How I Discovered Jimi Hendrix’s Psychedelic Flying V

I was wandering around the city of York, here in England, and Jimi Hendrix came up to me and pulled my arm. He was dressed as he would have been around 1967. "Hey man, why are you buying this equipment of mine?" It was true: I'd bought a few ex-Hendrix items lately. I told him I was a guitar player and writer, and I thought that the gear would give me some inspiration, because I was a fan of his music and still listened to it regularly.

Jimi said, "Let's go here for a drink and a talk," and we went into some ancient pub. I think I was drinking beer, and Jimi was on scotch and coke. We talked, but I don't recall any of it. At the end we shook hands and Jimi waved me off.

This all took place in a dream I had in 1995. I told Noel Redding about it some years later, and he said, "So, he's still around then? That's nice to hear." Pushed further, Noel said that Jimi had visited him, too, in a dream, in the early '70s. Noel had said to Jimi, "But you're dead!" Jimi replied he was just saying hello, as he'd come back for somebody. That was just before Hendrix's co-manager Mike Jeffrey died in a plane crash in France.

A few days after the dream, I happened to be in my local guitar shop in Newcastle upon Tyne. I knew the owner, John, very well. He said, "Hey, I've just got a Jimi Hendrix Flying V!" He showed it to me, and I asked if it really was Jimi's. He said no, but it was the same model, and added: "Wouldn't it be something if it was actually Jimi's guitar?" At this point, in the mid-'90s, nobody had seen the Jimi guitar, the one with his hand-painted decorations on it, for over 20 years.

John's guitar had a 1967 serial number, just visible under an all-over thick black re-spray. The nut had been grooved out to take left-handed stringing, and there was a strap button on each point of the "V," also indicating left-handed use. John told me it had come from a guitar collector in Brighton who got it from a left-handed blues player. I went away and consulted some books to find out more.

Meanwhile, John told me he'd discovered the name "Ken Hensley" (of Uriah Heep) stencilled on the aftermarket case, and that he'd contacted Ken to try to sell him his old guitar. Time for action. I made an offer for the guitar along with a nice Gretsch hanging in the shop, and took both home. I figured even if the V wasn't Jimi's, it was still worth having. And it was a matter of weeks after that dream where Jimi approved of me using his gear, so it felt comfortable. People laughed, but now I had a Flying V that might have been Jimi's.

In that pre-digital world, I took photos to send to people, looking for evidence or validation. I learned that Gibson made 111 Vs in 1967—67 of which were in cherry finish—leaving 44 in sunburst or "sparkling burgundy." This one had never been cherry: I could see traces of brown lacquer where the black paint hadn't covered. The pickguard, tuners, and wiring seemed original (the pots dated to '66). I was left with a load of black paint to look at, covering what might be underneath. Stumped.

Crosstown Traffic - Charles Shaar Murray

I took a fresh look at Mitch Mitchell's book, The Hendrix Experience, comparing its photos of Jimi with the V to those I'd taken of my guitar, looking for any discrepancies that would indicate two different guitars. I couldn't find any. Both had the same tuners, the same hardware—everything. But Jimi's had been hand-painted over a dark finish, which I thought was black, because it looked black on photos. And mine was black, but re-done.

Then I noticed in a picture of Jimi with the guitar that one of the plastic pearloid inlays had caught the camera's flash and reflected it. One of my photos had the same reflection in the same place. I got the guitar out, and I realised that the inlays were all randomly formed, each with "inclusions" that reflected light in different directions and with random swirls on the plastic, all unique.

The cover of Charles Shaar Murray's Crosstown Traffic book had a colour picture of Jimi that showed the patterns in the pearloid inlays very clearly. It was a match, exact in every way, impossible to copy or fake in 3D plastic. So, I had these inlays in an early-'67 Gibson Flying V. All in the correct location, all in the same aspect. In a rare guitar that had been played left-handed and refinished. And one of 44 made that entire year. Hmm.

I took the guitar to Stephen Maycock at a Sotheby's valuation day in Newcastle. As I took the pickguard off to show him inside, he said he was sure that it was Jimi Hendrix's guitar. I asked what give him that idea, before even holding it? He pointed at some coloured paint traces on the underside of the pickguard, created when Jimi had painted the guitar in '67 and the paint ran under the guard while it was still wet.

