We live in a world of progress: athletes run faster, footballers are fitter and our children grow taller. So it is an indication of Jimi Hendrix’s genius that, although he died in 1970, nobody had since advanced the art of electric guitar playing beyond his singular achievement.
He married technical virtuosity to dazzling showmanship, factors that sometimes conspired to obscure that he was also a considerable songwriter. His achievement is all the more extraordinary given that his reign lasted just four years, from his arrival in Britain in 1966 to his untimely death.
When he first appeared on the London club scene, he appeared so wild it was as if he had landed by spaceship from another planet. In fact, he’d served a routine apprenticeship backing the likes of Little Richard and the Isley Brothers. But he’d put his dues-paying to astonishing effect. Fellow guitarists such as Jeff Beck, Pete Townshend and Eric Clapton turned up at his early shows and watched with open-jawed amazement. Using waves of feedback and distortion he coaxed sounds out of a guitar that had never been heard before, fusing blues, rock, R&B and psychedelic pop into an explosive sonic cocktail. With his band the Experience, he created the template for the power trio and, although his jamming ability was legendary, he also wrote tightly structured, tender pop songs such as “The Wind Cries Mary”, “Angel” and – best of all – “Little Wing”.
His rise was meteoric and his life turbulent. By 1969, the Experience had split-up and Hendrix was seeking new challenges. At the time of his death there was talk of a jazz album with Miles Davis, while in his last interview he spoke of creating a new sound he called ‘western sky music’ and putting together a big band. Just how far he could have taken it, we shall never know.