling slots for little-known artists: e.g. John Sebastian (plucked from the crowd mid-acid trip: also read about his role in the creation of the Baritone guitar), and Country Joe & the Fish (named after Joseph Stalin, and also a line from Mao Zedong’s Little Red Book…)
- The festival was originally scheduled to take place near Bob Dylan’s main home, in the town of Woodstock (hence the name) – but he, along with other residents, led a successful protest against this plan, necessitating a hasty switch to the fields of local dairy farmer Max Yasgur: who, in one of the weekend’s most heartwarming moments, took the main-stage mic to share his sentiments…
- Woodstock: Max Yasgur speech (1969):
“I’m a farmer…I don’t know how to speak to 20 people at one time, let alone a crowd like this. But I think you people have proven something…not only to the Town of Bethel, or Sullivan County, or New York State; you’ve proven something to the world…We have had no idea that there would be this size group, and because of that you’ve had quite a few inconveniences as far as water, food, and so forth. Your producers have done a mammoth job to see that you’re taken care of…they’d enjoy a vote of thanks. But above that, the important thing that you’ve proven to the world is that a half a million kids – and I call you kids because I have children that are older than you are – a half million young people can get together, and have three days of fun and music, and have nothing but fun and music, and I – God Bless You for it!”
- Star Spangled Banner (Woodstock) – Jimi Hendrix (1969):
“The Star-Spangled Banner was, at its inception, already a mashup…[Originally] a setting of the lawyer Francis Scott Key’s 1814 poem, ‘Defence of Fort M’Henry’, to a melody from a British gentlemen’s club sing-along, the anthem memorialized the battered flag (then with only 15 stars) that flew over Fort McHenry during its bombardment by the British. Yet the freedom that the song celebrates tends to stop when it comes to unorthodox arrangements. Igor Stravinsky, freshly arrived in the U.S. in 1939, did his own orchestration, adding a quirky Dom. 7th chord over the word ‘land’: and was asked by the Boston police to desist…” (Paul Grimstad: New Yorker)
Soon after closing Woodstock – probably the most famous music event of all time – Jimi brought the curtain down on the 1960s with another show for the ages. Entertaining the New Year’s crowds of New York’s Fillmore East, his new ‘Band of Gypsys’ trio – featuring Billy Cox’s bass alongside Buddy Miles’ tight-driving drums – served up a soupy blend of blues, soul, rock, and R’n’B, seasoning their wah-heavy jams with peace chants, architectural solos, and hard-set percussion breaks. Differing substantially from his previous sound (almost none of the setlist had yet featured on a studio album), Jimi’s all-Black group was seen by some as a deliberate attempt to connect with the mass African-American audiences that had thus far eluded him – partly due to his fame beginning far away in London, but also accentuated by a perception that he played ‘white rock music, for white people’ (in between Woodstock and the Fillmore, at a show in his former home district of Harlem, he was even bottled and booed by locals who felt that he had abandoned them…).
As a white guy from rural 21st-century Britain, I have little inclination to judge these suspicions – especially given the shameful (and ongoing) history of white appropriation of Black creative culture. Plus, it’s probably fair to say that Hendrix had stayed pretty quiet on matters of race up until then, at least in public (then again, he was fairly quiet about most things, most of the time). As is now evident, he cared deeply about issues of race, and faced significant racism in his own life: the extreme poverty of his birth (a direct legacy of slavery), getting arrested with Billy Cox at a 1962 Civil Rights march, being denied entry as an audience member to Southern clubs he had already performed at, police harassment in London while hanging out with white women, his oversexualisation as a ‘wild Black man’ in newspapers, and so on.
