The 6 string electric guitar had been an icon in rock and roll for over 40 years when I got my hands on it, and I took for granted that it always was as it currently is. To a trained ear, the sound of the guitar had gone through somewhat massive metamorphoses over the decades, but that didn’t matter when I was 13. When something first enters your life at that age, it has no past. Everything about it is fresh and new, and it has all come into being just now. I soon figured out that the electric guitar is much older than I am, and my partnership with it was just one of many partnerships it had. It’s a player; it had broken the hearts of many young lads before me.

This universal aspect the guitar has to it just makes what Jimi Hendrix did that much more mind-blowing. Jimi played the player. He took the 6-string and mastered it. His was the reverse of my relationship with it; I did its bidding, but it did his.

The story of the 6 string took a major and permanent turn when Jimi got a hold of it. It took on a power, force and volume that no one had heard from it before. It was rather simple, but most genius innovations involve a simple idea. He knew that there was more potential for power to run through the guitar, so much that one amplifier couldn’t hold it. Jimi’s idea broke down into “why don’t we just use more than one amp?”

Pete Townshend and Jimi Hendrix

Pete Townshend of the Who told a story about when he met Jimi Hendrix for the first time. Jimi had come to a Who show and liked it very much. Their wild abandon and lack of restraint appealed to him. When Jimi introduced himself to Pete after the show, they were talking shop for a bit. Jimi asked Pete what kind of amp he used, and Pete told him about his model. Jimi nodded his head and said, “I think I’ll give it a try.” Later, Pete went to a Jimi Hendrix Experience show. He found that Jimi had taken him up on his recommendation, but he wasn’t just using one of his amps; he was using four – at the same time.

This was where the idea for the Marshall stack came from. One amp was no longer enough for those who could afford it. Marshall amps (I don’t know why it was that particular brand; I don’t think that was the brand that Pete and Jimi were discussing) were just run one into another, and the multiple amps were “stacked” one on top of the previous  ‘til they became a literal mountain of sound. It was both sonically powerful and visually intimidating.

Jimi Hendrix - Are You Experienced - 5/12/1967

That power and charge are present from the very first second of Are You Experienced. That’s the most remarkable thing about “Purple Haze.” It’s a splendid lead-off track because it’s an indicator to the rest of the album. It has a kind of wild abandon from the beginning. Jimi is singing lyrics that say he’s out of control, lost, blind, and in unknown territory. But he sings them with an excited and even victorious voice, and says he’s just gotta “kiss the sky.”

“Manic Depression” follows; the power is different but not lesser. It’s a nervous, tension-filled power. In harmony with that emotional tone, the lyrics are about a mental anguish that can only be relieved by music. While the lyrics speak of a man in turmoil, Jimi’s voice suggests something different. He’s laconic and breezy, like he’s not quite taking this seriously.

On Monday: Jimi’s goin’ down to shoot his ol’ lady…

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