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Was Jimi Hendrixs' Guitar Playing Really All That Great?
By Scotty West
Jimi Hendrix wasn't such a great guitar player. There...I said it. Now before you all go "postal"
on me, understand that Jimi was one of my early guitar heroes too and a marvelous player, songwriter,
innovator and performer. I do however have some points I would like to make here about the nature of
TRUE MUSICIANSHIP...not to tear down your great idols, but to empower you to rise above the media hype
and become the best player you can be.
Scotty West has been playing music all his life. He holds a B.F.A. from the University
of Hartford, CT where he studied at the famous Hartt School of Music. He has also studied
music theory, Jazz improvisation and ear training with Dick Wetmore, Dan May, Richard
Brookens and The Cape Cod Conservatory. He is music director and plays guitar and keyboards
for The Experimental Ensemble of Cape Cod...a modern electric sextet playing an all
original blend of Jazz, Rock, Blues, Funk, Classical and Ethnic influences. He has been
teaching guitar, keyboards and bass for almost 25 years. He is also the creator of the
Absolutely Understand Guitar Video Home Study Program with thousands of students world
wide. Check it out at http://www.absolutelyunderstandguitar.com
I've been pretty serious about music and the guitar for a long time. My Mother was a classical violinist
and started me with piano at age 6. I began playing guitar at 10. Growing up around that level of
musicianship taught me to appreciate and value a wide range of different musical styles. I still
love Classical music... particularly the modern stuff (many of you might be surprised that there
is such a thing as modern Classical music) but I also love Jazz, Rock, Pop, Blues, and Country.
Heck, I find it all at least mildly interesting. I'm intrigued by the broad range of possibilities
for music as an art form. Indeed it is the ART OF NOISE.
That's why I get concerned when I see guitar students become stuck (indeed sometimes addicted) to
just one type of music. I've seen so much of it over my 25 years of teaching. Certainly Hard Rock
is one of those styles (but certainly not the only one) and that's why I'm picking on poor Jimi here.
ALL TASTE IS ACQUIRED. I know a lot of you don't want to believe that, but I've had to accept that
fact time and again through my career. We want to believe that we all totally have our own minds.
It's hard to accept that our tastes and decisions are often colored by outside societal factors.
It takes courage and deliberation to rise above the constraints of our overly commercialized, peer
group oriented, media driven culture and see art for the wonderfully expressive language that it
can be. I believe that true musical maturity comes by opening yourself up to new forms even if they
don't immediately appeal to you.
I think a lot of young males in particular get hooked on that edgy, raw, sexy, testosterone driven
Hard Rock sound. The record company executives smell the money there. They bombard us with sales
pitches...images of these tough, hard, anti-hero men belting out these angry tirades. The guitar
magazines are just loaded with page after page after page of it. I've found that it's easy to confuse
CYNICISM with WISDOM. Some folks seem to feel that if the music isn't somehow anti-social, it has
no value. I gotta' tell you, I find that attitude rather childish. It's helped turn American
culture toward a self-fulfilling prophecy of ignorance, intolerance, and violence.
Rap is another style like that.
Hey! That don't make me no wimp! I am, after all, a child of the 60s. Question authority,
I say. Up the establishment! I was raised on that music as well. I just want to encourage
folks to see that there is more to the playing than the hard, angry stuff and just because
an artist or style is outside of your comfort zone, it doesn't mean it has no value or that
there is nothing you can learn from it.
I think this can also cause us to deify certain guitarists that, upon closer critical
examination, might not have as much to offer as we have been lead to believe. Don't get
me wrong. I love Jimi Hendrix, but I'm also capable of keeping him in perspective. He had
his limitations...some of them severe. One could argue that some of those limitations conspired to kill him!
I have to confess I lost interest in Jimi back around BAND OF GYPSIES and never "experienced"
(no pun intended) any of his last material. I had heard that his family compiled and released
FIRST RAYS OF THE NEW RISING SUN, the project he was working on at the time of his death.
Before I wrote this article, I wanted to see if listening to it changed my thinking at all.
..and indeed it did...but only a little.
I also brushed up on my Hendrix bio material (some of it fairly in depth) and I could not
find one single reference to any guitar lessons he ever took or music theory instruction he
had or formalized ear training he ever did. Like a lot of Blues and Rock players, he mostly
learned to play guitar by copying riffs off recordings from other guitarists. Nothing wrong
with that, but it can cause one's focus to become rather narrow. It is also interesting to
note that he was fired from a lot of the early bands he played with because he apparently
couldn't meld his very personal style of guitar playing with the requirements of the gigs
he was hired to play! The myth might suggest that his guitar playing was too far advanced
or "ahead of his time" but it could just as easily be a sign of musical immaturity. One article
said Jimi was a great guitarist because he could play it with his teeth. I beg to differ.
That might make him a great SHOWMAN, but that's different than being a great MUSICIAN.
As I said earlier, I became interested in guitar pretty young and I was exposed to a lot of
sophisticated music growing up. My Mom was big into Classical and Broadway. My Dad liked Big
Band Jazz. My best friend's older brother was listening to Elvis etc. and the Folk players
of the early 60s as well as Blues guys like Muddy Waters and B.B. King. My first great Pop
music awakening came with The Beatles. I was 10 in 1964.
