Jimi Hendrix was born on Nov. 27, 1942. He became one of the most influential guitarists in history before his death at the age of 27 in 1970. On what would have been Hendrix’s 77th birthday, we are reprinting this story by Tony Green that first appeared in the September 12, 1990 edition of the St. Petersburg Times.
BY TONY GREEN
St. Petersburg Times
The Star-Spangled Banner (Trad. arr. by Jimi Hendrix). I looked at the page of music, hard, trying to translate the dots and lines on the page into sounds in the air. It was 1971, and I was sitting at my dresser in my room, holding a $15 department store acoustic guitar with chicken wire-thick strings that sat a full inch off of the fret board.
“Oh, say can you see. . . .”
Earlier that week, at a friend’s house, in Yonkers, N.Y., I had heard my first Jimi Hendrix album. I was 10, still humming Band of Gold by Freda Payne. I found the top of my head two blocks from my house on the way to school two days later. I’d tried to explain to my friends that Jimi Hendrix had blown the top of my head off, and that what they thought was a cool haircut actually wasn’t. Who was Jimi Hendrix? Didn’t he play for the Knicks?
I remained fascinated enough to use a $10 Easter gift from my grandmother for a small book of Hendrix transcriptions. I decided to start with the only tune I recognized, The Star-Spangled Banner. It took me a half-hour to get through the second stanza.
And the rockets' red glare. . . .
Then came a long dash, 16 blank measures, and a note:
(Sound effects simulating rockets, jets and explosions).
I looked at my guitar, then back at the page. I closed the book, took it off my dresser and replaced it with a transcription of Kumbaya.
In 1972, at age 11, I made my first really good tackle in sandlot football game. The impact felt good partly because it was good to to know I could hit hard. Mostly, though, it reminded me of when Hendrix blew the top of my head off.
But repeating that original experience seemed unlikely. Hendrix was too progressive for the stations I picked up with my pocket-size AM radio. And I wasn’t allowed to buy his albums because my father thought I would become a drug addict by listening to them.
From the time Sly Stone dropped out of sight until George Clinton showed up, life, musically, was a drag for me. Grover Washington Jr., Earth Wind & Fire and the Isley Brothers were bright spots for me and a few buddies through middle and high school, but not many black folks — at least whom I knew — listened to Hendrix. Only one other person I knew liked Hendrix, a skinny kid with ashy legs and nappy hair who couldn’t hit the jumper.
Even my usually understanding grandmother was leery of Hendrix. Our family went to visit her later that summer, and she asked what I had spent with the $10 she sent me the year before. I showed her the booklet.
"He's the best guitarist who ever lived," I said. "I read in a magazine where they said that."
My grandmother wrinkled her nose and pulled her chin back.
"What's wrong with that boy's hair?"
My sophomore year in high school, I read an interview with a music professor who said that Hendrix wasn’t a real guitar player because his technique was “inefficient.”
Three years earlier my father had relented and let me get a copy of Are You Experienced? I wore it out. Then I sneaked out and bought Band of Gypsys, laid it on my red plastic toy phono and started copying the solos. Hendrix was god, until I read the music professor’s interview.
The comments affected me. I started to listen heavily to jazz-rock (now called fusion) players, even though I didn’t know what they were doing. Jazz-rock was easy for me to get into because it was loud, and all the players played real fast. I practiced six hours a day; Hendrix took a back seat to scales.
That phase wore off as I progressed through college; I couldn't read music well, and my grasp of music theory was tenuous.
As children, my friends and I used to teach younger kids curse words and tell them they were greetings, laughing when they hailed the school principal with a string of expletives. Now, working with a musical vocabulary I didn't fully understand, I wondered whether the joke was on me.
So I drifted, slowly, back to Hendrix. I got my favorite chord, a little major triad with a pinky trill on the top two strings, from him. I called it the “diddloop” chord.
By my sophomore year in college, I had gotten big enough to dream of playing professional football. Then, I reasoned, I would have enough money to get a white Fender Stratocaster and an amplifier the size of a car and blow a hole in the ozone.
I wore ski goggles on road trips. I gave strange interviews.
"What were you thinking about on that fourth and short play when they fumbled, and you guys took over in their territory, Tony?"
“Well . . . ahmm . . . did you ever check out how Hendrix will take a song and go really out, kind of on that old blah-blah, woof-woof thing? Sort of, you know?”
Finally I decided to go to the source. Hendrix grew up listening to blues and R&B. So I started listening to Albert King, Buddy Guy, Otis Spann and Junior Walker.
Then one day, I heard a tape of jazz saxophonist Dexter Gordon playing a 12-bar blues in "A" on an album recorded in France. From then on I was a be-bopper. Blues had been a cozy, nicely furnished room I could relax in. Now there was a trapdoor.
After moving to Florida, I started taking lessons from Ted Shumate, a jazz guitarist in St. Petersburg. He started teaching me about different tonalities, different degrees of the major scale that produced hip sounds. All great be-bop players — Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Art Tatum, Charlie Parker, Oscar Peterson, Sonny Rollins — used them.
"But you know who was really hip?" Ted asked.
Then Ted showed me how Hendrix used to stack and combine individual chord tones on top of a standard major chord.
"Oh, you mean like this?" I played the diddloop chord.
“Yeah. That’s it,” Ted said. He demonstrated by playing The Wind Cries Mary and Hey Joe.
Hendrix also used octaves, like the great jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery, Ted said. “Like this?” I played the bridge from Purple Haze.
“Exactly. Exactly.” Ted played the signature riff from Hendrix’s set-closer at Woodstock, then slipped into a Wes Montgomery blues octave run.
Well, I'll be damned.
"You've been listening to some good stuff, man."
I paused for a second, smiling. Then I pressed down on the top of my head with both hands, hard, and started humming Manic Depression.