No one raised the importance of the electric guitar like Jimi Hendrix. Not that electric guitars were any sort of insignificance before Hendrix arrived on the scene, of course, but he did markedly elevate the guitarist’s potential status within a band. He showed that it was possible for the guitar to grab such attention in a rock group, that the lead vocals became a secondary factor. It would be naïve to overlook the often sensational visual side of Hendrix’s performances in that accomplishment, but even without all the showmanship, it’s still quite clear in the music alone what the fuss was about.
The story of Hendrix, his rise to massive fame, and his tragic burnout, is not something I need to document. But in looking at this audio cassette – recorded in three live performances at Winterland, San Francisco, on 10th, 11th and 12th October 1968, and released by Polydor in 1987 – I want to briefly explore the appeal of Jimi Hendrix’s music, and why it left such a lasting impression.
Most people know that Hendrix was regarded as a phenomenal guitarist, but in the light of what’s happened in the 40-plus years since his passing, you’re not necessarily dazzled by the technical side of his playing. In his day, Jimi Hendrix was technically very impressive indeed, but there’s been so much progress in electric guitar technique through the intervening decades, that his playing can seem quite pedestrian in comparison today. In fact, on this Live at Winterland cassette, his playing isn’t even that accurate. Of course, for all you know as a listener he could have been playing the guitar with his teeth, or behind his back or whatever – so you can certainly excuse the odd inaccuracy. But the point is that there were other reasons behind Hendrix’s appeal. He didn’t just come along, wow everyone with technique, and set fire to his guitar. If that had been all he did, the world wouldn’t still be talking about him today…
As is evident right from the moment the Jimi Hendrix Experience blast into their opening track Fire on this cassette, this was a band rather than a solo performer. Both Mitch Mitchell (drums), and Noel Redding (bass) were great musicians of the time, and the band as a unit had a sonic dynamism which created a new energy and excitement like nothing else since the birth of rock and roll. That energy really hits you – even today.
The emerging rock music was still based around heavy blues in 1968, and the Jimi Hendrix Experience were at the forefront of the transition – progressively morphing heavy but traditional blues, into out and out rock. They were innovators, making the instrumental format more free, more aggressive, more elaborate, and more expressive. No longer was this about pandering to peurile teenage whims. Pop music was growing up, and for the first time finding an audience with real intellect. The Jimi Hendrix Experience weren’t the only group pushing music into this new cultural domain, and they weren’t the first. But Hendrix did break more rules, and he was undoubtedly the one with the greatest vision for the future of the electric guitar.
Jimi Hendrix departed from the period trend of using Gibson guitars with a smooth, rich tone, and instead adopted the much grittier Fender Stratocaster. The Stratocaster had been declining in popularity due to its lesser volume and cutting tone, which wasn’t perceived to have the smoothness to create the kind of singing sustain guitarists were looking for. But Hendrix realised that whilst the Stratocaster required more effort from the player when it came to producing sustain, it had features which other guitarists had completely overlooked in relation to the new, overdriven (distorted) style of rock playing.
The Strat’s bright treble response created an extra level of definition, which could be used in combination with valve amplifier overdrive to articulate fast, intricate rhythm playing. As well as employing this technique in its own right, Hendrix also intertwined it with lead work, and that can be heard to fantastic effect in the opening to Killing Floor on this cassette. There’s so much going on, and you hear it with such clarity, that it’s hard to believe only one guitarist is playing. Hendrix also found ways of using the Stratocaster’s manual vibrato system unconventionally, to control amp feedback and produce lingering musical screams from the guitar. And he used electronic effects unconventionally – employing a wah-wah pedal as a static tone enhancer, for example. Live at Winterland epitomises the combination of all of the above, and much more, to really map out the sonic ingenuity and intuition of Jimi Hendrix.
Since the Hendrix era, the Fender Stratocaster design has consistently been the most popular electric guitar in the world.
You can definitely tell Live at Winterland was recorded in the 1960s. Jimi Hendrix’s chat between the songs has him referring to people as “cats” (that always makes me laugh – don’t know why), and “digging” them rather than liking them. But as is usual with Polydor cassettes, the quality of reproduction belies the fact that this is such an old recording. The formulation of the tape is chromium dioxide, and the bass response seems particularly good considering the tendency for chrome to be a bit light-handed at the bottom end. Given that this is a 1968 recording, you can’t fault the quality. The cassette has the classic red Polydor label, and was made in West Germany – a sign that the product predates 1990, when the German reunification took place.
There are better Jimi Hendrix performances available than this one, but Live at Winterland does rank in the higher echelons of my Hendrix cassette tapes. Jimi Hendrix wasn’t about perfection – he was about innovation, passion, vibe, and new levels of cool. Whether or not rock is your favourite style of music, you’ve just gotta appreciate the man… Sorry… You’ve just gotta dig the cat.