So, even in the Rock genre, I was drawn toward the more sophisticated guitar players with
more "chops" and broader harmonic sensibilities ... Steve Howe (Yes), Robert Fripp (King Crimson),
Frank Zappa, Steely Dan (and their catalog of great soloists), Andy Summers (The Police) to
name but a few. The Blues Rock guitar guys didn't really do all that much for me. It could
all sound just too much the same. I needed more variety.
By chance, I saw Larry Coryell and the 11th House (featuring the Brecker Brothers) my 2nd
year of college and my life was changed forever. I began to check out all the Jazz "Fusion"
guitar players...John McLaughlin (The Mahavishnu Orchestra performed at my school a year or
so later), Al DiMeola, Pat Metheny, Frank Gambale, Mike Stern, John Schofield. These guys
played music that had "balls" like Rock and Blues, but also had the broader harmonic spectrum of Jazz.
So I would have to say that my great guitar heroes were those capable of playing more complex
music in a variety of different styles. Though better than many, Jimi Hendrix just wasn't
one of them. Jimi was a great talent, but I think in many ways his lack of education prevented
him from becoming a better guitar player. He played a very personal style of guitar that he
developed in his own little world. That's why he rarely played outside his "comfort zone".
He played with bands he controlled and players he hand picked.
People who really PLAY guitar themselves tend to listen to music differently than those who
don't. Non-players often take what they hear at face value and accept it. Players are more
capable of saying "I might have done this differently myself" or "There are other ways that
this guitar solo could have been approached". An interesting question you might ask is, what
percentage of the audience at a Rock concert is composed of real musicians who truly
understand music theory? The answer is not many.
And this is where I might point out some of Jimi's limitations. As I mentioned, I have
just reviewed the last material he produced before this death and though I am impressed
with it's honesty, cohesiveness of vision, expressiveness, energy and pure "riffology",
it still leaves something to be desired in my opinion.
Though broader than some discographies, I see Jimi's guitar work as still not straying
too far from the Electric Blues Rock, Funk mold (we do, of course, have to give him credit
as being one of the pioneers who indeed forwarded this genre) Some of his attempts at
breaking out of that idiom with slower ballads and more complex progressions sound kinda'
"forced", contrived and awkward to me. There isn't a very broad usage of different guitar
chord types, consisting mainly of "Power" Chords, basic Major and Minor Triads, a lotta'
Major, Minor and Dominant 7 Chords (and their extended 9 chords), some Sus Chords and not
much else. Though this might put him ahead of the average Metal band (almost exclusively
Power Chords) I still miss wonderfully expressive guitar chords like Aug, Dim, 6, 6/9, 11,
13, and Altered Dominant Chords (#5, b5, b9), although, like a lot of Blues guys, he did dig that 7#9!
Let's talk guitar soloing. The easiest chord progressions to solo over are MONO HARMONIC.
..that is you're really only soloing over a single chord or tonal center. Many, many of
Jim's guitar solos are like this. Even if the song itself contains a more complex chord
progression, notice how often the solo section is simplified...often played over a bass
riff that centers around the root of that one single chord. It's actually pretty easy to
sound impressive soloing in these situations.
The next easiest guitar solos are ones where the underlying chord progression stays in
ONE KEY. A high percentage of Jimi's remaining solos fall into this category. Though
containing more chord changes than Mono Harmonic solos, you still have the luxury of
staying within the notes in one particular scale to form your melody. For Jimi, that
was often our familiar Major or Minor Pentatonic Scales and it's cousin, the Blues Scale.
I do not hear a terribly broad use of different melodic strategies from him. I don't
know whether he knew much about the broader subject of guitar scales.
Harder guitar soloing involves progressions that MODULATE...that is that they CHANGE
KEY right within the progression. At it's most extreme, you might be called upon to
use a different scale or set of notes over each chord in the progression! Imagine
that! Rock guitar players, who can sound pretty impressive in simpler situations,
often become totally overwhelmed trying to solo over these types of progressions.
Though Jimi's songs do contain modulations and some odd chord changes, there is again
almost none of this in the SOLO sections. Where he tries, I feel his guitar playing is
often less than stellar.
Playing over these types of changes (routine in more sophisticated styles like Jazz)
requires a more in depth knowledge of scales like your Diatonic Modes (Dorian, Mixolydian,
Aeolian, Locrian etc), Whole Tone and Diminished Scales and even more exotic scales like
Lydian b7 and Mixolydian b13. Throw in some more complex Extended Dominant Chords and it
gets even crazier! You really have to have trained ears to control this stuff. I have no
information to suggest that Jimi knew any of this. If he had, I think he would have used it.
Am I suggesting that more complex music is BETTER music? Well...NO...not necessarily..
.but maybe YES. For myself, more complex music gives me more interesting stuff to listen
to and learn from. I get kinda' bored with the old "been there-done that" guitar stuff.
I realize a lot of folks aren't like that. The more comfortable and familiar the music
sounds, the more they like it. That's OK. But I say, as a guitar PLAYER you might want
to challenge yourself to broaden your horizons.
Again, I'm not telling you this to tear down your great guitar heroes and I'm not even
suggesting that I am somehow a better guitar player than Jimi Hendrix. I'm encouraging
you see that there is a way for you to rise above the media hype and understand that
with dedication, you could play guitar as well as any of these guys. Knowledge is power
and the more you know about music, the easier it will be for you to reach reach your
goals even if that's only to be the best Rock guitar player you can be. You'll find it
does you no good to buy into the anti-intellectual myth perpetrated by the Rock guitar
media. Find a guitar lesson program that works for you and stick with it. The rewards
are very real. Take it from me and best of luck with your music!
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