Jimi Hendrix Greatness Explained

Right (and left) hand man ... Jimi Hendrix. Photograph: Marc Sharratt/Rex Features

Right (and left) hand man ... Jimi Hendrix. Photograph: Marc Sharratt/Rex Features

Jimi Hendrix was a pretty good guitar player. He was also more ambidexterous than most. At least one guy quoted by another guy thinks this may not be coincidental.

Was Jimi Hendrix’s ambidexterity the secret to his talent? This is the question explored in a new paper by psychologist Stephen Christman (via TwentyFourBit), who argues that Hendrix’s versatility informed not just his guitar-playing — but his lyrics too.

According to Christman, who is based at the University of Toledo, Hendrix was not strictly left-handed. Although he played his right-handed guitar upside down, and used his left hand to throw, comb his hair and hold cigarettes, Hendrix wrote, ate and held the telephone with his right hand. He was, Christman argues, “mixed-right-handed”. And this “mixed”-ness, signaling better interaction between the left and right hemispheres of the guitarist’s brain, suffused every part of his music.

Hendrix’s special ability, Christman wrote, “enabled him to integrate the actions of his left and right hands while playing guitar, to integrate the lyrics and melodies of his songs, and perhaps even to integrate the older blues and R&B traditions with the emerging folk, rock, and psychedelic sounds of the 60s”. Certainly the guitarist’s technical virtuosity is clear. Christman points to Hendrix’s technique on songs like Still Raining, Still Dreaming, “where Hendrix uses his right hand to play an intricate series of bends and slides, while his left hand, in between plucking the strings, uses the pickup selector to switch back and forth between the treble and bass pickups”.

Many guitarists are left-handed, including Paul McCartney, Mark Knopfler and Kurt Cobain, and Christman argues that great guitarists tend to be relatively ambidextrous. Conversely, many piano and keyboard players are strongly right- or left-handed: they rely on the independence of their two hands, playing separate lines.

This is an interesting theory. On the other hand — pun initially unintended — one would have to know what percentage of great guitar players were right-, left-, and mixed-handed and compare this to the distribution of these traits in the general population.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Grewgills says:

    The crazy long fingers and general dexterity probably helped as well.

    Playing guitar with its demands on both hands probably fosters a degree of ambidexterity and it is probably a bit easier for the ambidextrous to learn. As to the R-L brain connection and integrating different types of music, it sounds like so much woo.




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  2. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    The best way to judge why Hendrix was a great musician is to listen him play. I suggest listening to the Band of Gypsies album. Hendrix guitar raplaces all of the electric flag except for Buddy Miles and the bass player, Billy Cox. Wonder if Bill Graham thought that was good enough.




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  3. Interestingly, I’ve read elsewhere that the best musicians tend to be left-brained, emphasizing their technical abilities over the creative right-brained abilities. The best composers on the other hand tend to be creative right-brained types and generally not as proficient as musicians as the left brain types.

    Periodically you’ll get someone who is just a freak of nature that possesses both abilities. Then it’s just a matter of discipline and keeping them away from the trappings of rock star success which can lead to an early demise.




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  4. Clovis says:

    There might be something to this. I noticed that my sax work became more fluid after I took up juggling and have wondered if the left/right coordination was partly responsible. It was far too subjective for scaling, seeing as I tend to have a beverage or two when noodling around.

    Just as a hypothesis, though, seems somewhat plausible.




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  5. anjin-san says:

    Buddy Miles has been quoted as saying Hendrix had “the biggest hands I have ever seen on a human being”.

    Clearly though, there was something unique about Hendrix beyond any physical attribute. A guitar was not an instrument to him, it was an extension of his being.




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  6. Drew says:

    I’m with Grewgills. Its the fingers, man.

    Separately, Hendricks became an an icon because of generational timing. There was no one else.

    But let us be clear, pyrotechnically, Eddie Van Halen played circles around this guy (with his tapping technique) and Stevie Ray Vaughn played anything JH played as well, if not better. And then we have, at the opposite end of the spectrum, a Keith Richards. Not even in the same league with “guitar as an Olympic event,” but with timing and unique and interesting riffs that have survived for 30 years.

    I wish you all could hear it first hand on my stereo system……




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  7. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    Drew, Stevie played Hendrix songs, not vice versa. To compare Van Halen to Hendrix is empty. Hendrix was an inovator, Van Halen a technician. What song does Van Halen plan that compares to Gypsie Eyes or Burning of the Midnight Lamp? Does Van Halen sing? Jimi was number one and still is. There are people who aspire to that position, but it is too late. The position is filled. James Marshall Hendrix.




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  8. sam says:

    These arguments about who was better than whom remind me of something I read years ago. One guy was saying that so-and-so Renaissance artist was better than such-and-such Renaissance artist. The other guy replied, Comparing these artists is fruitless, each was a world unto himself, entire and complete.




