On Jimi Hendrix and Marty Friedman
“I’d rather chew glass than listen to Hendrix. I never got Hendrix. When I think of Hendrix, an image comes in my mind about a lot of hippies rolling around in mud tripping on acid and it just doesn’t turn me on at all. And all that noise and feedback, and I’m like, ‘Play in tune.’ I’m a big tuning guy and that’s probably why I don’t like [Bob] Dylan, because things go out of tune and it kills me.
“But then again, all of my favorite guitarists hail Hendrix: I’m a big Uli Jon Roth fan and he’s the most beautiful guitarist. He probably loves Hendrix as much as Hendrix’s own mother does. All the guys I respect love Hendrix so I know there’s something there. It’s just that I never got it because it never fit into my experiences.”
- Marty Friedman, during an interview with Ultimate Guitar, August 2015
Let’s give Marty Friedman the benefit of the doubt here. It may have been a long time since he’s listened to Electric Ladyland or Band of Gypsys with fresh ears. It may be that since moving to Japan and discovering a rebirth in his celebrity, he hasn’t had to think much about America, in particular the black American experience and the history of black music in this country. Perhaps he is acting out the implications of the famous scene in White Men Can’t Jump, in which Wesley Snipes derides Woody Harrelson for putting on a Hendrix record, by claiming that white people can’t hear Hendrix; they can only listen.
Nevertheless, Friedman’s claims about Hendrix are alarming – what he indicates is that he is unable to relate to Hendrix’s music, which he then defends by claiming that he just can’t listen to a guitar player who played out of tune. This is a rather complicated issue, because it deals not only with our ability to empathize with an artist, but also about how that relates to something (slightly) less quantifiable, our “personal tastes” in music, which although they intersect with social, cultural, and class boundaries, can transcend those factors and operate on a more primal level. Either you “get it” or “you don’t” is a common argument that I hear all the time, particularly in extreme music scenes. While I understand the sentiment, I think that in this particular case, Friedman has maybe never really tried to listen to Hendrix.
Fifty-some years since bands like Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin began to lay the foundations for heavy metal, the “sound” of blues and jazz is scarcely audible in modern metal music – save for the occasional stylistic adventures of bands like Clutch, Between the Buried and Me and Animals as Leaders (which often, although I like those bands, can unfortunately tend to sound like metal’s equivalent of the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin “borrowing” from Blind Lemon, Howlin Wolf, et. al). And even by the time Friedman was a teenager in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, blues and traditional jazz forms had been all-but-removed from the popular musical consciousness.
But this distance in metal is not just from the “sound” of jazz and blues – the band configurations, scales, chord shapes, song structures – but also from the spirit of those musics, which was so important to Hendrix. Many of Hendrix’s greatest musical expressions came not in the studio (although he was a master of sound sculpting and notoriously detail-oriented about recordings, so much so that we are still unearthing archived music that he refused to release in its original form), but live on stage, in the midst of spontaneous improvisation.
The very idea of improvisation is quite foreign to the majority of modern metal bands, who hone their stage shows and performance chops so that they never miss a note on stage. It was antiquated by the time Friedman was playing with Megadeth, a band that exemplifies the exact opposite of improvised music – particularly Friedman’s playing, which is incredibly sculpted, perfected and thought-out down to every single note.
But the negative space of spontaneity is where Hendrix thrived, and on the post-Experience live album Band of Gypsys, which Friedman may be referring to when he talks about out-of-tune guitar strings (and which Hendrix himself despised because of the poor tuning, but was contractually obligated to release), we have some of his greatest musical moments. To me, it doesn’t really matter that he’s out of tune, because the voice of the songs, the creative spirit of playing with new musicians in an all-black band featuring Billy Cox and Buddy Miles, and the stunning beauty of spontaneous composition shines through.
So there’s a lot of time and distance between us, Hendrix’s style, and Hendrix’s influences, during which new European strains of influence – Baroque, romantic, classical – made their way into metal guitar playing. Further, and more recently, our culture developed a “kill your idols” syndrome, in which people who have been listening to this music for long enough have a tendency to downplay the greatness and importance of the pioneers, in the name of hoisting-up overlooked or obscure musicians and bands. There is a hip elitism that comes with claiming you listen to obscure players, that in many cases, often amounts to schoolyard dick-waving. You know, the sentiment that states it’s not cool to like Jimi Hendrix, because everyone else likes him, man. Friedman is not just expressing personal tastes in his dismissal of Hendrix – his rhetoric is too strong for that – he is grinding an axe.
Which I don’t want to dismiss as a tool of music criticism, because obviously, part of the way art moves forward is by challenging the status quo. But we’ve arrived at a point where challenging the status quo in musical legends has basically become status quo – like Pitchfork’s infamous episode of actually “reviewing” a John Coltrane album (and subsequently deleting those reviews). And that process has worked to the detriment of music consumption in this country, because people now feel the need to develop contrarian opinions, which in turns influences how they actually even listen to the damn records.
