the jimi hendrix experience - are you experienced [uk] (album cover)When I was in high school, I bought the 1997 CD reissue of Are You Experienced with six extra tracks — some from the UK version — added to pad out the album. I had no idea the original album was only eleven tracks long, a fact I remained ignorant of for several years. I was absolutely shocked to discover that “Hey Joe,” “Purple Haze” and “The Wind Cries Mary” didn’t appear on the UK version. Those are three of Hendrix’s most definitive songs, and for them not to have appeared on his debut is just incomprehensible. Of course, there actually is a perfectly reasonable explanation: “Hey Joe,” “Purple Haze” and “The Wind Cries Mary” were released as singles in the UK on December 16, 1966; March 17, 1967; and May 5, 1967; respectively, before Are You Experienced was released on May 12, 1967. And the standard practice in the UK was to keep tracks on single releases separate from tracks on LP releases.

the jimi hendrix experience - hey joe (single cover)As for Jimi’s history in America, Are You Experienced wasn’t released until August 16, 1967, after setting fire to his guitar at the famous Monterey Pop Festival the preceding June. Jimi grew up here in America — in Seattle of all places — and after a stint in the US Army, he struggled for a bit trying to make it as a musician until he met Animals bassist Chas Chandler, who was looking for someone to manage. He took Hendrix with him to London and formed The Jimi Hendrix Experience with two English musicians, guitarist Noel Redding on bass and Mitch Mitchell on drums. “Hey Joe” was released in America on May 1, 1967, and when Jimi stole the show in Monterey with his legendary performance on June 18, “Purple Haze” was released here the next day, with “The Wind Cries Mary” as its B-side.

Are You Experienced was immensely popular at the time, as Hendrix brought along a wave of psychedelia during the Summer of Love as he reentered the United States. When he left with Chandler for England, he, along with every other Black person, was a second-class citizen in his home country, but when he returned, he was a conquering hero. And though his reign was very short, no one has toppled his prowess on the guitar. It’s ridiculous how good this guy was and the kinds of things he was doing back then. He completely changed the way a guitar could sound. Much gets written about the way he uses distortion and whatnot, but I think what gets lost is that not many guitarists were playing Fender Stratocasters back then, and if they were, they certainly weren’t overdriving their naturally clean twang the way Jimi was. That’s why Hendrix sounds so fresh. It’s “noisy,” but it sounds great.

cream - sunshine of your love / swlabr (single cover)Eric Clapton played Stratocasters too when he was in the Yardbirds in the early ’60s, but in the mid- to late ’60s, he played mostly Gibsons, and he developed what is now known as the “woman tone” for a lot of his work with Cream. When I learned how to play guitar in college, it was on my roommate’s Strat, but when it came time to getting my own guitar, I opted for an Epiphone Les Paul. (Epiphone is the “lite” version of Gibson, like Squier is to Fender.) Somehow, Cream’s song “Sunshine of Your Love” has always been the song for me while I have messed around on the guitar over the years. And I could tell that when I played it on my roommate’s Strat, I wasn’t getting the sound right, since Clapton didn’t record “Sunshine” with a Strat. He used that thick Gibson sound, and that was the sound I wanted when I bought my own guitar.

cream - disraeli gears (album cover)Clapton has used Marshall amps throughout his career, I believe, so when I had to choose what kind of amp to buy I went with one of those. (If he hasn’t used them throughout his career, he certainly uses them now.) It took me a while to nail down what has since been dubbed the “woman tone” that Clapton uses, but I eventually figured out that if I turned the tone all the way down, I could come pretty close to achieving that sound on “Sunshine of Your Love.” I remember reading in Clapton’s autobiography that he felt that Are You Experienced completely overshadowed Disraeli Gears, the excellent album for which “Sunshine of Your Love” was recorded. Interestingly enough, Clapton was back to playing Strats again by the end of the decade, and ever since he and the Stratocaster have been pretty much inseparable.

I still hope to buy a Strat sometime, when I have the money for a really nice one. I figured I wouldn’t go all out for my first guitar, and I didn’t want to buy a cheap Stratocaster only to be disappointed to the point where I bought another more expensive Strat somewhere down the line. For a first guitar, the cherry sunburst Epiphone Les Paul I got has more than done the job. But if I want to step up my game to sound like Hendrix, I suppose at some point I’ll have to invest in a Strat. And lots more practice. But it’s really the ideas that shine through more than the technique (or the guitar brand). Just listen to the helicopter attack of the title track or the scintillating opening to “Foxey Lady” for proof. Actually, the hoopla wouldn’t have been nearly as pronounced if the songs themselves weren’t so damn good.