Billy Gibbons is on the other end of the telephone, and there's a long, pensive moment of silence between thoughts. He's discussing the one and only Jimi Hendrix, rock's true original, the pioneer who not only dazzled his fellow musicians with virtuosity and groundbreaking technological advances, but offered an image and simple presence that, more than three decades after his death, still defines the term "guitar god."
The question to Gibbons, who toured with Hendrix in a band called Moving Sidewalks in pre-ZZ Top days: Where would Hendrix have gone musically had he lived longer than his 27 years?
"I think what probably would have unfolded," Gibbons surmises in his slow Texas drawl, "would be the inspection of deeper forms of composition -- things that were well within the jazz domain. But he would have created a kind of music that would have demanded the invention of a new genre title. I couldn't see him slipping into something that would have been easily identified."
It's no secret that Hendrix had a well-rounded blues-rock education. He loved the single-chord boogie of John Lee Hooker, the elaborate Delta stylings of Robert Johnson (like Johnson, Hendrix had remarkably long fingers), the raw power of Muddy Waters, and the piercing bends of B.B. King.
But he gave the blues an entirely new twist, playing with a noisy, immediate fury and making feedback and distortion consistent components of the guitar repertoire. Some, like Robby Krieger of the Doors, marveled at his skill to combine disparate elements simultaneously. "What amazed me most was his ability to play and sing at the same time," he says. "I always thought of him as just coming from outer space, because he was just so different. He just came from such a left-field place."
Others, like Chicago blues legend Buddy Guy, couldn't help but wonder where all the magic came from. "Since he was a left-handed guitar player, it was kinda hard to follow," remembers Guy. "He just wanted to jam. We probably jammed together between six and 10 times. But every time he started to play, I just wanted to watch."
Hendrix's contributions to rock, incidentally, didn't end with music. His vibrant wardrobe, which later influenced the likes of the Artist Formerly Known as Prince, was born of his grandfather's and grandmother's past in vaudeville, where performers often wore hats, glittering vests and velvet. Always draped in variegated layers and textures, Hendrix' wild look existed in tandem with his music.
But for people like Gibbons, just seeing Hendrix take the stage was more than enough to guarantee an eternity of adulation. "What he did up there leaped beyond the usual learning curve of playing," he says. "It got to the point that guesses began appearing about how it was all done. Rumors began flying about what was being tweaked to achieve all of those sounds. People were like, 'Oh, he's playing a right-handed guitar left-handed. The strings must be causing the pickups to react differently.' Or, 'The vibrations are somehow different because of the way the instrument is being held.' Of course, it would be difficult to disprove those suspicions, but the great thing is that it all added up to a wonderful mystery. Then you'd actually see it unfold right before your very eyes, and you were before a God."
Says ex-Guns 'N' Roses axeman Slash, offering the voice of a later generation: "I think it was the fluidity of his full approach more than anything [that made Hendrix exceptional]. Over the years, from a technological point of view, we've more or less managed to pull those sounds out one way or another. But he used them all, right then and there."
Eddie Kramer, who was Jimi's studio engineer for his three records with the Jimi Hendrix Experience (1967's Are You Experienced? and 1968's Axis: Bold as Love and Electric Ladyland), knew Hendrix well. Jimi's father, Al Hendrix has said his son never worked with anyone he trusted more. Kramer estimates that at least once a day, for more than 30 years now, someone has stopped him to inquire about Hendrix. "It's amazing when one thinks about it," Kramer says from his upstate New York home. "He remains such a vibrant force. When you think about guitar players, and you think about musicians who have influenced other musicians, very few come to mind. In jazz, there were people like Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis, and you think of Charlie Parker. Those guys were really important and influenced pretty much everybody. But when you jump to the rock world, very few names leap to the foreground as an innovator. That's Jimi Hendrix. He was a genius, a playful genius, a guy who stood out on his own, made his own sound, his own thing. And he was so different from everybody else. I guess that's what it takes to stand out from the pack and continue to be an influence."
In Hendrix, Kramer remembers a quiet, shy young man, someone who was private and introspective, but very outgoing musically. "What he wanted to do was make the world a better place through his music," opines Kramer. "Having been a trained solider himself, he had strong feelings about Vietnam. Listen to 'Machine Gun.' It's the most incredible statement -- lyrically, morally, musically, from every aspect -- as a damning criticism of what was going on in 1968 and 1969. That piece had such an emotional impact. It's incredible. But he also had a softer side. Take a ballad like 'Little Wing.' It's the complete antithesis of 'Machine Gun.'"
Gibbons remembers that versatility and power as well. And time has done little to dull his sense of awe. If anything, he says, the passing years have only magnified what a stunning talent and true original Hendrix was. "What's interesting is that these kind of emotions about Jimi Hendrix linger on in 1999, long after those early appearances in 1969," he says. "To me, it seems that across the board, there is a continuation of this sense of awe and mystery. Not only about what was being invented, but the fact that it's never suffered a loss of momentum. It still seems to be just as magical, just as moving today."