Unless you’ve been living under a rock recently you will have heard that Jimi Hendrix has been all over the news on account of a legal dispute over one of his guitars. As luck would have it – and because it seemed serendipitous – I nabbed a quick chat with a very anonymous buyer who owns the black Monterey Stratocaster Hendrix used back in the day and asked him: what is it like to own one of the great man’s guitars?
Can you tell me a bit about the guitar you own and its importance?
The guitar appears to have been one of Hendrix’s favourite instruments during a key stage of his career and used in some of his most important performances.
One of the most iconic photographs of Hendrix has him smiling, wearing his famous Hussars style army braided jacket – with a medallion around his neck, and playing this particular guitar. It’s Jim Marshall’s photo and one of my absolute favourites of Hendrix.
Other ultra iconic images of Hendrix playing at Monterey with his arm in the air – and the Whisky A Go Go photo used on the cover of the Live at Winterland Album – and also the colour enhanced photo used on the original BBC Sessions album cover – well those are all of Hendrix playing this actual guitar.
Until mid 1967 Hendrix didn’t have as many guitars as people might guess – in fact relying principally on 3 or 4 instruments total. As we know his stage show quickly evolved to include smashing (or appearing to smash) instruments and amplifiers, and then even burning instruments. But it’s clear he went out of his way not to smash up or burn this particular guitar.
In fact, his show was more carefully orchestrated than might first appear. For example – speaking with the chap who used to run the Saville Theatre – they would use thinner more easily breakable wood on Mitch Mitchell’s drum riser, so when they kicked the kit at the end of the show, it would really appear to completely collapse. Also, Hendrix would often perform with a bunch of amps behind him – several of these were dummy cabinets which looked normal on the outside but had no internal speakers, tubes or parts.
These were the amps he’d stick his guitar through, tearing the outside tolex material, but not really causing expensive damage.
The same goes for the guitars he burned or smashed. Where possible his management and road team Gerry Stickles and Chas Chandler would salvage parts of these guitars, repair them and re-use them. But, this was one guitar Hendrix never smashed or burned. There are some intimate photos of him using the same guitar at home – unplugged – to write with.
One of the Saville Theatre show’s in London was extremely important to Hendrix’s career because it’s where he first covered Sgt Peppers just a couple of days after it was released. Paul McCartney was in the audience and was suitably blown away. Soon after McCartney was contacted by John Philips of the Mamas and Papas who was one of the organisers of the Monterey Pop Festival. He contacted McCartney to ask if The Beatles would play at the festival, but because of recording commitments that was not possible. Instead McCartney recommended Hendrix as a headline act.
The thing to understand is that Hendrix was effectively unknown in his native USA at this point. Before coming the London, he’d been a backup guitarist and side-man for a range of US R&B stars including James Brown, Isley Brothers and Little Richard but he was unknown as an artist in his own right. So, understandably, when McCartney recommended Hendrix John Philips said “Hendrix who’s that?…we’ll look into it”. To which McCartney replied “yeah…look into it!”.
Fortunately for Jimi, Philips headed McCartney’s advice and booked the unknown Jimi Hendrix Experience as one of the headline acts at Monterey. To this day McCartney recounts that story at his gigs and in interviews, especially how honoured he was to have the great Hendrix cover Sgt Pepper that way. And this was the actual guitar he used for that performance.
When Hendrix played Monterey – which was basically the world’s first rock festival – he blew everyone away; he redefined the way a contemporary black artist could look. He was more freakish and ‘out-there’ looking than any of the other acts or anyone in the audience. Whereas at the time most black artists – even the greats like Otis Reading, whose Monterey performance was stellar – were still wearing suits and had a particular R&B look; Hendrix was utterly unique and individual, with tremendous style.
So, Hendrix comes out wearing feathers, a painted jacket and neon orange ruffled shirt – and that was just his look. Whereas he was somewhat known on the London and UK scene, in the US people didn’t know that he would do what he did. When he played with his teeth, behind his back, under his leg and also played such mind-blowing music, well that just left his audience gob-smacked. The Experience’s set was out of this world. To top it off he burned his guitar at the end of the set during the last number Wild Thing.What makes this particular black Strat so important is it’s the very instrument Hendrix used at both the Saville theatre to play Sgt Peppers and for the Monterey performance, before swapping the guitar for a somewhat inferior instrument he’d hand painted and then set fire to.