I contacted everyone I could for more info. Mitch Mitchell called me one day and said the V had a sunburst finish before Jimi painted it. Dark brown. I said I thought it was black, but he insisted: He'd worked in Jim Marshall's music shop, dealing with guitars, and knew sunburst when he saw it. That was a definite. I asked Jimi's old manager, Chas Chandler, who remembered Jimi buying the V and painting it with model-kit hobby paints in mid '67.

Jimi with the Flying V on French TV performance.

I found a video where you could see wood grain in the body through the finish, even though it was a dark brown sunburst, rather like a period Firebird. I had the guitar restorer Clive Brown carefully remove the black finish, and I was amazed to see traces of the psychedelic paint job between the wood and the new black paint. Also a bash in the headstock face, which is shown happening in a Paris studio as Jimi whacks a cymbal with the guitar before miming to "Hey Joe" on French TV. Clive applied a dark brown translucent nitro finish, and the guitar looked like it might have done when brand new.

Using a blown-up photo I purchased from Jean-Pierre Leloir, the photographer who had perfectly captured Jimi with the guitar in '67, I re-created the psychedelic paint job on an acetate sheet. I applied that to the new finish, rather than paint it directly on to the body and have someone in the future assume it was original work.

In 1995, I went with Stephen Maycock's advice to offer the guitar at auction. Its value was becoming a worry, although I had safely gigged it and recorded it, for example on Prefab Sprout's Andromeda Heights album and my trip-hop album Slingshot. The auction was underwhelming and the guitar did not sell, possibly due to Experience Hendrix L.L.C.'s request for the return of all items once belonging to Jimi. Sotheby's legal department told them that Jimi gave the guitar away in 1969 to Mick Cox (who'd just left Eire Apparent), and ownership was confirmed as being in my hands legally, as the guitar had never been lost or stolen. (I found out Mick played the guitar until 1973, when he was short of cash and had to sell it. That's when he removed the psychedelic paintwork and painted it black, to hide the fact he was selling Jimi's guitar—which, I can understand, might have felt awkward back then.)

In 2003, I sold the Jimi V to a respected San Diego-based dealer and collector, who had a client for it. I carried it in the tatty old case through London until I reached a secret Mayfair address. As I entered the double security door I was faced with an armoured glass window with a hatch underneath. I was told to place the guitar in the hatch. It was retrieved from the other side, the hatch clicked shut, and I was told that business was concluded. No cup of tea, then. And off it went to its new owner, very discreetly.

A few years later, I had a call from Edwin Wilson, at Gibson's Custom Shop, who had seen pictures of my restoration work. He asked if I'd be able to paint several hundred identical reissue guitars for their Inspired By series. I politely declined, unable to do this mammoth task in under a year. Bruce Kunkel did, though. I supplied my re-created design, some patterns, instructions, and photos on a guitar Gibson sent me. In 2006, 300 exact replicas appeared.

Jimi V Inspired By Prototype Certificate, 2006

Gibson sent me the first finished prototype Inspired By Jimi Hendrix model, and I have to say it was perfect in the paintwork. Their numbered certificate shows an artist's studio setup with paints, a V, and a pine table. That is actually my own kitchen table, and that's me painting the first design pattern to send to Gibson! The only differences were that the Inspired By guitar had a neck-joint tenon too long compared to the Jimi guitar, and the pickups were too hot. But it appealed to a modern player for all that, and Gibson did a super job on it.

That prototype still hangs on my wall as a reminder of the years I owned the real thing. Maybe it was the best guitar in the world, and certainly the best I could ever own, thanks to Jimi hooking me up with it. And it did enhance my music, and my view of writing and performance. So, job well done, Jimi. I keep the Freak Flag flying high here.


About the author: David Brewis is a musician and producer (The Kane Gang, Prefab Sprout) who has been involved in Hendrix collecting since he bought a Gibson J-200 from Jimi's manager Chas Chandler in the mid-'80s. He lives in north-east England and today he and his business partner Greg Dorsett (in San Diego) run Rock Stars Guitars. More info at rockstarsguitars.com.

comments powered by Disqus