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When it comes to guitarists, sometimes the best aspects of a great player's music goes completely unrecognized by the masses. Sure, playing a flaming guitar with your teeth has a bit of a bigger impact than crafting a beautiful rhythm part, but both are equally important when discussing what makes certain guitarists great.
Jimi Hendrix is a good example of this because although most people consider him one of the guitar masters (if not THE guitar master), not everyone actually realizes why? As I discussed in the previous part of this 3 part tribute to Jimi, technique has a lot to do with it and although it might be the most noticeable at first glance, but it isn't the only thing. For me, one of the major things that makes Hendrix the master of the guitar is actually his subtlety and the beauty of some of his guitar work.
A good place to start talking about the subtlety of Jimi's guitar playing is to take a look at some that advanced technique from part one. Even in the hardest hitting Hendrix song, Jimi had a way of throwing in little improvised notes and bits and pieces that add to the overall feel without over powering it. Those little bits are just perfectly placed to create an added texture within the framework of the song... it's a technique very similar to the rhythm playing of many of the great blues players, which is probably where Jimi's inspiration came from. The high powered blues of "Red House", or even the classic "Hey Joe" demonstrate this very well if you listen to some of the rhythm guitar work during the verses.
Jimi took it even further than that though, and crafted some truly beautiful songs as well. "Little Wing" is the prime example of this... a stellar ballad that seems pretty straight forward, but contains so much complexity in the little rhythmic additions that are thrown in throughout. The overall effect is this beautiful composition from start to finish that is extremely emotionally but also subtle. "Bold As Love" and "Castles in the Sand" are other great examples of this type of subtle complexity where it would be easy for things to get out of control and sound too over the top, but Jimi seems to have a restraint on these numbers that is just perfect, creating beauty instead of screaming howling feedback.
This kind of complexity is one of the major things I thinks differentiates the regular good guitarists from the great ones because it's a very difficult style to develop and master. Take a song like "1983... (A Merman I Should Turn to Be)"... it's melodic and pretty massive, but is restrained and pulled back at the same time. This is a song that's about composition and not about guitar playing and I think that's where beautiful playing really comes from. With an instrument like the electric guitar that can be so overpoweringly loud, to pull back and restrain yourself to playing just what is going to advance the composition takes true maturity. It also takes a strong knowledge of music and the feeling you're trying to create to be able to add just what you feel is necessary. Jimi is very good at this and it really comes through on some of his bluesier numbers, and especially the ballads. They're beyond rock songs and are beautiful compositions from start to finish.
As I mentioned at the start of this part of my tribute to the guitar mastery of Jimi Hendrix, this kind of guitar beauty is often overlooked. Flashy techniques get all the attention, but I find this kind of guitar playing to be just as interesting and even harder to master. Hendrix has a great blend of the two being able to light his guitar on fire and play killer hard rock solos, but also being a to play some beautiful melodies, craft these complex rhythmic ideas that create some incredible musical moments. That's a mark of a great musician, to be able to play both the screaming screeching fun stuff, but also the beautiful, subtle moments that give emotion to the music.
Appreciation of the subtle parts of music, especially an instrument like the electric guitar, isn't easy because it isn't the first thing you normally notice about a song. With rock music there's all the flash, flair and all the other things that make rock and roll great that attract attention first, but the really impressive musical moments are usually far subtler. I invite you to take a listen to some of Jimi's more subdued moments and see the complexity that I think really puts him as one of the best guitarists of all time. The entire Axis: Bold As Love album is especially full of these moments, but even some of the harder jams like "Voodoo Chile" also have some amazingly subtle moments.
Combined with his excellent and innovative technique, Hendrix's subtle beauty really put him a cut above the rest, but it isn't all that makes him great. Yes, those two things alone make for some amazing guitar playing, but there's another thing that makes Jimi THE guitar master.
I'll tell you what I think it is in the next part of this 3 part tribute. Check it out here: Why is Hendrix the Guitar Master: Part 3 - Passion and Soul