The gear used by Jimi Hendrix, and the glorious sound he produced with it, is shrouded in more myth and mystery, and remains more evocative of tonal magic, than that of any other player in the history of the electric guitar.
Hendrix proffered a Midas touch upon his instruments of choice that has reaped rewards for the manufacturers behind his equipment for more than 40 years, yet the set ups used in the earlier part of his career are really pretty straightforward, if nonetheless impenetrable for certain unquantifiable variables. Later in his career, Hendrix dabbled in different equipment, and certainly made some beautiful music on a late ’60s Gibson Flying V
and an SG Custom
played through a handful of American-made tube amps. But I’m talking classic early Hendrix here: Fender Stratocaster into a Marshall, with three specific pedals in between.
Said variables—and a lot of the aforementioned magic and mystery—come from three different directions: 1) Hendrix played a right-handed Fender Stratocaster upside down, but restrung it low-string-highest for standard but “mirror image” fingering (lefty Strats existed but were hard to come by, and he purportedly liked the controls at the top anyway); 2) the majority of Hendrix’s effects were heavily modified or “improved” from their factory stock condition, or were prototypes made for him by effects pioneer Roger Mayer; 3) Hendrix was an extremely agile, musical, soulful guitarist with a seemingly otherworldly control over his instrument and all of his gear. Throw all of these into the pot, stir, and simmer gently, and it’s not a stew you are easily going to replicate just by assembling the various bits of hardware and plugging them in. That said, hey, this is all great sounding gear, and if you acquire something anywhere close to it, and get your chops down, you can manage a pretty good approximation of “the tone” … and while you’re at it, maybe even work toward crafting your own soon-to-be legendary voice.
Hendrix’s guitars of choice have sparked endless debate and analysis, with pundits from one camp or the other insisting he must have liked the post-CBS Stratocasters because the increased wood at the headstock yielded great sustain; or because the slightly weaker pickups of the late ’60s, compared with those of the early ’60s and late ’50s, gave him more dynamics and let him keep the his tone clear and well defined even at deafening volumes, and yadda, yadda, yadda. He was photographed playing the occasional pre-CBS Strat with rosewood fingerboard, but certainly played a lot more large-headstock models in 1967 and ’68, an apparent preference that runs contrary to pre-CBS/post-CBS Stratocaster values on the vintage market today. Personally, I think the fact that the big headstock/big sustain theory fails to account for the fact that different cuts of maple used in guitar-neck manufacturing have very different weights and densities anyway, and therefore contribute to different tones—regardless of a couple extra square inches of wood in the headstock—makes poppycock of the notion.
For the inside scoop, though, let’s turn to a greater authority. In addition to building and/or modifying Hendrix’s effects pedals, Roger Mayer served as Jimi’s pal, confidant, and right-hand man regarding all things guitar-gear related. He did everything from attending studio sessions to tweak equipment on the fly, to procuring and setting up guitars, to helping to boost the famously shy guitarist’s confidence to help coax legendary performances from him. “So,” I asked my friend Roger down the phone, “what about this whole headstock/sustain issue?”
“No, Jimi wouldn’t have considered that,” he told me. “All the guitars that we used were bought out of necessity; there weren’t that many Stratocasters around 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, and often none of them were very good, to tell you the truth. I can’t see a slightly bigger headstock making any difference anyway.” Common sense prevails here, I think. Walk into a music shop in the London of 1967, on the hunt for a replacement Strat for a recording session, and the vast majority of what would be facing you—not that many to choose from at that—would be the latest imports of new models.
Some elements of Hendrix’s Strat set up that would make a little difference, of course, would be the variables thrown up by that right-hander-upside-down factor: winding the low E around the furthest tuning post from the nut and the high E around the nearest will introduce some changes in the sounds of these strings, and using a right-handed vibrato upside down alters the way this piece of hardware performs. Pundits also point the fact that the flip-flop would place the compensated pole pieces under the D and G strings (the latter originally a little higher than the former) in their reverse configuration, but that would have a minimal affect at best. And, again we have Roger Mayer to thank for the tidbit information confirming that Hendrix very consciously used a .015 gauge G string in his Fender 150 Series Rock’n’Roll Lights rather than a .017, in order to keep the G from leaping out volume-wise. But you know, Hendrix would have sounded like Hendrix if he’d played some no-name archtop with add-on pickup through a small Silvertone amp all his career… and we’d all probably be out there trying to score the exact same rig. And before you go buying that left-handed neck and vibrato bridge to add on to your right-handed Strat to “get the Hendrix sound,” consider this: Hendrix borrowed bassist Noel Redding’s Telecaster to record both “Hey Joe” and “Purple Haze”—a sobering revelation for anyone who ever quoted those tracks as classic examples of Jimi’s great Stratocaster tone.