(clippings from Melody Maker, Jun 1970)
After all, it would be a miracle if he hadn’t faced significant discrimination: the Civil Rights Act didn’t pass until 1964, when he was 21, meaning that much of America was living under Jim Crow laws for the vast majority of his life. And even in Britain, which Jimi described as “the place I feel most comfortable”, Enoch Powell’s infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, rejecting the idea of racial integration, had found widespread public and political support in 1968. In Jimi’s own words, “I don’t feel hate for anybody, because that’s nothing but taking two steps back. You have to relax…other people have no legs or no eyesight or have fought in wars. You should…think what part of their personality they have lost…If you start thinking negative it switches to bitterness, aggression, hatred…things that we have to wipe away from the face of the earth…”
Always inclined towards imaginative transcendence rather than detailed strategic politics, he also stated that: “I don’t look at things in terms of races. I look at things in terms of people…I’m thinking about the obsolete and the new…It isn’t that I’m not relating to the Black Panthers. I naturally feel a part of what they’re doing…Somebody has to make a move, and we’re the ones hurting most as far as peace of mind and living are concerned. But I’m not for aggression or violence or whatever you want to call it…especially in your own neighbourhood.” (For more on Jimi’s complex relationship with the racial struggles of his era, and his relevance to those of today: see Far Out’s Black History Month article, and also Jeremy Wells’ Blackness Scuzed: Jimi Hendrix’s Invisible Legacy in Heavy Metal).
- Machine Gun (Fillmore) – Band of Gypsys (1970):
“Our music was ‘wide spectrum’: you had rock, you had R’n’B, and you most definitely had blues. He told me, ‘If you listen to the melody lines of Machine Gun, it’s really taken from Delta blues, even rural blues, like how they used to do it in the Deep South‘…” (Buddy Miles on Black roots)
—Future & final days—
Beneath a generally calm exterior, Jimi had long struggled with the relentless demands of his global status. After all, few artists before or since have ever experienced a more sudden rise to fame: from landing in London as a penniless unknown to leaving Eric Clapton speechless in only a few days, before rising to revered status among London’s musical elite within weeks, and finding global stardom via Monterey just nine months later. Despite the worldwide infamy of his wild on-stage antics, almost all who knew him describe a shy, even nervous manner – albeit one also punctuated by playful humour, deep musings, and a generalised fascination for learning. Long-term companion Kathy Etchingham – who Jimi befriended on his very first night in London, and lived with for much of his time there – recalled how, “Sometimes, he’d play a riff for hours, until he had it just right. Then this great smile would creep across his face, or he’d throw his head back and laugh. Those were the moments he’d got it right for himself, not for anyone else.“
It seems he began to struggle with how the social demands of recording and touring removed him from these open zones of aimless exploration (something I also grapple with despite a complete lack of stardom…), describing a desire to “go off into the hills sometimes”. As 1970 progressed, he continued to churn out often-stellar performances (notably to a crowd of over 600,000 at the Isle of Wight festival: see below) – but, amidst the adulation, also began to describe feelings of alienation and paranoia (“they’re trying to blow us up…just [to] dust us away”) – even succumbing to occasional bouts of alcohol-induced rage and violence. He had smashed up a Swedish hotel room in 1968, incurring a hefty fine and injuring his fretting hand enough to require hospital treatment, and, in another intoxicated incident the following year, chased close friend Paul Caruso out of his house after baselessly suspecting him of theft, screaming and swinging punches. According to Sharon Lawrence, another companion, alcohol “set off a bottled-up anger: a destructive fury he almost never displayed otherwise”. [n.b. The disturbing domestic violence scene in the otherwise excellent All is By My Side biopic is rejected as fiction by Kathy Etchingham, the supposed victim, who instead described him as “a gentle person…Jimi was never violent towards me.”]
- Isle of Wight: Dolly Dagger & last interview (Aug 1970):
“With this music we will paint pictures of earth and space: so that the listener can be taken somewhere. You have to give people something to dream on…I hope to give the ones struggling courage through my songs…”
Those around him were also contending with their own mental health issues. In early Sep 1970, Jimi helped Billy Cox ride out a severe LSD-induced panic attack in Denmark, which left the bassist shaken up enough that he flew home to America the following day – necessitating the cancellation of the rest of the tour. Jimi, now even more isolated, felt unable to reach out to his own family (“I’m scared to go home. My father is a very strict man. He would straight away grab hold of me, tear my clothes off, and cut my hair…”) – returning to London to drift between different jams and social gatherings. While being welcomed by his many friends there, it seems they were more keen to party with the star than to truly help him – perhaps lost in similar predicaments themselves.
