Jimi Hendrix is, without question, one of the greatest musical artists the world has ever known. Even his bio in The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame states he is “…arguably the greatest instrumentalist in the history of rock music.” So what made Jimi Hendrix so good at guitar?
Here’s what I know being a guitar player and fan:
Jimi Hendrix became so good at guitar by playing it every day for hours as a means of escaping a turbulent home life. And he also took lessons and inspiration from famed guitarist Billy Davis. But, Hendrix’s unique tone was achieved, in part, by stringing a right-handed guitar backward and playing it left-handed.
His impressive collection of awards and accolades testify to his skill and influence.
Hendrix exploded onto the rock and roll scene at a young age. His musical career was brief, but that doesn’t mean it was forgettable.
Hendrix’s short career shook the world and changed the face of rock and roll forever. He redefined the genre he loved and left a trail of influence that many others have followed.
Jimi Hendrix, age 15 pic.twitter.com/gbs5e8IKQ9
— Stallion Dunquis (@stainedglassFM) April 3, 2021
How did Jimi Hendrix get so good at guitar?
Endless practicing is what helped make Jimi Hendrix a great guitar player. Hendrix often hid in his home to avoid his alcoholic parents and played for hours every day, teaching himself Elvis Presley songs initially on a 1-string ukulele and then on an acoustic guitar.
So many factors were at play in shaping Hendrix’s musical talent and career. One of these factors is, sadly, his tragic past and childhood.
It is no secret that some of the greatest geniuses in any field have baggage.
This is especially true in the world of art. It seems that tragedy often forces individuals to find something that can both heal them and act as an outlet for their grief.
Hendrix grew up in a poor home with parents who turned to alcohol to cope.
They often became violent, and Hendrix found himself hiding in his own home frequently. At an early age, he attached himself to the idea of a guitar, carrying around a broomstick in place of the real thing. This was somehow a psychological comfort to him.
When he was 15, he found an old ukulele with a single string. He began teaching himself how to play, most often attempting to recreate Elvis Presley songs.
Soon after, Hendrix got his first acoustic guitar.
It is partly adversity that made him so skilled with a guitar. When a guitar is one of your only possessions and one of the few things that give you hope, you will learn everything about it that you can. Hendrix was obsessed.
Ultimately, Hendrix got so good at guitar because he practiced all the time.
Jimi Hendrix by Ed Caraeff 📸
In 1967, Ed Caraeff attended the Monterey Pop Festival, where he took the iconic photo of Hendrix burning his guitar. While Caraeff had never heard of Hendrix before, a German photographer advised him, “Save some film for this Jimi Hendrix cat.” pic.twitter.com/pv5SD1jeVj
— Pigeons & Planes (@PigsAndPlans) August 18, 2021
Was Jimi Hendrix left-handed?
Jimi Hendrix was indeed left-handed. However, his parents forced him to learn to play right-handed, but he eventually learned to play both left and right-handed.
Current estimates show that about 1 in 10 people are left-handed.
This isn’t a lot, but back in the mid-1900s, when Hendrix was growing up, it appeared to be even less common. Left-handed people were not as accepted as they are now, and schools and parents used to force children to be right-handed.
There are most likely many famous artists throughout history who were left-handed but were trained out of it. Jimi Hendrix might not be well known for his left-handedness due to the culture he grew up in, but this attribute may have contributed to his skill at guitar.
Hendrix eventually learned to play the guitar both left-handedly and right-handedly.
This gave him a powerful command of the instrument. He could play it front to back, so to speak. He knew the ins and outs of a guitar and could expertly glide his hands to any position.
Jimi Hendrix performing at Woodstock (1969) pic.twitter.com/lSgYjH2BZ7
— Agnes (@AgaAgnes666) April 6, 2021
Did Jimi Hendrix string his guitar backwards?
Yes, Jimi Hendrix strung his guitar backward. He used a right-handed guitar but reversed the order of the strings so that he could play it left-handedly.