The Hendrix amp of this era was the Marshall JMP100, the 100-watt version of the model colloquially known as the “plexi.” We examined Marshall’s JTM45 and “Bluesbreaker” combo in some detail in Get That Tone: Eric Clapton
, and while the plexi models of the late 1960s used almost identical circuits, some of the components in the mix had changed. Most notably, perhaps, the amps now used British EL34 tubes instead of US 5881s or European KT66s. The EL34 has a distinctive, crunchy rock tone of its own when cranked up, with a slightly smoother, juicier overdrive than these other types; it’s also a more robust tube, and can be run at slightly higher voltages to produce a little more volume. To that end, Marshall dropped its GZ34 tube rectifier around the time of the transition to plexi specs, changing to firmer solid-state rectification.
In the form of the large 100-watters that Hendrix used, these were big, punchy sounding amps. They stayed relatively clean up to phenomenal volume levels, and once they tipped over into distortion they really wailed. Listen closely to Hendrix’s tone, however, and you realize a lot of it really is fairly clean, while very dynamic and touch sensitive. Although we think of him as an early proponent of both hard rock and psychedelic rock, and the most revered rock lead player of all time, his core tone was more that of cranked electric-blues—wherein lay his roots, of course—and many passages display the clarity and depth of a massive clean tone just verging on the edge of breakup. Early on, Hendrix would have used the Celestion G12M “greenback” speakers, in two 4x12 cabs per-head, that these amps came with as standard, but a little later he came to prefer the newer G12H-30, a “heavy magnet” Celestion variety with bolder lows and more punch overall (a speaker Marshall was initially using in its bass amps), so he was really going toward projection and clarity, rather than pure juice and grind.
But, yeah, there was juice and grind aplenty. When Hendrix wanted to push his sound over the top, he rather famously stomped on a Dallas-Arbiter Fuzz Face, an early germanium-transistor fuzz pedal known for its sweet, thick, creamy distortion tones. In fact, he often used this very dynamic-sounding pedal with his guitar volume wound down to clean up the tones while retaining some of the fuzz’s added texture. The only other two effects used regularly in the early Hendrix rig were a Vox Wah-Wah pedal, placed in front of the fuzz, and occasionally a Roger Mayer Octavia pedal, an octave-up effect of which Mayer built only half a dozen or so examples in its original form (from 1969, on a Univox Uni-Vibe became the other essential in the Hendrix effects line up). Taken as a whole, these are pretty simple ingredients compared to the complex and convoluted pedalboards and rack systems that many professional players employ today, but Hendrix sure could whip up a maelstrom of sound with them. That said, it’s important to once again acknowledge that an unparalleled touch and a rare musical vision also had a lot to do with it.
Before you spend the mortgage in an effort to acquire “the Hendrix set up,” it’s also worth considering that most of the sounds you have heard on record were produced with far more creative, spontaneous, and impenetrable signal chains than exhibited by his simple live rig. Sure, there’s some Fuzz Face and Octavia there in the legendary tones of “Purple Haze” or “Crosstown Traffic,” but through Hendrix’s recorded work there’s often a lot more going on besides. To give Roger Mayer one final say in the matter, when recording in the studio, Hendrix and his team were “only concerned with making a good sound that goes onto tape, and were going to use anything we can to get it. You’d take a few different things to the studio that you wouldn’t have on stage—different driving stages to put in front of the fuzz boxes, different equalizing stages, different voltages you’re using on the fuzz boxes. As well as the technical side, one of my jobs with Jimi was to help get that three minutes or so of magic. The whole day had to lead up to that. That’s the end, the goal.”