But there is something to Friedman’s complaints – the problem is that they are misdirected. What Friedman is complaining about is, in essence, the canonization of Jimi Hendrix. His understanding of Jimi Hendrix as man and musician, if we are to take him at his word, looks to be based upon the same understanding that many people have, which has been warped by decades of the kinds of Top 100 Guitarists of All Time cash-grab fare published by any number of mainstream rock and guitar magazines, who wish to force Hendrix’s multicolored, out-of-tune “hippie” legend into digestible, consumable pull-quotes.
This is an easy thing to do. What’s difficult is to listen to Hendrix, along with the other great black musicians of the late 1960’s and beginning of the 1970’s – like Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis, Parliament, and Sly and the Family Stone – whose records during this time represented a kind of reclaiming of “rock” music which had been co-opted by the English and American blues combos of the era. These records, like Miles Davis’ masterwork Jack Johnson, are complicated works that I won’t dare to summarize, but there are common threads that you can trace through them, such as proud declarations of their black identity, post-war malaise at the death of the dream of a racially equal country with a healthy black middle class, and excavations of the dark underbelly of America.
Hendrix was a bit more complicated, gentle, and nuanced than the combative Miles Davis of the late 60’s, who explicitly wanted to make “the greatest rock and roll band you have ever heard.” Hendrix’s musical and stylistic influences transcended (but of course, also included) his race, and his music is all the more vital because of that. Hendrix felt it all, from the Delta blues to the electric Chicago music of Muddy Waters, to English rock, to jazz improv greats like Charlie Christian, to European composers, and everything in between. One of his most moving expressions, his performance of “The Star Spangled Banner,” at Woodstock in 1969 (notably, with the most racially-mixed band he ever led), seems to capture everything about his feelings for the country – returning home to an America he left behind to seek fame abroad, the dream of rising above class boundaries, hatred towards the political machine and the Vietnam War – it’s just that Hendrix expressed those things through feedback and distortion.
Friedman should be able to relate to at least some of those themes, as his greatest contribution to music, on Megadeth’s masterpiece Rust in Peace, is as much a product of its political era as Hendrix’s music was. He may have just been playing (now-iconic, incredibly-rehearsed and executed) guitar solos on that album, but Dave Mustaine’s attacks on Reaganomics and declarations of conspiracy in America are literally written into the DNA of that album and the band that Friedman spent the better part of a decade playing in. At their best, Megadeth were greater than the sum of their parts, and part of the reason Rust in Peace is such an iconic album is that it transcends the genre confines, both musically and aesthetically.
All this to say, if you try and understand Hendrix through his “guitar playing” alone, you’re going to miss out on all of these pockets of beauty in his art, which have very little to do with his (considerable) ability on the instrument. At its core, this is the mistake that Friedman, and many other people who have sought to demystify one of the most nuanced artists of the 60’s, is making. I actually think there’s very little to “learn” from Hendrix’s guitar playing in a cursory sense (the scales, arpeggios, patterns, etc.), because he is such a singular voice. As opposed to a guitarist like Uli John Roth, who, however talented and in some ways visionary his playing and the Scorpions were, was at heart, a guitar player’s guitar player. Roth, like Friedman, is someone who it is easy to cop from. Hendrix was an artist who just happened to use the guitar as his means of expression. He claimed guitar, the blues, and improvised music for his own. It would take a tremendous talent, a once-in-a-generation artist like Hendrix himself, to be able to steal his guitar tricks from him, because Hendrix was so much more than a riff or wah-wah pedal.
“By and large, the blues field has failed to respond to the challenges Hendrix laid down. He was the first and last of the space-age bluesman; the only one to create an entirely new set of possibilities for the future of the cornerstone of twentieth century popular music, the only one to propose new ways of creating within the blues field rather than to heist its treasures and stash them elsewhere.”
- Charles Shaar Murray, Crosstown Traffic
Wesley Snipes’ comments about Hendrix in White Men Can’t Jump contain a lot of loaded racial, cultural, and class connotations, but are not totally irrelevant to the modern-day status of Hendrix among more experienced rock and metal guitar players, as well as others who have succumbed to the “kill your idols” plague. The issue is not about whether or not white people can hear Hendrix, but about whether any person of any race actually tries. It is therefore about listening as well as hearing – why was Hendrix’s guitar out of tune here, and is it so bad that I can’t tolerate the music at all (and if so, what does that say about me?)? What was he trying to say in mystical, subtextual expressions of black empowerment in masterpieces like “Voodoo Chile”? Why did he dress the way he did? In other words, who was he? None of the answers to those questions can be found through the canonized lens that Hendrix has been put through – you have to do the legwork yourself.
Perhaps that distorted version of Hendrix is what led Friedman to make those comments. But to paraphrase film critic Kent Jones discussing Quentin Tarantino’s comments on John Ford, one day in the future he might find himself wondering just what he had in mind when he so demeaned one of the greatest artists who ever picked up an electric guitar.