On Sep 11th he had dinner with Ginger Baker, then called Noel Redding about filling the vacant bass slot (to no reply), before spending the next few days with girlfriends Devon Wilson and Monika Dannemann. On 15th Sep he stopped by at Ronnie Scott’s in Soho to see Eric Burdon & War perform, but his request to jam with them was denied due to the state he was in. He returned to the club the next day after attending Fleetwood Mac associate Judy Wong’s birthday party, this time showing enough coherence to be welcomed on stage – and, despite his weak physical condition, putting in a strong sonic showing (see below). In the words of War’s guitarist Howard Scott, “His eyes were just so white and wide open – he was ready to play. We started jamming a song called Mother Earth, it was this hardcore blues and Jimi lit into a guitar solo. Me and Jimi were just cutting the place up…tearing it up…back and forth.”
Jimi’s final hours – for better or worse – are now the stuff of rock mythology. As per a level-headed summary by Ed Vulliamy: “Hendrix went on to a party with a German woman, Monika Dannemann, and back to her rooms at the Samarkand hotel in Lansdowne Crescent. There are so many accounts of exactly what happened next – but all converge on the fact that he had drunk a fair amount, taken some kind of amphetamines [likely ‘Black Bombers‘]…and some of Danneman’s Vesparax sleeping pills, not knowing their strength. He vomited during the deep ensuing sleep, insufficiently conscious enough to throw up; Danneman panicked, and telephoned [Eric] Burdon, who urged her to call an ambulance. But the greatest guitarist of all time was dead upon arrival at St Mary Abbot’s hospital, aged 27.” In his own words, spoken only a few months earlier: “It’s funny the way people love the dead…Once you’re dead, you’re made for life. When I die, just keep on playing the records…”.
- Mother Earth (last performance) – Jimi Hendrix & War (1970):
“I’m not sure I’ll live to be 28…but then again, so many beautiful things have happened to me…the world owes me nothing. When I die I’m going to have a jam session. I want people to go wild and freak out…The music will be played loud! Roland Kirk will be there, and I’ll try and get Miles Davis along…For that, it’s almost worth dying…”
If Jimi had never lived, our music would sound vastly different (and on a more immediate note, this website wouldn’t exist…). It’s both inspiring and sobering to consider that his bandleading career spanned little more than three years, three studio records, and three core lineups. While tantalising to dream about the sounds he might have made (e.g. looking at the instruments in my room: I reckon Jimi, fretless bassist Jaco Pastorius, and North Indian tabla master Zakir Hussain would have made a near-unsurpassable trio), I find it just as enticing to ask what advice he might offer today’s guitarists – or, for that matter, music lovers in general. Sincerely enraptured by matters of broad human awakening, he saw it as his mission to “turn people on the right way, because there are some really strange scenes coming through”. His most explicit advice to aspiring guitarists is simple: “Just keep on, just keep on. Sometimes you’re going to be so frustrated you’ll hate the guitar, but all of this is just a part of learning. If you stick with it you’re going to be rewarded.”
Personally, I feel we can draw just as much inspiration from Jimi’s status as a flawed mortal as from his undeniably divine music. I often feel most connected to Hendrix in his shakier sonic moments – after all, it’s humanising to see the greatest of all time struggle with the same issues I also face: unstable employment, mid-song tuning problems, insecurities around singing and sight-reading, getting lost in late-night London, and the constant, driving concern that you’ll never quite manage to ‘get it together’ in time…whatever that might mean in the moment. Without getting too existential, we can even take solace from this last point: while most of us worry that we will never end up in an ideal creative space, the fact that Jimi could produce the sounds he did while feeling similarly should suggest that we don’t need to wait for ours either.
Neither was learning the instrument a breeze for Jimi. Despite the fantastic capabilities he eventually gained, he relied chiefly on obsession to overcome numerous early frustrations (“it was so hard for me at first…you get so very discouraged…you hear different bands…and the guitar player always seems like he’s so much better than you…”) – and was fired halfway through his first full gig, as well as by various R’n’B bandleaders soon after turning pro. He often had off-days even at the peak of his powers (a retired history lecturer who lived down the street described having seeing the Experience play, and the set being ruined by amp feedback, a terrible PA, and persistent tuning chaos between the guitar and bass). His style always tended towards a certain over-the-edge imprecision: full of wild bends, ever-shifting vibratos, apocalyptic whammy dives, and variable vocal intonation. So yeah, go easy on your own mistakes – and also try to consciously embrace the magic of the mess (if neatness is what you want, just program an on-screen MIDI guitar…).
