So, how did Jimi Hendrix learn guitar? Hendrix was self taught and learned to play by ear. Being left-handed, he taught himself to play a right-handed guitar by holding it upside down.
Jimi Hendrix learned a lot about how to play by watching and listening to other guitar players such as Elvis Presley, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Robert Johnson. This in and of itself was not an uncommon way to learn new stuff and get inspiration, but Hendrix was a natural when it came to the guitar. Every now and again there comes a musician that seems limitless and bound by no rules. Jimi Hendrix was that kind of guy.
Let’s take a deeper look at the guitarist many call the best guitarist of all time and how he learned and played the guitar and became one of the most influential and innovative guitarists ever.
Jimi Hendrix’s first guitar was a broomstick. He would play it at his elementary school – and everywhere he went. His elementary school’s social worker often saw him mimicking his broomstick as a guitar and viewed it as something that gave Hendrix security- much like a baby holding a blanket.
The social worker told Hendrix’s father that a guitar could benefit the child, but his father rejected that notion and refused to buy him one. When Hendrix was in high school, he found his first string instrument – a one-string ukulele – in a garbage pile.
Hendrix held on to that ukulele learning to play by ear by listening to other guitar players. He would play single notes on that thing until he purchased his first acoustic guitar when he was 15 years old.
Like the ukulele, Hendrix would play the guitar for hours by ear, mimicking his favorite guitarists and playing themes from various television shows. The first television theme he learned was the theme from Peter Gunn. He learned quickly to tune one string while playing to help achieve certain pitches and tones, giving his instrument a wider note range than a typical guitar. He once said the guitar spoke for him, conveying emotions and feelings he couldn’t express verbally.
It’s interesting to note his first instrument was a one-string ukulele. Pretty crazy when you think about it. Hendrix would listen to different songs to develop a rhythm and tone, and so in essence he developed time and rhythm with a one-string instrument.
Jimi Hendrix’s tone was a combination of highly melodic style and arrangements with ligatures, bendings, vibratos, and other special techniques he used to make the guitar play in its unique way.
Hendrix would carefully select string gauges to balance the guitar’s response from string to string. The gauge of a string affected the way it could be played, and by veering from typical guages, Hendrix pushed the boundaries on how the instrument could sound.
As a left-handed guitarist who played a right-handed guitar, Hendrix would restring his guitar. This meant of course that the thickest string now beacame the longest, and vice versa. Also, the strings position relative to the pickups would change. This sure helped to produce a unique sound, separating Hendrix from other performing artists of the era. He was able to move his hand faster, hit notes differently, and have a better range of motion than other musicians. Hendrix would often tune the guitar down a semitone.
All of these factors lead to a unique, rhythmic sound that pushed the boundaries of what it meant to be a guitarist. Rather than simply adding color and vibrance to a song, the guitar became a way to keep rhythm and build a song’s foundation.
Another factor in Hendrix’s guitar playing was his love for science fiction. Hendrix would make his guitar emulate the vibe of his favorite genre, with bright sounds, dark rhythms, and sound effects one might hear in a sci-fi movie. Some say his use and interest in these outlandish and sometimes psychadelic and very experimental tones could be attributed to his use of LSD, but I leave that aside.
He was also very freeform and would often improvise quite a bit. Hendrix understood techniques, but he didn’t live by them. His vision and creativity for the song dictated how the guitar played, not the basic techniques.
Jimi Hendrix was known to embellish the chords that gave him his unique sound, like that heard in his song, “Little Wing.”
Another characteristic of Jimi Hendrix’s playing was the chords he used. He would combine chords with or without open strings – we can hear this in his song “Purple Haze.” Or what about that “Hendrix chord”? The classic Hendrix Chord is properly called E7#9, or technically Eb7#9, since Hendrix tuned a semitone flat on most recordings. Sounds crazy good, and emulated since by millions of players.
Hendrix was heavily influenced by jazz and R&B artists, and was one of the first to use the augmented ninth chord among rock artists.
Hendrix used and took advantage of almost all the scales. One of his favorite scales was of course the blues scale, often played over E.
Vibrato And Bends
Hendrix sure loved to bend those guitar strings, and like so many other great guitar players his vibratos and bends defined his sound in a big way. He used both to the fullest extent to express the sounds and colors he wanted the guitar to make.
Hendrix would also use vibrato while using the tremolo bar, as heard in his arrangement on “Voodoo Chile.”
He incorporated unison bends quite a lot. So he would play two strings and bend the lower string to reach the same tone as the higher string – this was a popular Hendrix style that was duplicated by many.
Jimi Hendrix would often use his thumb to close the sixth chord. He used his fingers on the fretboard for voicing the chords, which expanded the sounds, while pressing the sixth string with his thumb.
Hendrix had large hands that allowed him to place his thumb around the neck of the instrument. He would play the bass notes with his thumb and the treble strings with his fingers, creating unique sounds. Not to mention the use of his teeth sometimes, which just goes to show the level of showmanship this man possessed.
Another typical Hendrix sound would be how he made flowing sounds by sliding or dragging the ninth chords higher and lower. This can be heard in “Castles Made of Sand” and “Little Wing.”
Some other techniques he used included what is known as “folding the bass.” Hendrix would play the same chords as the bass player.
Nuff said. The wah pedal was one of Hendrix’s favorite pieces of equipment, and it soon became very synonymous with that colorful Hendrix tone. We can hear the wah-wah clearly on Voodoo Chile.
Fuzz And Volume Knob
Hendrix took full advantage of both the fuzz pedal (which became quite poular in the 1960’s) and volume knob. This produced a loud sound that complimented the distortion of the fuzz pedal, making the guitar easy to hear despite the altered tone produced by the pedal.
How did Hendrix learn guitar? Hendrix was a musical genius. He truly used the guitar to it’s full potential, and became one with it to get the exact sounds he sought. He was able to make the guitar play how he wanted it to play. He produced sounds from the guitar that were in his head and heart. This made him totally unique.
He was an artist who painted a picture, a designer who laid out a pattern, and an architect who wrote a diagram or plan. Hendrix had a special relationship with his guitar. Although he was technical in his playing, he was also very imaginative and creative. He made the guitar play the colors he saw in his head, and the sounds he heard. His guitar playing was full of colors, not just techniques, which made him stand out and above the rest.
Jimi Hendrix was a guitar player in a class of his own. He understood notes and theory but didn’t let it dictate his playing. He taught himself the basics and then followed his heart and inspiration, and in doing so invented a style of playing that broke new ground, and has since been duplicated and admired by millions.