The Hendrix Effect
Jimi Hendrix is probably the number one cited guitarist when it comes to influencing in the guitar world. Despite his short stint in the limelight his creativity, playing style and experimental tendencies resulted in a legacy that continues to ring out today. Hendrix has been acknowledged as one of the guitar’s greatest players by legends in their own right, Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton and his expressive style and showmanship changed the music world forever. His blending of the rhythm and lead styles helped to generate his own unique sound as heard on ‘Little Wing’ and ‘The Wind Cries Mary’, with his incredible chordal playing and embellishments completely throwing out the rule book on those traditional roles of the guitarist.
Many guitar players prior to the arrival of Hendrix were known for their technique, plenty of players played pentatonic licks, huge bends and wide-ranging vibrato but Hendrix took these and dialled them to eleven. His range of bends was frankly insane – unison bends, harmony bends, exchange bends, pre-bends he wrote the book for string bending in modern guitar, sometimes utilising all of these techniques in a single phrase! His vibrato was unrivalled, different from the rapid-fire delivery of BB King, his was wide and long, hugely influencing many guitarists that followed him.
Guitar, Amps and Effects
Hendrix used a variety of pedals, guitars and amps over his career but he is most well known for his iconic white Strat strung upside down, his feedback-inducing fuzz, articulate wah and custom-designed octave pedal alongside the warm wash of his Uni-Vibe. In this article, we’ll look at the effects that defined his sound and give you the knowledge on how to recreate the legendary Hendrix sound. Whilst we can tell you what gear he used, this isn’t going to make you play like the man himself. For that, you’ll need to study his recordings, phrasing and technique but incredible playing technique aside, this article will give you the best start in getting as close as possible to his distinctive and iconic sound.
Hendrix is most well known for his white Stratocaster, despite playing a wide variety of guitars throughout his career including SGs, Flying Vs, Les Pauls and Jaguars. He strung a right-handed guitar upside down as he played lefty, which in itself contributed to hugely to his unique sound. The pickups were upside down and angled differently to what you’d get on a typically strung Strat and thus the staggered pickup poles were also reversed, changing the harmonic qualities of the guitar. The string order also changed the string lengths behind the nut resulting in altered sustain, also contributing to his unique sound. Hendrix flipped the nut of his guitar to accommodate the upside-down restring but left everything else the same, including the placement of the whammy bar, which allegedly influenced Stevie Ray Vaughn, a huge fan of Hendrix, to install a left-handed tremolo block on his guitar.
If you want Hendrix tone then a Strat is undoubtedly the best place to start. The imagery of Hendrix with a Stratocaster playing at Woodstock in front of a million people is most likely the reason the Strat has become such an icon in the guitar world. A tremolo is a necessity and a maple neck was the preferred choice of the man himself, although it’s difficult to find this on a budget range guitar. A white finish for complete looks to match the feel and you’re ready to rock those rapid-fire pentatonic licks and huge bends!
The Hendrix legend goes hand in hand with Marshall amplification. Although he used various amps in the studio, in a live scenario it was pretty rare to see him with anything other than a Marshall stack. For his iconic Woodstock performance, Hendrix used a 1959 JTM 100-Super Lead with no master volume or channel switching. It was powered by three 12 AX7 and four EL34 valves, the classic combination from the much-loved ‘Plexi’ amplifier. He combined this with two 4×12 Marshall cabs to deliver his great tube tone by the bucketload. Later in his career, he used three of these Super Lead Heads in unison, each with their own 4×12 cab to help him generate a loud and overdriven sound.
A tube amp is vital to recreating Hendrix’s tone as he used his pedals in conjunction with a heavily driven tube amplifier, hence all that glorious feedback and glassy cleans. Hendrix was known to crank everything on his amplifier for live shows, controlling the output by riding the volume and tone knobs of his guitar. It’s also prudent to note that a lot of the Hendrix sound comes from the amp in combination with the effects pedals and that in his heyday no two Marshall amps would be the same, so you may need to tweak the amp settings of your own amp to get close to what Hendrix achieved.
Hendrix became synonymous with the wah effect thanks to ‘Voodoo Child (Slight Return)’ with its intro guitar becoming one of the most recognised bits of wah guitar, and the song itself being a goal for many a burgeoning guitarist thereafter. He predominantly used VOX wahs during his career but was also known to use the Cry Baby alongside many other famous guitarists over the years. For less well-known uses of the wah effect, check out ‘Burning of the Midnight Lamp’ with its wacky harpsichord intro and the funky classic ‘Ezy Ryder’ which was released posthumously.
