Jimi Hendrix truly flew like a butterfly and stang like a bee. And the qualities that made him a vision of art incarnate extended well beyond his technique as a guitarist into the realms of imagination and creative scope and to the core of his identity as he reshaped himself from a troubled Seattle kid into one of the most vital creative forces in the history of rock ‘n’ roll.
On the 70th anniversary of Hendrix’s birth, Tuesday, November 27, his recordings and his life can still continue to inspire us in ways beyond the lessons imparted by his licks, chords and chops. Here are 10 things to consider if you’d like to approach forming your own artistic identity with inspiration from Hendrix:
• Own What You Know: Regardless of the extent of your musical knowledge and technique, fully invest yourself — with confidence — in your playing and songwriting. Hendrix couldn’t read music, but it didn’t stop him from experimenting with microtonality and other advanced concepts. He was able to push the sonic vocabulary of the juke joint in ways most other blues based artists had never imagined. So take what you’ve got, be proud of it and run with it hard every time you play and write. If conviction comes through in your music, listeners will connect regardless of how many notes your play or how harmonically sophisticated your chord changes are — or aren’t.
• Think Texturally: On stage, Hendrix rocked, but in the studio he executed some of the most sophisticated guitar layering of the classic rock era. Multi-tracking helped make songs like “Purple Haze” and “Dolly Dagger” so staggeringly fresh and exciting, and they still work their magic today. So don’t be blinded by the immediate and take full advantage of your resources while recording.
• Listen To Everything: Hendrix listened not only to his rock ‘n’ roll peers and his blues influences, but to the gypsy jazz of Django Reinhardt, the outrageous blowing of John Coltrane, Dylan’s folk-rock poetry, Phil Ochs’ protest music, the Doors modal psychedelicism, European and Eastern classical music and the Master Musicians of Joujouka. And all of that became ingredients in the stew of his influences. Have big ears and wide tastes when it comes to listening to music and that will have a big payback in providing a wealth of sonic inspiration and reference points.
• Be A Poet: Hendrix was not only inspired by poets; he aspired to be one. Great poets and great lyricists share qualities — the ability to capture grace in brevity, a sense of vision and the ability to get at an essential human truth with a few strokes of a pen. Few songwriters today measure up to that bar, which is one of the reasons many of Hendrix’s songs are so enduring. “Roomful of Mirrors,” “Castles Made of Sand,” “Drifting” and many of his other lyrics work poetically. And consider his parting words, left in a poem found on a scrap of paper near the bed where he died: “The story of life is quicker than the blink of an eye/The story of love is hello and goodbye/Until we meet again.”
• Be Effect-ive: Purism be dammed. If you want to truly worship at the Electric Church, which is how Hendrix referred to his concerts and studio performances, don’t plug in without an effects chain between you and the amplifier. You don’t get “Third Stone From the Sun,” “Machine Gun” or other towering works of imagination by sticking with the basics.
• Stay In “the Now”: Stay up on the latest in gear and effects and know your options. Hendrix was an enormous devourer of the new. And that extends beyond music. He was entirely plugged into ’60s culture — fashion, politics, dissent, art… To make music that’s vital and resonant it’s necessary to be aware of the times and apply at least a portion of the zeitgeist to your creative framework.
• Sleep With Your Guitar: Okay, maybe that’s going a little too far, but Hendrix did have such a passionate devotion to his instrument that he often slept with his guitar, immersing himself in its “being” of strings, wood and vibrations. Think of it this way: play as much as possible and stay as attuned with your guitar as possible. The jazz pianist Kenny Werner, in his book Effortless Mastery: Liberating the Master Musician Within, suggests simply playing for a minimum of five minutes per day, every day, in order to stay attuned. Try that to start.
• Think Dynamically: The loud/soft thing really works, as evidenced by great Hendrix recordings like “If 6 Was 9,” “Third Stone From the Sun,” “Pali Gap” and other instrumental and vocal tracks. Another Pacific Northwestern guitarist, Kurt Cobain, reinforced that idea two decades later. Here’s another way to look at it: If you’re always yelling, people will stop paying attention. Use dynamics in your compositions and performances.
• Be Yourself On Stage: Be comfortable in your own skin when you pick up your guitar in front of any audience. Do whatever it takes to accomplish this. Whether it’s enough practice to have utter confidence in your chops, or writing down and rehearsing banter between songs. Hendrix was a consummate entertainer on the guitar and spoke to the audience in a warm, genuine way. Being in command while being relaxed on stage feels good for you and the audience.
• Live Your Art: Dress, think and act like an artist and you’ll be closer to achieving a constant sense of your creative identity. Exactly how that’s defined is open ended, but think about the kind of message you want to present to the world on a daily basis, take pride in it, and do the small extra-musical things that add up to a larger consciousness of who you are as a musician.