• 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 •
• SOUNDS •
Jimi Hendrix, my first musical hero, remains my all-time favourite guitarist. Born in Seattle in 1942 to a family descended from African slaves and Irish settlers, he endured severe material and emotional hardship as a child, starting right from his very first moments. His father Al, drafted into the army within days of his wedding, was denied leave to be with his wife for Jimi’s birth, even having to be held in the Alabama stockades to stop him going AWOL to attend – leaving Jimi’s mother Lucille to fend for herself for the first months of his life.
When Al did exit the army in 1945, he found steady work hard to come by, moving the family from hostel to hostel 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)
His first instrument was a one-string ukulele, found in an old woman’s junkyard while the 14-year-old Jimi helped his father clear it out (she reportedly gave it to him after he expressed intrigue: truly a hidden heroine of guitar history!). He used it to decode Elvis tunes by ear, also readily air-guitaring with a broom in front of friends and family, before getting hold of a $5 acoustic around a year later – and, soon after that, a white Supro Ozark electric (yep: starting at 15 definitely isn’t ‘too late’…whatever that even means). His early axe inspirations included Albert King, Muddy Waters, T-Bone Walker, and Robert Johnson – and his first gig, in the basement of a Seattle synagogue, saw him fired during the interval (“He’d play this wild stuff, but the people couldn’t dance to it. They just stared at him”).
However, his burgeoning sonic obsessions were complicated by enlisting in the 101st Airborne aged 18 (chosen over a prison sentence after twice being caught riding in stolen cars). Despite some early enthusiasm for the thrills of life as a paratrooper, 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…then 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, playing around Nashville, including a regular slot at the Club Del Morocco (the owner reportedly bailed the pair out of jail after a 1962 Civil Rights march). Soon, Jimi found his way onto the ‘chitlin’ circuit‘, backing R&B acts including Marion James, Curtis Knight, Ike Turner, Little Richard, and The Isley Brothers – many of whom also ended up firing him due to a mix of flamboyance, disorganisation, and general 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, Ike Turner, King Curtis, 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 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 pretending to with his teeth) was spotted by Keith Richards’ girlfriend Linda Keith, he attracted the attention of former Animals bassist Chas Chandler, who was left spellbound by witnessing Jimi’s cover of Hey Joe at the Cafe Wha?, and signed him soon after (Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham had failed to see the same potential, turning down his chance to offer a deal).
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 live with the house band 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). As ever, the city proved fertile ground for bold sonic experimentalism: just a month after landing, he returned to the same 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 brief tour of small Northern theatres and working men’s clubs, their initial London shows caused an immediate stir amongst Britain’s guitar elite. One particularly notorious night at the Bag O’Nails on Regent Street saw the Experience play to a crowd studded with stars including Eric Clapton, Pete Townshend, Jeff Beck, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, and Donovan, as well as many of their bandmates. Brian Jones was reportedly left in tears, and vocalist Terry ‘Superlungs’ Reid recounted 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“.
- Wild Thing (Monterey guitar 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 the guitarist’s 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)
- BBC Lulu Show incident – Jimi Hendrix Experience (1969):
“After a blistering performance of Voodoo Chile on the ‘Happening for Lulu’ show…the Experience stopped midway through a half-hearted attempt at Hey Joe. The trio break into Cream’s Sunshine of Your Love, in tribute to the recently disbanded group – until producers bring the song to a premature end…The stunt, according to rock and roll legend, earned a ban from performing on BBC television.” (BBC: Hendrix is Pulled Off the Air)
- Star Spangled Banner (Woodstock) – Jimi Hendrix (1969):
• 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 lower & slacker
- Baritone (this -4): why not go right down?
- Gothic: another ‘6str tuned to Eb’ arrangement
• MORE INFO •
—Further learnings: sources, readings, lessons, other onward links…
- Roger Mayer on Hendrix: more from his longtime tech in an interview for Guitar World
- Eb tuning: Tim Lerch features Eb in his Low-Tuned Telecasters talk – and read a pros and cons discussion on Jazzguitar.be forum (“…the Eb-strat-in-a-hat cats…”)
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