The history of rock guitar — and rock music in general — can be split into two periods: before Jimi Hendrix‘s debut album and after.
It’s difficult to overstate the impact of the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s earth-shattering Are You Experienced. On a micro level, it plucked the musician born James Marshall Hendrix out of chitlin’ circuit obscurity and launched him onto the biggest stages around the world, turning him into a countercultural icon and archetypal guitar hero. On a macro level, it helped the LP supersede the single as the definitive medium through which rock artists could stake their claim for greatness, and it blended blues, acid rock, psychedelia and R&B in previously unthinkable ways. Not bad for a first try.
Although the Jimi Hendrix Experience burst onto the scene as a fully formed creative entity, the genesis of the band and its debut album were spontaneous and scattershot. In summer 1966, Hendrix caught the eye of the Animals bassist Chas Chandler, who was moving into more management and production as the band splintered. Chandler was captivated by Hendrix’s set at Cafe Wha? in New York’s Greenwich Village and flew him to London to perform and record in September of that year. By early October, he had linked up with bassist Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell, and the newly minted Jimi Hendrix Experience scored their first gigs opening for French pop star Johnny Hallyday in his native country in mid-October.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience first entered the studio on Oct. 23 to record their version of “Hey Joe,” a bluesy murder ballad written and copyrighted by Billy Roberts in 1962. Problems quickly arose when the feedback from the band’s distorted Marshall amps hindered the recording, and Hendrix struggled to capture an adequate lead vocal. “‘Hey Joe’ is a very difficult song to do right and it took forever,” Redding wrote in his autobiography, Are You Experienced. “The Marshalls were too much for the mikes, and Chas and Jimi rowed over recording volume. That ‘loud,’ full, live sound was nearly impossible to obtain (especially for the bass) without the distortion, which funnily enough became part of our sound.”
Listen to the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s ‘Hey Joe’
To make matters worse, Chandler had blown his budget on the laborious “Hey Joe” sessions, which meant the band would have to write an original song if they had any hope of recording a B-side. Within a day, Hendrix concocted the driving “Stone Free,” quickly teaching it to his bandmates and banging it out in the studio. More originals soon followed, including the raga rock-influenced “Love or Confusion”; the languid “The Wind Cries Mary,” inspired by a fight Hendrix had with his girlfriend, Kathy Etchingham; and the acid-rock stomper “Purple Haze,” whose scorching guitar solo features the first-ever use of the Octavia effects pedal, which produces a note one octave higher than the one played. Rather than rehearse religiously before hitting the studio, Hendrix taught his new songs to Mitchell and Redding on the spot, and they knocked them out in a handful of takes.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience released “Hey Joe” as their debut single in December 1966. It quickly rose to No. 6 on the U.K. chart, prompting demand for a speedy follow-up, which came in the form of “Purple Haze,” released in March 1967. The song shot to No. 3 in the U.K. and earned a rave prerelease review from Paul McCartney, who listened to it for the Melody Maker‘s “Blind Date” feature and enthused, “Fingers Hendrix. An absolute ace on the guitar. This is yet another incredible record from the great Twinkle Teeth Hendrix!” (McCartney would do Hendrix another solid when he recommended the Experience to play the Monterey Pop Festival in June 1967, where they delivered a star-making performance and Hendrix lit his guitar on fire in one of the most iconic scenes in rock history.)
Watch Jimi Hendrix Sacrifice His Guitar at the Monterey Pop Festival
With two Top 10 hits under their belt — and a third, “The Wind Cries Mary,” burning up the charts and heading toward a No. 6 peak — the Jimi Hendrix Experience were primed for stardom by the time they released Are You Experienced in the U.K. on May 12, 1967. The album dutifully scaled the charts and peaked at No. 2, exposing listeners to previously unheard levels of distortion and making other guitar virtuosos — such as the mighty Eric Clapton — want to weep with feelings of inadequacy.
Are You Experienced sported a different track listing when it hit U.S. shelves in August 1967, with Reprise Records ditching the smoldering blues jam “Red House,” the electrifying “Can You See Me” and the springy, Cream-like “Remember” in favor of the proven hit singles “Hey Joe,” “Purple Haze” and “The Wind Cries Mary.” (Thankfully, since 1997, CD reissues of Are You Experienced have compiled all 17 tracks onto one disc, so listeners no longer have to play favorites.) It also featured a new album cover, the psychedelic, fisheye lens portrait with which the LP is most commonly associated, as Hendrix thought the original cover “made him look like a fairy,” according to the U.S. cover photographer Karl Ferris.
Listen to the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s ‘Purple Haze’
Although all of the Are You Experienced singles flatlined in the U.S., the album became a sensation on underground FM radio, ultimately rising to No. 5 on the Billboard 200 and selling 5 million copies. But its impact can’t be measured in numbers alone. With its genre-bending opuses and volcanic six-string freak-outs, Are You Experienced shifted the paradigm for hard-rock guitar playing and showmanship. Any guitarist who has ever cranked the gain knob on their amp and wrung a power chord from their axe owes a debt to Hendrix. In 2005, the Library of Congress added Are You Experienced to its National Recording Registry, reserved for recordings deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant, and/or inform or reflect life in the United States.”
The Jimi Hendrix Experience would release two more landmark albums, 1967’s Axis: Bold as Love and 1968’s Electric Ladyland, before Hendrix’s death on Sept. 18, 1970, at the age of 27. Both albums found the guitarist expanding his sonic palette, but his debut remains the most blistering, concise demonstration of his virtuosity and pop smarts. “Are You Experienced was one of the most direct records we’ve done,” Hendrix told Hit Parader in 1969. “What it was saying was, ‘Let us through the wall, man, we want you to dig it.'”
Top 100 ’60s Rock Albums
Here’s a chronological look at the 100 best rock albums of the ’60s.