Nailing It: Achieving the Tones of Jimi Hendrix

Photo by David Redfern / Staff/ Getty Images

More than 40 years after his death, few guitar legends even approach the status of Jimi Hendrix. His personal style, unique musical direction and uninhibited style of playing still can be seen, felt and heard, and inspires players across age groups and around the world to this day.

While there have been plenty of other players who dabbled with effects since the ‘60s, it was Hendrix who first showed the world what an electric guitarist could achieve with a handful of primitive pedals and a lot of imagination. He was rightly revered for his live performances, but his studio recordings feature adventurous sonic and tone experiments that will ensure his place in the pantheon of heroes for as long as people play electric guitars.

With that in mind, here’s a look at some of the most important elements of the Jimi Hendrix sound.

In this video, we're looking at some basic combinations of modern pedals you can use to achieve Hendrix's tones. Check out our first installment in the series for how to nail the tones of David Gilmour.

Hendrix’s Guitars

Hendrix played a lot of different guitars over the course of his career, but if you’re trying to emulate his sound, the most obvious choice would be a maple-neck CBS-era Fender Stratocaster, or maybe Fender’s new Jimi Hendrix Stratocaster. However, any Strat outfitted with single-coil pickups and a functional floating tremolo will do in a pinch. You’ll want to be able to push and pull the trem bar during those extended solos, just like Jimi did, to even approximate the kind of sounds he was able to wrangle out of his guitar.

By stringing a right-handed guitar lefty, Hendrix’s tone was further tweaked in a variety of ways, including:

Fender Jimi Hendrix Stratocaster
  • the inversion of the string lengths behind the nut, which could alter the sustain.
  • the reversal of the bridge-pickup angle, which according to Fender produces a tighter, warmer tone with enhanced upper harmonics and definition.

Hendrix’s guitars also had staggered pickup poles; by reversing the order of the strings, Jimi altered the pickups’ harmonic structure, contributing further to his unique sound, Fender said.

Hendrix favored coiled cables, which are known for their higher capacitance, which takes out some of the highs and warms the tone. He also was known to tune down a half step, which decreases string tension, and used lighter-gauge strings and customized string sets, with lighter G strings, which improved output.

While Hendrix is well known for destroying his guitars during live performances, including setting one on fire during his set at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, this was all part of the show and he was known to take care of his instruments offstage and in the studio.

Hendrix’s Amplifiers

Hendrix favored Marshall amplifiers, but you can start with any decent high-watt tube amp, preferably something that can capture a stinging mid- to high-gain tone. A solid Marshall or Orange is a good choice. You could opt for a 2x12 combo to push more air and obtain natural tube overdrive, or you could dive-in using a tube head and 4x12 cabinet. This will provide more volume, wattage and speakers to help you emulate Hendrix's massive sound.

Ride the Volume

It's well-documented that Hendrix would turn everything up on his Marshall heads during live performances, however he would actively ride his guitar’s volume knob to control his tone.

Try starting with a slightly over-driven amp tone, or use a pedal like the Xotic Effects SL Drive or the Catalinbread Dirty Little Secret, to generate a low-gain bluesy crunch. Then experiment with rolling off the volume a few notches to clean it up, and then go back to full volume when you push into solo territory. The same is true for your fuzz pedals; the Fuzz Face in particular responds well to rolling off volume.

As far as your general tone and volume settings go, begin with a decent amount of volume and be sure to boost the mids and lows considerably while dialing down the highs to moderate settings.

Hendrix’s Pedals

There are many effect pedals on the market that can help you emulate Hendrix's tone, including a number of mass-produced, signature and tribute models, but let’s start with a look at Hendrix’s favorites:

Vox Wah pedal
Dallas-Arbiter Fuzz Face
Roger Mayer Octavia
Shin-ei Univibe

In this video, Reverb recreates the Hendrix tones from several iconic songs and solos with pedals we had laying around the office, and you may find that you can achieve similar results using the tools you already have. Check the video for suggested combinations and settings. As you can see, it shouldn't be hard to locate the same or similar effect pedals that Hendrix used for the majority of his career.

Here are some easy substitutes:

Dunlop Hendrix Wah
Fulltone 69 MKII
MXR Uni-Vibe
Voodoo Labs Proctavia

As mentioned above, Hendrix favored the Marshall Super Lead and Plexi, and you can move even closer to his tone with:

As with anything, be sure to use any effects or tone shaping in moderation. It's easy to get carried away with some of these effects, especially when used in combinations. You will want these tones and effects to come through prominently, but you don't want to lose yourself in a wash of fuzz and wah pedals.

While Hendrix was relatively consistent in terms of his guitars, amps and pedal selections after creating the Jimi Hendrix Experience, the single most important component of the Hendrix sound throughout his career was his hands. Hendrix was obsessive about practicing and would literally carry his guitar with him at almost all times, even when going to hear others perform. So, if you’re really intent on nailing the Hendrix sound, plan to invest some real time and effort.

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