- Music, Money, Madness – Live in Maui (1970):
“[Do you consider yourself a dropout from society?] No, I’m still living and breathing just like you! We just life a little different, that’s all – we have a different way of expressing ourselves…“
—Jimi on Jimi—
In Jimi’s own words, “I’m a little bit quiet, a little closed. Most of the time I don’t talk so much. What I have to say, I say with my guitar.” Nevertheless, anyone of his stardom was always going to be in high interview demand – and, when prompted, he usually had plenty to say. Instead of trying to ‘explain’ his thoughts, I’ll leave them unadorned…
—On critical acclaim: “That’s part of the establishment’s game…They’re trying to blow us up…so that they can just dust us away. But we’re not here to collect awards. We’re here to turn people on the right way, because there are some really strange scenes coming through…”
—On Axis: Bold as Love: “There might be a meaning behind the whole thing: the axis of the Earth turns around, and changes the face of the world, and completely different civilizations…or another age comes about. In other words, it changes the face of the Earth and it only takes about a quarter of a day. Well, the same with love: if a cat falls in love or a girl falls in love, it might change his whole complete scene…”
—On jazz: “I like to listen to jazz. But to play it – I don’t think that way. I like free-form jazz, like Charlie Mingus and…Roland Kirk. The groovy stuff instead of the old-time hits, like when they get up and play How High The Moon for hours and hours. But I don’t happen to know much about jazz. I know that most of those cats are playing nothing but blues though.” [See more in a Jazzwise article: and also check out Rahsaan Roland Kirk: the blind, multi-sax visionary who Hendrix held in awe – both before and after their Ronnie Scott’s jam sessions!]
- Six Questions for Jimi (~1967):
“These hair strands, each one stands for a vibration…“
—On homeland: “When I was in Britain I used to think about America every day. I’m American. I wanted people here to see me. I also wanted to see whether we could make it back here. And we made it, man, because we did our own thing – it really was our own thing, and nobody else’s.”
—On Monterey Pop: “I was scared to go up there and play in front of all those people. You really want to turn those people on. It’s just like a feeling of really deep concern. You get very intense. That’s the way I look at it – that’s natural for me. Once you hit the first note…then it’s alright.”
—On the Beatles: “We were supposed to be on the Magical Mystery Tour a long time ago, when we first got to England. The Beatles used to come to see us sometimes…Paul McCartney told me about this little scene he had…he wanted us to be in this film. We weren’t known then…and he was trying to help us, but we got a nice break before they got the movie together.” [n.b. For another nugget of ‘unmade movie trivia’ from the era: in the same year, the Beatles lobbied hard for the creation of a Lord of the Rings film, starring…them: with Paul as Frodo, John as Gollum, George as Gandalf, Ringo as Samwise – and Stanley Kubrick as the director. The entire project was, however, swiftly vetoed by Tolkein himself: I’d say for the best!]
- Hear My Train a Comin’ (12-string) – Jimi Hendrix (1967):
“Hey don’t waste all that film there! Stop it for a second, ’cause I was scared to death…Can I do it just one more time?“
—On pedals: “The wah-wah is great because it doesn’t have any notes. Nothing but hitting it straight up, using the vibrato…that feels like…not depression, but that loneliness and frustration – and the yearning…like something is reaching out…”
—On playing live: “Music makes me high onstage, and that’s the truth. It’s almost like being addicted to music. You see, onstage I forget everything, even the pain…I just lay out there and jam…Sometimes, you go up into another thing. You don’t forget about the audience, but you forget about all the paranoia, that thing where you’re saying: ‘Oh gosh, I’m onstage: what am I going to do now?’. Then you go into this other thing, and it turns out to be almost like a play in certain ways. I have to hold myself back sometimes because I get so excited…no, not excited: involved.”
