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The Jimi Hendrix story

Greatest rock guitarist?


Jimi Hendrix
Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

When polls ask "Who is the best rock guitarist of all time?" the name Jimi Hendrix invariably appears at or near the top of the list. Although his career lasted just seven years (1963-1970) and his life just 27, Hendrix's influence is still being felt more than 40 years after his death.

He was left-handed, but played a right-handed guitar (his favorite was the Fender Stratocaster) that was strung upside down. While he may have been an iconoclast, he was also an innovator. He made amplifier feedback and distortion part of his unique sound. He was one of the first users of the wah-wah pedal, pushing it into mainstream use by the legion of electric guitarists who wanted to have the Hendrix sound. He eagerly experimented with electronic effects in his album mixes.

Art imitates life

Hendrix's music was greatly influenced, both positively and negatively, by his unstable childhood. Serving a stint in the Army, his father was absent during most of the first two years of Hendrix's life, and had trouble finding work after his discharge. His parents fought often, and moved often, usually from one cheap hotel to another. Hendrix had a brother and two sisters, all younger, and all put up for adoption or living in foster homes. Given that part of his family background, it's little wonder that he was attracted to blues music.

There were positive influences, too. Hendrix's maternal grandmother, a former dancer, cultivated his appreciation for music and performance. He attended church services where he experienced the emotional and spiritual effects of music. His parents encouraged his interest in music, although they didn't have the money to offer much more. His first guitar was purchased for $5 from a friend of his father, who had previously given him a ukulele he had found in a basement. In 1959, is father managed to buy Hendrix his first electric guitar, but didn't have enough money for an amplifier.

The instability at home (his mother died when he was 15) was frequently more of an influence than his growing love of music, and as a teenager, Hendrix was in and out of trouble. In fact, he enlisted in the Army in 1961 as a court-sanctioned alternative to serving two years in prison for auto theft.

Strike up the bands

It was after his discharge from the Army in 1962, Hendrix began performing with R&B artists like King Curtis, Isley Brothers and Curtis Knight. It wasn't until 1966 that he formed his own band, The Blue Flames, and was discovered by Chas Chandler, who left his job as bassist for The Animals to manage Hendrix's career. It was Chandler who was most influential in the formation of The Jimi Hendrix Experience, and in securing a recording contract.

After releasing just three studio albums and two live albums, the merry-go-round abruptly stopped when Hendrix died as a result of what was apparently an accidental overdose of sleeping pills.

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