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  9. steve says:

    Hendrix gets points for being the trailblazer. The others were more technically competent, as Drew asserts, but Hendrix had already taken the originality mantle. It is more than just playing fast. Roy Buchanan was definitely a master, though he probably never had the ability to produce the sheer number of notes that Van Halen could.

    Steve




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  10. Franklin says:

    Two random thoughts:

    1) A recent study showed that ambidextrous kids have more problems in school. Link

    2) I’m in rare agreement with ZR here. Sure, EVH doesn’t hold a candle to Hendrix except in physical skill. SRV is indeed comparable to Hendrix in guitar playing and musicianship, but in my opinion he just didn’t match the songwriting or lyrical composition.

    What else? His understanding of how everything went together was unprecedented. For his backwards solo on “Are You Experienced?”, he knew what he wanted it to sound like *forwards* and reportedly recorded it in one take. He recorded some of the bass tracks on the same album and others. And have you ever seen video of him tuning his guitar in the middle of a riff? It’s almost stunning the control he had over anything with strings.




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  11. Drew says:

    Sometimes you guys crack me up..

    Zels: That’s what I said. EVH was a technician, and could play circles around anyone. By the way, what’s with Jimmy’s “hoooohhaaahooowwwooo?”

    For me, if you want to wrap up all the great guitar licks, its Jimmy Page.

    But that’s just a personal thingy.




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  12. Drew says:

    Oh, and I wish you could hear it on my stereo system.




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  13. anjin-san says:

    I just don’t see comparisons between Hendrix and other guitarists. There was Jimi, then there was everyone else. If you were sending me to a desert island, I would not trade the single track “Little Wing” for the entire Van Halen and SRV catalogs.

    Hendrix altered the trajectory of rock & roll with just three records, setting a very high bar for others to aspire to. Listen to the Derek & the Dominoes cover of Little Wing. Scary good. Hendirx made everyone around him better, just by doing what he did.

    Van Halen was a huge influence, but in the long run, probably not for the better. What we have now is armies of soulless guitar technicians who can play anything, but say nothing.




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  14. anjin-san says:

    Speaking of Buddy Miles:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4pqVF_OTwS8

    Buddy used to play a club I worked at long ago. When he was on he was amazing. A very good guitar player too.




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  15. Say when Drew…




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  16. Drew says:

    “If you were sending me to a desert island, I would not trade the single track “Little Wing” for the entire Van Halen and SRV catalogs.”

    Narrow, irrational – dare I say slavish – devotion requires therapy.




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  17. Drew says:

    “Hendrix altered the trajectory of rock & roll with just three records,”

    Care to elaborate.




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  18. Rick DeMent says:

    More then a few points:

    1.Neither Hendrix nor Eddie Van Halen invented the guitar techniques they would later be known for outside of their personal idiosyncratic styles which are unique to all guitar players. Tapping was done before EVH and highly overdriven/effects based blues was done before Hendrix. Those two popularized those playing styles by using them to create great music.

    2.For my money Eddie Van Halen was every bit the innovator Hendrix was. Before Hendrix no one played like him, afterwards everyone did. Ditto EVH. Both guys were the line of demarcation in the evolution of the guitars use in popular music in the same way guys like Charlie Christian, Les Paul and Chuck Berry were in their era.

    3.EVH absolutely “holds a candle” to Hendrix and in many ways could play rings around Hendrix. You might not like EVH’s playing style but to say he is not the guitarist Hendrix was probably means you don’t actually play the guitar.

    4.A left handed person paying the guitar in the standard way (right handed) has their most dexterous hand on the fretboard, a right handed player has it strumming and picking. How that plays out depends on the playing style. Finger picking, flat picking, Travis picking all make different demands on the non-fret hand so comparing them is really dicey.

    5.A lot of country finger picking styles would confound both EVH and Hendrix. Hell Hendrix was quoted as saying he was amazed after hearing Roy Clark showing off some flashy right handed finger picking technique (yes *that* Roy Clark).

    6.As others have mentioned playing and singing at the same time throws another dimension into the mix but that is typically a matter of practicing doing both at the same time. Those that don’t do either don’t want to put in the extra practice or just can’t sing so why bother. This really doesn’t have any bearing on the “who is better” debate.

    7.For shear technical pyrotechnics no one in pop music can hold a candle to the best classical players, although comparing those two playing styles is problematic in the extreme.

    8.If you want to throw in songwriting and lyrical content into the mix that’s fine but now we’re getting far afield of the guitar. If you wanted to say Hendrix is head and shoulders Above EVH as an overall rock\pop talent I have no argument, but his guitar playing alone.

    9.Basing the proficiency of a instrumentalist on their “soul” is awful subjective, I mean for my money B.B. King can blow both Hendrix and EVH out of the water playing just one freaking note but YMMV.