—On future ensembles: “I plan to get into many other things. I’d like to take a 6-month break and go to a school of music. I want to learn to read music, be a model student, and study and think. I’m tired of trying to write stuff down and finding I can’t. I want a big band. I don’t mean 3 harps and 14 violins – I mean a big band full of competent musicians that I can conduct and write for. I want to be part of a big new musical expansion…We’re going to blend all the ideas that worked into a new form of classical music. It’s going to be something that will open up a new sense in people’s minds. I dig Strauss and Wagner, those cats are good…And floating in the sky above it will be the blues…” [n.b. Jimi lived in G.F. Handel’s old flat for much of his time in London: some even claim that Handel’s ghost once stopped by for a midnight jam…]
- House Burnin’ Down – Turtle Island String Quartet (2010):
“I want to be the first man to write about the blues scene on Venus!“
—On life priorities: “All the things I thought were important before I had a hit record are just as important now. Trying to understand people and respect their feelings, regardless of your position or theirs. The beautiful things are still the same, the sunset and the dew on the grass. No material wealth changes the way I think about these things. If you’re looking for real happiness you go back to the happiest days you had as a child. Remember when playing in the rain was fun?”
—On retirement: “You know, when you’re young, most people have a little burning thing, but then you get your law degree and go into your little cellophane cage. You can do the family thing. I’ve wanted to do that at times. I’ve wanted to go into the hills sometimes, but I stayed. Some people are meant to stay and carry messages.”
—On the afterlife: “When people fear death, it’s a complete case of insecurity. Your body is only a physical vehicle, to carry you from one place to another without getting into a lot of trouble. So you have this body tossed upon you, that you have to carry around, and cherish, and protect, and so forth – but even that body exhausts itself. The idea is to get your own self together, to see if you can get ready for the next world, because there is one. Hope you can dig it!”
- Jimi’s final interview – Blank on Blank (1970):
“The way I’d like to live…to get up in the morning and just roll over in my bed into an indoor swimming pool. And then swim to the breakfast table, come up for air, and get maybe a drink of orange juice…Then just fold up [and] swim into the bathroom…” [So you want to live luxuriously?] “No! is that luxurious? I was thinking about a tent, overhanging a mountain stream…“
—Jimi & Eb tuning—
Famously, Jimi is associated with tuning a semitone low (Eb-Ab-Db-Gb-Bb-Eb). However, this habit didn’t really settle in until towards the end of recording Are You Experienced? – thus, most of his debut LP’s hits are in Standard (e.g. Purple Haze, Foxey Lady, & The Wind Cries Mary). But why did he choose to go lower? It seems he had a mix of motivations:
—The added slackness (~11% less tension than if the same strings were tuned to Standard) allowed for wider bends and deeper vibratos (if tension is lower, the same absolute change in length will have a proportionally greater effect on pitch: up for bends, down for whammy-dives).
—Eb also matched better with his vocal register – after all, he seems to have cut more tracks rooted below Eb than above E: e.g. D-tuned versions of Voodoo Child, Purple Haze, and the C-tuned 12-string acoustic take of Hear My Train a Comin’, as well as his often-lowered personal home recordings, e.g. Gypsy Eyes, (accompanied by a C-toned phone-ringing in the background: thankfully giving the b7 of his D-set key, rather than the comparatively less bluesy maj. 6th which would have arisen had he been in Eb…or the more mournful b6 of Standard.)
—Similarly, the overall easing of pressure would have reduced the cumulative strain on his hands – probably a significant factor for someone so inseparable from his strings (he even slept aside his guitar in the army) – also aided by a preference for ultra-light gauges (as per his friend and guitar tech Roger Mayer, “.010, .013, .015, .026, .032, and .038: the big difference there is that you’re using the .015 for the [3str], because if you use the .017…the guitar is very G-heavy.”).
—Interestingly, Mayer also cites how tuning lower helped to counteract intonation issues arising from stringing a right-handed Strat ‘upside-down‘: “You’re faced with the fact that the actual string lengths [are]…the other way around…That will make the guitar feel slightly different, because…length affects the kind of strength needed to bend the strings. That’s one of the reasons we used to tune the guitar down a little bit.” He adds that, “When you flip…[the] cavities in the guitar now appear on the bass strings…so the actual resonances of the cavity do change”.
