In his short yet meteoric career, the late Jimi Hendrix almost single-handedly redefined the role of the electric guitar in rock 'n' roll and rock 'n' roll itself. An aural innovator, cosmic bluesman, young soul rebel and musical and sexual shaman all rolled into one, this Seattle-born virtuoso created a hugely influential artistic legacy. Hendrix, who died in London on Sept. 18, 1970, achieved such an enduring impact that he is now embraced by several generations of musicians and fans around the world.
"He was one of the best guitarists of all time, if not the best," said Joe Jonas, 21, of the Jonas Brothers.
"He was revolutionary," said Night Marchers singer guitarist John Reis, 40, the former leader of such pioneering San Diego band as Rocket from the Crypt and Drive Like Jehu.
Jane's Addiction guitarist Dave Navarro, 43, goes a step farther. He hails Hendrix as "the most influential person in my life, other than my parents."
Hendrix, who cut his teeth playing with The Isley Brothers and in the bands of Little Richard and Ike Turner, was a master of textural nuances and sheer sonic force, the wah-wah pedal and his quicksilver fingers. His astonishing artistic vision, acrobatic technique and revolutionary synthesis of rock, blues and soul — with sleek, jazz-inspired voicings added for good measure — set a heady standard.
His songs are still performed often. "The Wind Cries Mary," to cite one example, is in the concert repertoires for artists as diverse as piano-playing young English pop-jazz star Jamie Cullum, the Seattle band Pearl Jam and guitar great Eric Clapton (who was a friend and great admirer of Hendrix when both lived in London in the late 1960s).
His brief career saw Hendrix complete and release just three studio albums and one live album, all classics, between 1967 and 1970. Like Janis Joplin and Nirvana's Kurt Cobain, Hendrix was only 27 when he died.
On the eve of the 40th anniversary of his death, we pay tribute to Hendrix and his music through the words of prominent musicians we spoke with from here, there and everywhere. Here's what they had to say about him.
Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards: "One guy can ruin an instrument. Jimi Hendrix, bless his heart — how I wish he was still around — almost inadvertently ruined guitar. Because he was the only cat who could do it like that. Everybody else just screwed it up, and thought wailing away (on the guitar) is the answer. But it ain't; you've got to be a Jimi to do that, you've got to be one of the special cats."
Sting: "I must've been 14 and Jimi Hendrix played at the Club A-Go-Go in Newcastle. I'd never seen a black man before, let alone a black man who was 6 feet tall with an Afro haircut and a sort of 17th-century military costume. I'd never seen anyone play left-handed guitar or destroy his amplifier and his guitar during a song. I'd never seen anybody play like that. It was terrifying, traumatic, an epiphany! I said, 'This is what I want to aspire to. I'll never be Jimi Hendrix, but I can do something.'"
Pixies' leader Frank Black: "He's really, really, really, really, really, really good, as one of my kids would say. You can analyze it and talk about it. But at the end of the day, what he did is really good. That's why people are still talking about him."
Bassist and University of California at San Diego professor Mark Dresser: "It seems like all of my students know Hendrix. I can't think of one student I've ever had who wasn't hip to him. He was a major early influence on me and I saw him live three times. Hendrix and (jazz bassist Charles) Mingus were the big green lights for me. Hendrix really gave an expressive voice to something that deeply touched me."
Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders: "Hendrix is one of the gods and his records are never far from my turntable."
Hynde's new musical partner, Welsh singer-songwriter JP Jones: "He was just 27 when he died, but he comes across as the most manly man I've ever heard. There just isn't anyone with that power and presence now."
Dragons guitarist-singer Mario Escovedo: "He was light years ahead of anyone at the time in playing style, technique, fashion. To think he was only here such a short time — dead at 27 — and there are only a handful of other guitar players that even come close to his guitar rock god stature to this day."
Singer-songwriter Tracy Chapman: "It's a given that Hendrix was a very talented guitarist. He was doing his own thing, instead of what was expected of black musicians at the time. Having listened to his records for a long time, I have a great appreciation for his technique and innovation."
Avant-garde vocal star Diamanda Galas: "I was studying biochemistry at the University of California, San Diego. I saw the footage of Hendrix's (1969) performance at Woodstock and it was the voice for me that was on fire. I heard it, and thought to myself: 'The only chemistry you will be doing will be 'intravenal.' The blood will be the fire. You can sing it down.' Stranger thoughts have occurred to me. But this was on the money."
Pop-jazz guitarist/singer George Benson: "It's amazing the power of Jimi Hendrix's legacy. When I heard him do the national anthem, I thought, 'Wow, what a genius!' And then I knew why people had worshipped his guitar playing. He was an inventive guitar player and, unlike a few of the other greats, he was not afraid to try something (different). Although his playing was blues-based and inspired by people like B.B. King, he truly played from the heart. He was unique."
Blues giant B.B. King: "I know that Stevie Ray Vaughan, without a doubt, listened to (Hendrix), and you can tell that most of the modern guitarists do also. You can hear him through them. I got a lot of ideas listening to him."
Former Frank Zappa band guitarist Mike Keneally: "My mind was blown most by his ambidextrous-ness — the beautiful, intricate stuff he would throw out on the guitar while he was singing simultaneously; gorgeous, intuitive call-and-response with himself. It's musicianship of an incredibly high order."
English guitar hero Richard Thompson: "We played with Hendrix on several occasions. My old band (Fairport Convention) used to plat at 2 a.m. at the Speakeasy (club) in London, and Hendrix would be happily drinking. Then he'd come up and say: 'Mind if I sit in with you chaps?' And we'd say: 'Gosh, it's Jimi Hendrix. Of course, you can sit in. We weren't going to say no! This extremely handsome, suave, black geezer jumps on stage, and we were a bunch of pale, pseudo-intellectual British suburbanites, just out of school. He could play anything, left-handed, right-handed, it didn't make much difference. And he was a very sweet guy."