    10.And for Franklin, tuning your guitar in the middle of a riff is really no big deal, anyone with an ear can do it, in fact the better of an ear you have the more you tend to do it because hearing something out of tune drives you nuts. Today the tuning machines and bridges are much much better than 30 yeas ago so they don’t tend to go out of tune in the middle of a song.

    That’s my dollar fifty … flame away




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  19. James Joyner says:

    A lot of country finger picking styles would confound both EVH and Hendrix. Hell Hendrix was quoted as saying he was amazed after hearing Roy Clark showing off some flashy right handed finger picking technique (yes *that* Roy Clark).

    Clark was a genius. Both he and Buck Owens took a major step backwards musically for Hee Haw. They made a fortune, though, so I doubt either much minded.

    Some of the best guitar work anywhere is in bluegrass. Also, some of the worst singing.




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  20. anjin-san says:

    Narrow, irrational – dare I say slavish – devotion requires therapy.

    You can say it. It’s basically blather, but thats your general output, no surprises here.

    Care to elaborate

    Sure. With just three records, he significantly expanded the size of the conceptual universe in which rock & roll exists. I don’t know if you will be able to follow that Drew, you don’t seem to have much to contribute beyond “my stereo is cooler than yours”.

    EVH’s playing style but to say he is not the guitarist Hendrix was probably means you don’t actually play the guitar.

    EVH is not the player Hendrix was, he is the player EVH is, which is pretty damn amazing. I am not knocking Van Halen, his solo on “Dreams” is one of the best I have ever heard, simple, elegant & beautiful. He has produced a large body of fine work. I just see Hendix as a singular talent, much the same way The Beatles were THE band that really mattered. All sorts of other people have done wonderful things, but somebody has to be the best of the best.

    The thing that set Hendirx apart was that he had raw creative fury to match his skill as a player. And he sounded like every not came from deep within him, whereas a lot of other great players sometimes tend to come across like “now let me impress you with how good I am”.




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  21. Rick DeMent says:

    @ Anjin-san

    I’m not really disagreeing with you, I think were talking about two different things. If your saying that Hendrix is more “soulful” or whatever term you want to use I would argue that is largely due to the kind of music he played; the blues. Excellence in the blues is extremely incumbent on feeling, soul, nuance (see B.B. King) but as a musical style it very limited and while Hendrix pushed the boundaries as much as anyone before or since at the end of the day it was still the blues.

    I’m talking about playing the guitar, heavy metal is more about rhythm (with some ungodly meters and changes), precision, mind numbing scales, and speed. Things that never really enter into the blues or it’s many variants. Which is why comparing excellence across divergent musical styles is very difficult. When I say that EVH is every bit the guitar player Hendrix was it’s because from the narrow perspective of playing rock guitar, he is. Not only as a technician on but in his influence on other payers and his creativity in developing the genera he is famous for.

    I mean Eddy expanded the conceptual universe in which rock & roll exists with just one record VHI. After that the bar was raised and Heavy Metal came into to its own and never looked back. It branched off from blues based rock for good right at that exact moment.

    I don’t really have a dog in this hunt, as far as guitar pickers are concerned I’m a rockabilly fan and Brian Setzer is the ultimate guitar hero god. He sings, plays (Alternating between flat picking and finger picking), and dances. Can play the blues, country, and jazz. But that’s all personal taste 🙂




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  22. Franklin says:

    Rick-

    Just for understanding, the reason I brought other factors in rather purely guitar playing was because of the subject matter – ambidexterity seemingly results from different brain connections. If all Jimi did was play an inferior version of BB King’s blues, he wouldn’t be famous.

    My note about the tuning on the fly really should have mentioned what he was doing with his right-hand – he briefly hammered on the notes, adapting instantly to the occupied left hand. I know it’s easy enough to tune just holding a chord or whatever.

    I largely agree with your points, by the way. As a somewhat beginning guitarist years ago, with an interest in rock music, I happened to attend a show with a classical guitarist and was floored. And I’ve seen some amazing Roy Clark vids on YouTube. But I would still have to go to one of your other points which is that it is very difficult to compare styles. I wasn’t used to classical guitar playing, and a fan of that style would similarly be stunned by EVH.




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  23. Jim Digweed says:

    Hendrix was a great guitarist but it wasnt about technique, it was his rythym. He took the instrument to a new level. That’s no disrespect to the others but Jimmy inspired guitarists at the time as to what was possible with the instrument. Greatness is not dictated by skill, rather how you intuitively use it.

    When I started guitar, I wanted to play like Van Halen, Hammet, Dimebag but the longer I’ve played, the more I appreciate a guitarists own style, not technique.




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  24. Jim Digweed says:

    Not that those guitarists arent still quality, just that I appreciate their style, which their technique compliments, not the other way round.




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  25. anjin-san says:

    We have not even touched the topic of emotional content of playing, a lot of guys with serious chops fall short there.

    A little morning maniac music:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c945gP_BA7M




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