- Working with Jimi – Roger Mayer (2019):
“The electrical output of the strings is dependent on the square of the diameter; if you…look at them, you can get much more of an idea about the balance of the guitar…The .015 is much better for the [3str] than a .017: a .015 squares out at .225, and .017 is .289. So you’re going to get 28% more output just with a 2lb difference!” (Roger Mayer)
On stage at Woodstock, Jimi offered the crowd a cryptic, throwaway comment: “Sorry for the tune-up between times – but what the hell? Cowboys are the only ones who stay in tune anyway.” I’m still not really sure what he meant by it – but his wild style definitely led to a difficult relationship with tuning at times. For just a few instances of this:
—The Lulu Show take of Hey Joe starts with his guitar way out, particularly at the low end: probably one of the reasons for the track’s sudden abandonment. Similarly, his 4str goes awkwardly flat in the Band of Gypsys version of Who Knows?: “Interestingly, you can hear how he quickly realizes…and ‘plays around’ the out-of-tune string by avoiding chords, and opting to play mostly bent notes” (and in the same concert, he begins an otherwise great version of Voodoo Child two frets higher than intended, quickly correcting himself by the intro’s second phrase).
—The bass part on If 6 Was 9 is noticeably sharper than the guitar: although I feel it kinda enhances the song’s frantic, apocalyptic vibe (kinda like a ‘squeezed octave’ system – and somewhat akin to Dhrupad rudra veena master Bahauddin Dagar’s use of an ‘imperfect root’: for some ragas, he tunes his instrument’s Sa (root note) a little off-kilter with the tanpura drone, sharpening and flattening in accordance with the sun’s daily arc.)
—Paul McCartney (one of Jimi’s earliest UK supporters) recounts a 1967 occasion when, after a particularly intense solo, he called on audience member Eric Clapton to help him restore his tuning (while summoning your biggest rival to tune your guitar for you could seem like some ultimate act of arrogance, in Jimi’s case I’m pretty sure it just reflects a genuine humility: he really thought Eric could do a better job…)
Despite what this evidence might suggest – and whatever his own insecurities may have been – I definitely don’t consider Jimi to have been ‘bad at tuning’. Rather, he struggled with exceptionally complex tuning demands: loose strings, an upside-down axe, and a vigorous bend-laden style, full of aggressive whammy antics and relentless use of all strings and fretboard zones – probably exacerbated by a general lack of sobriety, not to mention the chaos of the live arena (Mayer, who, in the age before electronic tuners, “often had to rely on placing the guitar’s headstock against his ear”, recalls that, “if a red spotlight might hit you, that’s going to put the guitar out…the blue one, not so much!”). Either way, don’t fret if you fall out of tune…it happened to the G.O.A.T. too!
(Jimi’s last magazine interview: Aug 1970)
Inevitably, countless Hendrix devotees have since followed in his down-wound wake. Eb has served as ‘home base’ for many prominent acts – including most output by Motörhead (Lemmy was one of Jimi’s roadies: e.g. Ace of Spades), Stevie Ray Vaughan (one of very few to cover Jimi with the requisite fire: e.g. Voodoo Child, below), Guns ‘n’ Roses (Sweet Child o’ Mine), Slayer (Raining Blood), Van Halen (Eruption), KISS (I Was Made for Lovin’ You), Yngwie Malmsteen (Far Beyond the Sun), Rise Against (Savior), Alice in Chains (Would?), Jane’s Addiction (Just Because), and Weezer (Buddy Holly: himself one of Jimi’s childhood icons).
Many other groups have gone a semitone lower on occasion: sometimes for their most enduring tracks – e.g. Blur (Song 2), Extreme (Get the Funk Out), and AC/DC (Highway to Hell). Also see resources by Tim Lerch (who features Eb in his Low-Tuned Telecasters talk), and read a pros-and-cons discussion on the Jazzguitar.be forum (“…the Eb-Strat-in-a-hat cats…”)
- Voodoo Child (El Mocambo) – Stevie Ray Vaughan (1983):
“I just do my best to do what I can to carry his music on…I love him like he was my brother…” (SRV on Jimi)
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• NUMBERS •
- See my Tunings Megatable for further such nerdery: more numbers, intervallic relations, comparative methods, etc. And to any genuine vibratory scientists reading: please critique my DIY analysis!
