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Jimi Hendrix, the world's greatest electric guitar player, had a short career. Hendrix (and his band The Jimi Hendrix Experience) first hit it big in 1966, releasing the worldwide hit "Hey Joe" late in that year. (Rather impressive, considering the band had only been playing together for a month when they cut the record.) Hendrix's follow-up to that first big success was "Purple Haze," which surged like a tsunami onto UK radio just months later. (Hendrix was born and raised in Seattle, Washington, but his bandmates in the Experience were both Brits and he first became popular in England at a time when he still a virtual unknown back home.)
Hendrix's American breakthrough came later in 1967, following the US release of the band's debut LP, Are You Experienced (which included a number of hits, including "Purple Haze," "Hey Joe," "Foxey Lady," and "The Wind Cries Mary"). The moment that turned Hendrix into a star in his homeland was his incendiary performance (literally—he closed his set by lighting his guitar on fire) at the Monterey International Pop Festival. The entire attention-grabbing, guitar-enflaming, machismo-stoking, behind-the-back-playing performance was immortalized in D.A. Pennebaker's documentary film, Monterey Pop. After Monterey, the Jimi Hendrix Experience became one of the hottest rock bands anywhere. And Jimi Hendrix became a guitar god.
With fame came drugs—most notably LSD, the "Purple Haze" variety, which was known as "Monterey Purple" before the festival and took on the name of Hendrix's famous song ever after. After drugs came even more drugs. Two years and two incredible, landmark albums later, Jimi Hendrix (now minus the "Experience") would headline Woodstock with his famous rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner." Just one more year later, though, late in the summer of 1970, Jimi Hendrix was dead—purportedly having choked on his own vomit after overdosing on sleeping pills. His entire public career lasted less than four years, yet his music, his performances, and his sound live on, still leaving the world in awe.
So what made Jimi Hendrix so great? Many fans have zeroed in on the psychedelic nature of Hendrix's music (and lyrics in songs like "Purple Haze"). And Hendrix was, undoubtedly, a major figure (perhaps the major figure) in the rise of psychedelic rock. But it's short-changing Hendrix to hear his music as simply the soundtrack to an acid trip. (Worth noting here: "Purple Haze" was written by a Hendrix who'd never even tried LSD yet at the time.)
Others have focused on Hendrix's legendary live shows, with his instrument-smashing, fire-starting antics and dizzying array of ridiculous guitar tricks (playing solos behind his head, picking out notes with his teeth, etc.). And Hendrix's live shows were indeed something to behold.
But something else was lurking behind the wild-man act, hiding in plain sight among the out-of-this-world sounds filling up Hendrix's psychedelic records. That something—too often overlooked in discussions of Hendrix's legacy—was the man's total mastery of his instrument through technology. While everything about Hendrix's image screamed "out of control!", in fact the secret of his music was the remarkable (even incredible) degree of control he was able to achieve over the sounds coming out of his electric guitar.
Hendrix's use of "fuzz" (distortion), effect pedals like the Octavia and the wah-wah, and electronic feedback demonstrated total control and understanding of the noise coming from the instrument. That level of control that Hendrix achieved over his guitar mystified even experts and veterans in the business, giving him a near-mythical status. The result was an unmatched ability to convey emotion through the screaming notes of the electric guitar.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience's first hit record, "Hey Joe," didn't really demonstrate Hendrix's transcendent abilities on the electric guitar. Although the song had bona fide Jimi licks and riffs spinning straight through the rock standards, it was at its core a pretty traditional blues number; it wasn't even an original Hendrix composition.
Therefore it would be left to Hendrix's second big hit single, "Purple Haze," to introduce the world to the full psychedelic, mind-blowing, guitar-driven sound that would turn Jimi Hendrix into a rock legend.
Hendrix's vital technology was his guitar of choice: the Fender Stratocaster. He used used Strats almost exclusively from the time he bought his first one in New York in 1966. That first guitar was stolen, so he bought another—a 1964 "sunburst-finish Strat with rosewood fingerboard," according to music journalist Douglas J. Noble—that he used to record "Purple Haze" in a London studio early in 1967. "The Stratocaster is the best all-around guitar for the stuff we're doing," Hendrix said, "You can get the very bright trebles and the deep bass sound"—something entirely clear in the famous intro to "Purple Haze." The Strat's three pickup design (with one pickup near the neck of the guitar, one near the bridge, and one in between) allows for a wide tonal range, from the high-end favoring of the pickup at the bridge to the richer sound of the neck pickup that Hendrix favored.