Hendrix is most associated with playing the Fender Stratocaster guitar.
It was on this guitar that he also reversed the strings so that he could strum with his left hand. This led to the guitar producing a unique sound that was different from even a left-handed guitar.
By reversing the strings on a right-handed Stratocaster, Hendrix had made something new. The rear pickup on a Stratocaster is at an angle so that it captures the higher strings closer to their base. For Hendrix, the reversal of the strings led to the higher strings being captured further up along the guitar.
This changed the traditional sound of the guitar. The higher strings had a less piercing tone than they normally had when strummed on a traditionally strung guitar.
Hendrix stringing his guitar backward also changed the length of the strings.
The highest strings are also the longest on a traditional setup, so when the strings are reversed, the highest strings become the shortest. This means that when tuning the guitar, the highest strings could now be much looser and still stay in tune.
This allowed Hendrix to strum them more fluidly and quickly, which was often essential to his style of play.
“When I die, just keep playing the records.” – Jimi Hendrix pic.twitter.com/xqOU2Y1KAu
— Artists & Fans (@MySocialPoint) April 4, 2021
Why didn’t Jimi Hendrix use a left-handed guitar?
Jimi Hendrix didn’t use a left-handed guitar when he started out because his parents wanted him to learn to play right-handed. Being left-handed was frowned upon by society more, and left-handed guitars were harder to find.
Throughout history, the left side of things has been seen as evil and unlucky.
Long ago, left-handed people were thought to be demon-possessed and were either sent to a priest for healing or completely rejected. Sadly, this prejudice still continued to the mid-1900s when Hendrix was growing up.
Schools and parents would try to force children to only use their right hand because this was perceived as proper. Hendrix’s father, Al, was especially opposed to him using his right hand.
His father would only allow him to play the guitar the traditional way: strumming with his right hand. Therefore, Hendrix had to restring his guitars.
In addition to a traditionalist father who despised left-handedness, Hendrix used a right-handed guitar because that was all he could find. Left-handed guitars are still somewhat rare today.
But they were virtually non-existent back when Hendrix was learning to play.
Since the culture only catered to right-handed people, there was no business sense in producing or selling left-handed guitars. By the time Hendrix could find and afford a left-handed guitar, he had already become accustomed to his right-handed guitar with the strings reversed.
Who was Jimi Hendrix’s guitar teacher?
While Jimi Hendrix was largely self-taught, he did learn invaluable skills from guitarist Billy Davis whom he met when he was 16.
Billy Davis was a skilled guitarist who had an energetic and quirky presence on stage.
He would jump and spin all over the stage while playing and was known for the odd talent of playing his guitar with his teeth.
Jimi Hendrix was 16 when he met Billy Davis while Davis was on tour with Hank Ballard. Davis let Hendrix play his guitar. This was the first time Hendrix had played an electric guitar, which would later become a staple of his style.
Davis was impressed with Hendrix’s talent and passion. Whatever Billy would show him, Hendrix would practice until he had perfected it.
Hendrix also adopted some of Davis’s stage habits such as playing his guitar behind his back and playing his guitar with his teeth. Hendrix, in part, owes the development of his signature style and movement to Billy Davis.
Jimi Hendrix was a genius with a guitar.
His career was short but influential. He was a man born into adversity, but he channeled his hardship into his guitar and was a better player for it.
Hendrix’s left-handedness helped him become a better player as well. By learning to play the guitar with both hands, he developed a deeper understanding of the instrument. Stringing his guitars backward also led to a unique sound.
Jimi Hendrix also owes some of his skill to Billy Davis. Davis taught him new tricks and techniques, and Davis gave Hendrix the opportunity to play an electric guitar for the first time.
Photo which requires attribution:
Jimi Hendrix Park by Seattle Parks and Recreation is licensed under CC2.0 and was cropped, edited, and had a text and graphic overlay added