After Monterey Hendrix’s management quickly released his current album and a couple of singles in America and they started selling well in the US. He then played at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco and the Whiskey A Go Go in LA and this was the same guitar he used for all those great performances.
At the end of the ill-fated Monkeys tour Hendrix played a stadium in New York and again used this guitar.
Towards the end of 1967, after the 66 CBS purchase of Fender guitars, Hendrix swapped over to mostly preferring maple fret board Strats – of course he used many other guitars too. But – for this particularly important period in Hendrix’s career – where he became a national star in the USA – all available evidence indicates this was one of his favourite instruments for live performances.
What’s the guitar like and have you ever played it? Did you feel guilty for playing it 😉
Any guitarist – maybe even any musician – knows their instrument is important. My own day to day favourite Stratocaster is a really personal item. I’ve sweated over it – my fingers have literally bled on it – and I’ve held it tenderly; I’ve tried to pour out my emotions when playing it.
When a legendary master like Hendrix has a preferred guitar, someone who played the hell out of it and poured out the entire gamut of human emotions over their instrument.
Well, you can bet that instrument has picked up some sort of indefatigable Voodoo and much Mojo.
The guitar is simply awesome. It radiates a special Hendrix vibe. That may sound crazy – but it’s wooden and so as a natural material it feels like it has soaked up its history.
And, because Hendrix was so intimate with this guitar and used it so much, it just has that aura about it.
Yes, I have played it – and playing it means I now know what it’s like to play such a magical – almost mythically and impossibly important to comprehend – electric guitar.
I did not feel guilty about playing it at all – just extraordinarily excited. Also, because it’s still strung for a left handed player I couldn’t really play it properly. Unlike Jimi who could literally turn a guitar upside down and still play the hell out of it – I play right handed – so, only managed a few chords and left it at that.
Do you plan on keeping hold of it or do you plan to sell it?Watch this space!
Why did you buy it in the first place?
First and foremost because I love Hendrix. He’s my musical hero and I am somewhat obsessed with his music and playing.
It was one of those once in a lifetime opportunities that was just too good to pass up. Also, it is a definite investment and has already increased in price around tenfold, since the time I acquired it.
It’s been a complete pleasure and exciting to be involved with such a special item like an important Hendrix guitar. Well – any Hendrix guitar would be exciting – but this one… did I mention it’s Hendrix’s black Monterey Strat…..I mean FFS I’m grinning just writing this and thinking about it. I never dreamed as a teenager that I’d ever get to touch a guitar like that – let alone look after it and be involved with it! Through involvement with this guitar I’ve met so many incredible people, traveled to such interesting countries and places and had some extraordinary experiences.
It is on display at the Grammy museum in LA. Why?
First and foremost so that as many other people can see it as possible. So far it’s been at the Handle House Museum in London and the Experience Music Project EMP in Seattle, where it was on display for a year.
It wouldn’t seem right to me – as a fan – to just keep it in a vault or on a wall and not have other people who also love Hendrix, get to see it close up. The Grammy Museum is an excellent place and they really know and respect their music and important items like this guitar. It could have gone to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland – but that’s really out of the way and cold, compared to LA which just gets so many visitors. In fact the Victoria and Albert Museum in London contacted me and asked if they could display it in a new exhibition they are planning next year. So, having this guitar seen by as many people as possible means that if one day I do sell it – I can hopefully look back at my time with it fondly and say to myself – at least I looked after it well and did the right thing with it for all the other fans out there and for the next generation.
What can you tell us about the guitar that is less well known?
The neck is particularly amazing; hard to explain but the quality of the wood and the grain really struck me. Holding it close up you see all these swirls, especially on the head-stock and back of the neck. It’s just a really nice piece. I like to think Hendrix selected and for a time preferred this one guitar because he especially liked it too.
So there you go! How insider-knowledge was that!!!
I’m back to writing about Japanese death metal soon but if you have any questions or just want to hang out and chat I can be reached in the comments or on Twatter.
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