The Octavia was custom made for Hendrix by his sound technician Roger Mayer. Hendrix preferred to call it the Octavio hence why you find this pedal under two different names but they do the same thing, mixing an octave higher with the original guitar signal and some fuzz distortion, it’s the iconic sound you’ve heard on the ‘Purple Haze’ solo as well as ‘One Rainy Wish’ and ‘We Gotta Live Together’ and it became a key component in his sound from 1967 onwards. Between them, Mayer and Hendrix tried out multiple versions of the Octavia as they were constantly seeking to improve upon the design by switching out different components and trying different configurations. Sometimes the Octavia pedals would only last a week before they got an update and according to Mayer himself, they went through ‘at least 15 variations’ in less than a year!
Fuzz distortion is a vital element to any Hendrix tone seeker. Used to add more dirt to the front of his amp Hendrix was well known for purchasing multiple Fuzz Face pedals before settling on one that he liked. Due to the manufacturing quality of older guitar pedals, small differences resulted in different sounding pedals and it was not uncommon for Hendrix to get rid of a Fuzz Face if he didn’t like the way it performed in a certain live venue. Due to its low input impedance, the Fuzz Face was very sensitive to the guitar pickup, which served Hendrix style of riding the volume control on his guitar well, as he could go from warm break up to all-out sonic chaos without having to adjust the pedal itself. Another feature of the Fuzz Face is that it tends not to ‘play nice’ with other effects, particularly the wah effect. Hendrix utilised this troubled pairing to create some wild sounds in his quest for unheard sonic soundscapes.
The Uni-Vibe was manufactured to recreate the sound of a rotating Leslie speaker without having to cart around the notoriously heavy unit. Unfortunately, it didn’t do a very good job of recreating the sound of a Leslie, but by happy mistake became a staple for guitar players who loved the unique sound that it made. Hendrix famously used the effect on ‘Machine Gun’ and although it was genuine Leslie used in the studio recording, Hendrix would often use the Uni-Vibe for live performances of the guitar classic ‘Little Wing’. Despite the fact that it’s classed as Chorus/Vibrato effect, the Uni-Vibe is actually a phasing effect created by putting the guitar signal through a staggered series of phasing filters, which is what gives the thick, swirling wash of guitar sound when you plug one of these iconic pedals in. Dave Gilmour and Robin Trower are both known afficionados of this pedal, but Hendrix, as was so often the case in his career, is widely considered the purveyor of the effect.
A few things to note now that we’ve reached the end of the Hendrix gear mainstays. The first is that it’s quite widely purported that a coiled cable is essential to getting the Hendrix tone. Due to the way they’re produced, coiled cables remove a lot of the higher frequencies, resulting in a reduced brightness. When you use a straight cable it will retain more of the higher frequencies so you may find that the tones don’t match when trying to recreate this iconic tone. Of course, you can nullify this effect by adjusting the EQ settings on your amp and guitar to compensate if you don’t have or aren’t interested in a coiled cable.
The second, and most important of all is playstyle. A lot of people say that tone is in your hands and they’re not wrong. Hendrix’s vibrato and string bending technique are legendary, as well as his rhythmic foundation gained whilst sessioning with R&B bands and this all came about through practice. Hendrix was known to practice constantly, carrying a guitar everywhere he went, to the point that he’d even show up at other people’s performances with his guitar! So if you want to play like the man himself, be prepared to put in some hours nailing his technique and unusual phrasing.
There’s no questioning that Hendrix is the most influential guitarist of our time. In his era nobody had really gone past guitar-cable-amplifier and although by today’s standards his pedalboard would seem miniscule, at the time he was really pushing the boat out in his sonic experimentation. Although you don’t need many pedals to get the base level Hendrix tone, you will need to put in the hours if you want to play like this legend of the guitar world.
Get the Gear
You can shop the full range of MXR Jimi Hendrix pedal on our website.
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Matt is a multi-instrumentalist, music geek and current Content Creator at Dawsons Music. He composes, records and produces out of his home studio in Manchester as well as playing in two bands, China Moon and Sawbones.