The electric guitar is the key instrument of rock and roll music, and by consensus, Jimi Hendrix is its most important player. Born and raised here in the Pacific Northwest, he died 40 years ago, September 18, 1970, in London, of an accidental overdose.
After so many decades and so many experiments in the sound of the guitar, it's not easy to recall how revolutionary Hendrix was in the mid-1960s. Yes, B.B. King and T-Bone Walker had helped create single-string blues-based solos, while Les Paul had altered the guitar's sound in the studio and onstage. Yes, Ike Turner and Link Wray had introduced amplifier distortion, and the Beatles (and the Who) had worked with feedback and recording effects. But no one made sounds like Jimi, and in some ways no one has quite done it since.
Legendary guitarist Steve Vai once claimed to have been able to figure out much of how Hendrix did what he did—"but," Vai wondered, "how did he think of it?" Without Hendrix and his Stratocasters and Marshall amps, it's hard to imagine how we could have gotten Vai, or Tom Morello from Rage Against the Machine, or Stevie Ray Vaughan, or Eddie Van Halen, or Prince, or John Frusciante from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, or Jack White, or Eric Johnson, or The Edge, or anyone who's played electric blues, heavy metal, progressive rock, jazz fusion, or any other genre that uses the instrument.
Plus he was a gifted songwriter and producer, a compelling singer, an unmatched showman, a fashion innovator, a civil-rights and anti-war activist (he had a brief and inauspicious Army career in 1961), and an enduring sex symbol. Hendrix's career as a rock star lasted less than five years—it's a profound shame we'll never know what else he might have accomplished.