Was Jimi Hendrixs' Guitar Playing Really All That Great?

Our DVD guitar lessons could help you rise above the hype and empower you to learn how to play guitar better than many of your great heroes.

Jimi Hendrix wasn't such a great guitar player. There...I said it. Now before you all go "postal" on me, understand that Jimi was one of my early guitar heroes too and a marvelous player, songwriter, innovator and performer. I do however have some points I would like to make here about the nature of true musicianship ... not to tear down your great idols, but to empower you to rise above the media hype and become the best player you can be.

I've been pretty serious about music and the guitar for a long time. My Mother was a classical violinist and started me with piano at age 6. I began playing guitar at 10. Growing up around that level of musicianship taught me to appreciate and value a wide range of different musical styles. I still love Classical music... particularly the modern stuff (many of you might be surprised that there is such a thing as modern Classical music) but I also love Jazz, Rock, Pop, Blues, and Country. Heck, I find it all at least mildly interesting. I'm intrigued by the broad range of possibilities for music as an art form. Indeed it is the art of noise. That's why I get concerned when I see guitar students become stuck (indeed sometimes addicted) to just one type of music. I've seen so much of it over my 25 years of teaching. Certainly Hard Rock is one of those styles (but certainly not the only one) and that's why I'm picking on poor Jimi here.

All taste is acquired. I know a lot of you don't want to believe that, but I've had to accept that fact time and again through my career. We want to believe that we all totally have our own minds. It's hard to accept that our tastes and decisions are often colored by outside societal factors. It takes courage and deliberation to rise above the constraints of our overly commercialized, peer group oriented, media driven culture and see art for the wonderfully expressive language that it can be. I believe that true musical maturity comes by opening yourself up to new forms even if they don't immediately appeal to you.

As I said earlier, I became interested in guitar pretty young and I was exposed to a lot of sophisticated music growing up. My Mom was big into Classical and Broadway. My Dad liked Big Band Jazz. My best friend's older brother was listening to Elvis etc. and the Folk players of the early 60s as well as Blues guys like Muddy Waters and B.B. King. My first great Pop music awakening came with The Beatles. I was 10 in 1964.

So, even in the Rock genre, I was drawn toward the more sophisticated guitar players with more "chops" and broader harmonic sensibilities ... Steve Howe (Yes), Robert Fripp (King Crimson), Frank Zappa, Steely Dan (and their catalog of great soloists), Andy Summers (The Police) to name but a few. The Blues Rock guitar guys didn't really do all that much for me. It could all sound just too much the same. I needed more variety.

By chance, I saw Larry Coryell and the 11th House (featuring the Brecker Brothers) my 2nd year of college and my life was changed forever. I began to check out all the Jazz "Fusion" guitar players...John McLaughlin (The Mahavishnu Orchestra performed at my school a year or so later), Al DiMeola, Pat Metheny, Frank Gambale, Mike Stern, John Schofield. These guys played music that had "balls" like rock and blues, but also had the broader harmonic spectrum of jazz.

So I would have to say that my great guitar heroes were those capable of playing more complex music in a variety of different styles. Though better than many, Jimi Hendrix just wasn't one of them. Jimi was a great talent, but I think in many ways his lack of education prevented him from becoming a better guitar player. He played a very personal style of guitar that he developed in his own little world. That's why he rarely played outside his "comfort zone". He played with bands he controlled and players he hand picked.

People who actually play guitar themselves tend to listen to music differently than those who don't. Non-players often take what they hear at face value and accept it. Players are more capable of saying "I might have done this differently myself" or "There are other ways that this guitar solo could have been approached". An interesting question you might ask is, what percentage of the audience at a Rock concert is composed of real musicians who truly understand music theory? The answer is not many.

And this is where I might point out some of Jimi's limitations. As I mentioned, I have just reviewed the last material he produced before this death and though I am impressed with it's honesty, cohesiveness of vision, expressiveness, energy and pure "riffology", it still leaves something to be desired in my opinion.

Though broader than some discographies, I see Jimi's guitar work as still not straying too far from the Electric Blues Rock, Funk mold (we do, of course, have to give him credit as being one of the pioneers who indeed forwarded this genre) Some of his attempts at breaking out of that idiom with slower ballads and more complex progressions sound kinda' "forced", contrived and awkward to me. There isn't a very broad usage of different guitar chord types, consisting mainly of "Power" Chords, basic Major and Minor Triads, a lotta' Major, Minor and Dominant 7 Chords (and their extended 9 chords), some Sus Chords and not much else. Though this might put him ahead of the average Metal band (almost exclusively Power Chords) I still miss wonderfully expressive guitar chords like Aug, Dim, 6, 6/9, 11, 13, and Altered Dominant Chords (#5, b5, b9), although, like a lot of Blues guys, he did dig that 7#9!

Let's talk guitar soloing. The easiest chord progressions to solo over are mono harmonic ... that is you're really only soloing over a single chord or tonal center. Many, many of Jim's guitar solos are like this. Even if the song itself contains a more complex chord progression, notice how often the solo section is simplified ... often played over a bass riff that centers around the root of that one single chord. It's actually pretty easy to sound impressive soloing in these situations.

The next easiest guitar solos are ones where the underlying chord progression stays in one key. A high percentage of Jimi's remaining solos fall into this category. Though containing more chord changes than Mono Harmonic solos, you still have the luxury of staying within the notes in one particular scale to form your melody. For Jimi, that was often our familiar Major or Minor Pentatonic Scales and it's cousin, the Blues Scale. I do not hear a terribly broad use of different melodic strategies from him. I don't know whether he knew much about the broader subject of guitar scales.

Harder guitar soloing involves progressions that modulate ... that is that they change key right within the progression. At it's most extreme, you might be called upon to use a different scale or set of notes over each chord in the progression! Imagine that! Rock guitar players, who can sound pretty impressive in simpler situations, often become totally overwhelmed trying to solo over these types of progressions. Though Jimi's songs do contain modulations and some odd chord changes, there is again almost none of this in the solo sections. Where he tries, I feel his guitar playing is often less than stellar.

Playing over these types of changes (routine in more sophisticated styles like jazz) requires a more in depth knowledge of scales like your Diatonic Modes (Dorian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, Locrian etc), Whole Tone and Diminished Scales and even more exotic scales like Lydian b7 and Mixolydian b13. Throw in some more complex Extended Dominant Chords and it gets even crazier! You really have to have trained ears to control this stuff. I have no information to suggest that Jimi knew any of this. If he had, I think he would have used it.

Am I suggesting that more complex music is better music? Well...no...not necessarily...but maybe yes. For myself, more complex music gives me more interesting stuff to listen to and learn from. I get kinda' bored with the old "been there-done that" guitar stuff. I realize a lot of folks aren't like that. The more comfortable and familiar the music sounds, the more they like it. That's OK. But I say, as a guitar player you might want to challenge yourself to broaden your horizons.

Again, I'm not telling you this to tear down your great guitar heroes and I'm not even suggesting that I am somehow a better guitar player than Jimi Hendrix. I'm encouraging you see that there is a way for you to rise above the media hype and understand that with dedication, you could play guitar as well as any of these guys. Knowledge is power and the more you know about music, the easier it will be for you to reach reach your goals even if that's only to be the best Rock guitar player you can be. You'll find it does you no good to buy into the anti-intellectual myth perpetrated by the Rock guitar media. Find a guitar lesson program that works for you and stick with it. The rewards are very real. Take it from me and best of luck with your music!

— Scotty West, guitar teacher and creator of the Absolutely Understand Guitar Video Lesson Program