• RELATED •
—Associated tunings: proximities of shape, concept, context, etc…
- D Standard (this -1): one semitone slacker & lower
- Baritone (this -4): why not dive much deeper still?
- Gothic: a different ‘6str tuned to Eb’ arrangement
• MORE INFO •
—Further learnings: sources, readings, lessons, other onward links…
- Jimi’s associates: hear the recollections of those who knew him close-up, including his younger brother Leon Hendrix (“when we were little, Jimi took a radio apart, trying to find the music inside it. We lost the screwdriver behind the sofa and couldn’t put it back together, and that was another whuppin’…”), his London companion and The Wind Cries Mary subject Kathy Etchingham (“It happened straightaway: here was this man: different, funny, coy, even about his own playing…”), his long-term American flame and Foxey Lady inspiration Lithofayne Pridgon (“This might sound crazy to you, but he was almost like my baby…He was a sweetheart..”) – as well as his Experience bandmates Noel Redding (“He’s a genius guitarist…but he whips himself…He gets everybody around him very uptight, [and] worries…”) and Mitch Mitchell (“Hendrix, Noel, and myself would put that conflict to use and make it work…”), his American collaborators Billy Cox (“That [army] jamming was magical. He looked at me and I looked at him, and it was like we knew each other…”) and Buddy Miles (“Band of Gypsys was a strong statement from three brothers…We all had intimacies and love, and we also had a feel for what we thought was right…”), as well as original manager Chas Chandler (“He wanted to use a wider idiom than blues…we could give him a chance to write his own songs…”), guitar tech Roger Mayer (“The electronics we used were ‘feed forward’…the equivalent of electronic shadow dancing…[a] non-repetitive waveform: the definition of pure music…”), and studio supremo Eddie Kramer (“The brain to the heart to the hands to the feet, it was one fluid motion…”) – and also Motörhead frontman Lemmy Kilminster, who was one of Jimi’s roadies during the late ‘60s (“chicks were just drooling all over him. It’s because of the way he moved, like a cat crossed with a spider…”)
- A brief history of instrument-smashing: humans have doubtless been destroying musical instruments for as long as we’ve had them – for a few notable instances through time, check out 1940s country star Ira Louvin (notorious for sending “scores of out-of-tune mandolins sailing into the nearest wall”), 1950s performer Rockin Rocky Rockwell (who smashed his acoustic over his knee after an Elvis-mocking rendition of Hound Dog), 1960s avant-garde composer Nam June Paik’s One for Solo Violin (which dictates smashing the instrument on a table with a single blow), and Fluxus-aligned artist Robin Page’s Guitar Piece (“Page threw his guitar off stage, and kicked it out of the ICA’s front door, and down Dover Street, until it broke totally apart”: n.b. this was where Pete Townshend picked up the idea) – also see the 2007 Baker Piano Drop (which goes exactly as you might expect), the origin myth of the North Indian tabla (supposedly created when a double-headed pakhawaj drum was thrown to the ground by a furious percussionist in Emperor Akbar’s 16th-century royal court, splitting it into two halves), and the tale of ‘Lourenco’, a citole player in the 13th-century court of Spain’s Alfonso the Wise (who was “involved in a court case where a knight, apparently unhappy with the music, smashed his citole over his head…”) – plus, the notorious toga party scene from National Lampoon’s Animal House (where John Belushi’s character Bluto violently splinters the guitar of a folk singer part way through about a love ballad involving chickens, before handing the fragments back and saying simply, “Sorry…”)
Header image: Jimi lost in his strings, circa 1968
George Howlett is a London-based musician, writer, and teacher (guitars, sitar, tabla, & santoor). Above all I seek to enthuse fellow sonic searchers, interconnecting fresh vibrations with the voices, cultures, and passions behind them. See Home & Writings, and hit me up for Online Lessons!
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