Welcome to the first installment of Myth Busters. This is a new series from Gibson that will investigate some of the gear-related myths that have built up around various guitar legends over the years, with a view toward setting the record straight — sorting the truth from the snake oil — or occasionally confirming the odd tale when the facts warrant it. Few arenas are as rich in legend and fable as the oral and recorded “histories” of the secret tones of the great guitarists of rock and blues. A few factors contribute to this, no doubt: On one hand, we’re so eager to believe that there must be some “magic ingredient” to our hero’s signature sound that the wildest theories and most intricate details become not only acceptable, but crucial in any effort to attain a similar sound; on the other, the memories of anyone who was actually on hand for certain historical recording sessions or performances in the distant past are understandably sketchy by now, so who can really swear to what guitar, amp, effect, pick, or gauge of strings was used for any specific take anyway?
That said, we can use a perusal of what actual history is available, filtered through some common sense — and seasoned with the points of view of techs, producers, engineers and other musicians who were on hand at the time, when available — to deduce the likely truth, or the likely myth. In the process we will also remind ourselves that, ultimately, it isn’t the gear employed by any given artist that created the legendary tone, but the hands, heart, head and soul of that artist that made music worthy of legend … whatever they made it on.
This week, let’s take a look at Jimi Hendrix’s Fender Stratocasters, with specific regard to a few detail-oriented myths that have built up around these guitars. In the early Are You Experienced days, Hendrix was occasionally seen playing a sunburst pre-CBS Stratocaster with a small headstock and a rosewood fingerboard, although he is far better known for playing the post-CBS Strats with larger headstocks that were contemporary with his rise to stardom from 1967-’70. While the pre-CBS (pre-1965) version of this model has attained far greater status as a collector’s item, many Hendrixophiles believe Jimi preferred the later guitars for very specific tone-based reasons. One theory is that he found that the extra wood in the larger post-CBS headstocks increased sustain. Another holds that the slightly weaker single-coil pickups of the late ’60s Stratocasters added up to a bigger sound when injected through his 100-watt Marshall stacks (this might sound contrary to reason, but the theory itself is sound: Weaker pickups prevent the signal from breaking up too early in the signal chain, at the preamp stage, which can result in a slightly blurred, fuzzy tone being passed down the line. A clean, bold signal at the preamp, on the other hand, can be ramped up to a fat, punchy tone at the output stage —and when you crank up a 100-watt Marshall, you won't fall short of a major wailing roar anyway).
Personally, I think that both of these assumptions are evidence of the tone-chasers’ tendency to over-analyze things (believe me, I’ve done it myself). For one thing, wood supplies used by guitar makers in the late ’60s varied greatly, so the maple used to carve a neck one Wednesday in 1968 might have been denser than the maple used to carve a similar neck the following Thursday. But regarding both this issue and that of the weaker late-’60s pickups, let’s turn to a greater authority on the subject. British effects guru Roger Mayer not only built and modified many of the pedals that Hendrix used, he also worked as an all-round right-hand-man in the studio, and even helped select and set up many of the star’s guitars. What does he have to say about the wide headstock/greater sustain theory?
“No, Jimi wouldn’t have considered that,” said Mayer. “All the guitars that we used were bought out of necessity; there weren’t that many Stratocasters around [in London] in those days, and they were very expensive. Also, in the 1960s nobody paid much attention to whether pre-CBS Fenders were any better than CBS Fenders. They were all about the same. I can’t see a slightly bigger headstock making any difference anyway.”
One thing that might have made a difference in the legendary “Hendrix Strats” — and Mayer concurs here—is that because of the flip-flopping of the headstock required to play a right-handed guitar left-handed, the low-E string would be wound around the tuning post furthest from the nut, which in turn would alter the tone slightly. Slightly… and that’s the key word. Much has also been made of the fact that Hendrix’s Strats had their vibrato tailpieces upside-down from their orientation to a right-handed player. Also discussed is way the pickups would have performed as played upside down, since the staggered raised pole pieces — which resulted in the G-string pole being highest, the D-string pole second highest — would now be reversed. In fact, since the high G pole was originally intended to boost the low output of the wound G strings that were used when these pickups were first introduced in the ’50s, this flip-flopping would have helped to better balance the string output on a guitar that used an unwound G, as Hendrix did. Overall, though, both of these “upside-down alterations” would have been minimal, if detectable at all under normal playing conditions. And, as Roger Mayer points out, they often had to acquire these guitars and get them in playing condition pretty quickly; the best he could do was adjust the nut for the reversal of string gauges. Also, it would have been impossible to flip the pickups or the vibrato upside down without routing some wood from the body — something they weren’t about to undertake — so the way they came was the way they were played.
In closing — and this point kind of proves the theory that I opened this entire series with — it’s sobering to consider that the archetypal early “classic Hendrix tones” that sent many a kid out in search of a late-’60s Strat, namely the solos on “Hey Joe” and “Purple Haze” from the first album, Are You Experienced, weren’t played on a Stratocaster at all: They were played on a Fender Telecaster borrowed from bandmate Noel Redding.