What "Purple Haze" really introduced was Hendrix's masterful use of distortion and effects. In an era before distortion pedals, Hendrix achieved his distorted sound by essentially breaking his own equipment. Hendrix would set all the amplifiers up to their maximum volume (known as "the Hendrix setting"). Amps weren't really built to perform at that volume; the result was a sound drenched in distortion, sustained notes, and feedback. Like distortion, feedback (that fuzz and high-pitched squeal familiar to anyone who has ever used a microphone in front of its output speaker) was something that guitarists and technicians at the time did not really know how to harness. (They viewed it more as something to be avoided.) It was Jimi Hendrix who changed this, deliberately incorporating electronic feedback into his sound. But it came at a price... According to Eric Barrett, a roadie for Hendrix at one time, Hendrix would break a couple of amps every single show because he pushed them so far beyond their normal limits. This use of sound was revolutionary when Hendrix hit the scene; only a few of his contemporaries at the time (notably The Yardbirds, The Rolling Stones, The Who, and Cream) were even trying to use distortion in ways similar to what Hendrix was doing.
Finally, there were effect pedals. Jimi Hendrix used an Octavia and a Fuzz Face in the recording of "Purple Haze." The Fuzz Face was a stomp-box (as they were called) that added distortion to the guitar by squaring out the sound waves. Fuzz boxes were an early addition to Jimi Hendrix's effect arsenal, one he began using as early as 1965. The effect was only gently used in "Purple Haze," as his amps were turned up high enough in the recording to add enough distortion without needing the pedal. The Octavia, as inventor Roger Mayer describes it on his website, "produces a sound that is an octave higher than the note that you are presently playing" alongside the original note. This doubling effect is heard in the solos on "Purple Haze" and, if anything, it represents Hendrix's desire to be cutting edge. The Octavia, case in point, was built just for Hendrix, and was first used in the recording of "Purple Haze" on February 3, 1967. The otherworldly sound of the Octavia-filled solos fit perfectly with the surreal lyrical content of the song. The Octavia was so successful in "Purple Haze" that Roger Mayer went on to tour with Hendrix, where he engineered a number of new sound effects for the artist. Mayer recalled Hendrix saying things to him like, "'That sound was great on that record, but what have you got up your sleeves for tomorrow?'… He'd say something like: I want a guitar that comes screaming out of the sky and it's got to make the people wince like they've been burned." In this bond between electronics wizard and gypsy guitar legend was the legendary sound of Jimi Hendrix.
While Hendrix was, of course, a technically excellent guitar player, it was his control of electronics that truly took his unique skill to another level. As scholar Steve Waksman noted in Instruments of Desire, "His musical innovations were largely predicated upon the new vocabulary of electronic sounds offered by the electric guitar." Hendrix himself stated that the electric sound was extremely important to him as a musician. Once asked what the difference was between "the old blues and the new," Hendrix replied simply, "Electricity." And in later years, his concept of the "electric church" filled his interviews and discussions. The electric church concept was one in which music had the power to "hypnotize people to where they go right back to their natural state which is pure positive—like in childhood when you got natural highs. And when you get people at that weakest point, you can preach into the subconscious what we want to say. That's why the name 'electric church' flashes in and out." This electric church broke psychological barriers; it transcended race, age, gender… everything.
Seen in the context of this new philosophy, "Purple Haze" is Hendrix's own induction into the church of electricity. Born out of a dream of walking under the sea, it is a baptism in sound, where we find the musician lost in the electric haze. What is up? What is down? What is music anymore, and what's just electronic noise? The "Purple Haze" sound is at once mystifying (with its Octavia solos and abstract lyrics) and powerful (with those gripping Hendrix chords and that over-the-top fuzz). It is no wonder that Jimi Hendrix would spend the rest of his short life using technology to break sound barriers in a search for the ultimate experience of musical spirituality. In that way, the song may well describe a spiritual awakening or summoning of that unforgettable sound within the artist himself.
Is it tomorrow, or just the end of time?