Hendrix's Purple Haze revisited as blues on a 50's era Gibson archtop
This month is a cover of the Jimi Hendrix classic Purple Haze. Kinda silly, huh? But I've been rethinking Hendrix for the last several years, and it has me playing some of his most famous songs as primitive solo blues pieces. I've been finding that it works really well.
I suppose the underlying rootsy bluesiness of Hendrix should come as no surprise, after all the guy started out on the chitlin' circuit in funk/soul review bands, even doing a stint with LIttle Richard if Wikipedia is to be believed. But it has been a revelation to me just how tuned into the very old acoustic blues tradition his songs seem to be, given his colossal status as an electric player. I may be hearing things (probably!) but for the last several years my brain keeps throwing Hendrix in a blender with Skip James.
The dawn of this acousto-electric Hendrix/James dyslexia came when I was invited to jam with some friends from work several years ago. The drummer gave me a CD of songs he wanted to try, and among them was Manic Depression. I have never been that big of a Hendrix fan, so I've never really had any of his songs under my fingers. But I was curious, so I sat down with an acoustic and started trying to learn this song. And I have to say I finally got it. After stripping away all of the Jimi Hendrix Experience psychedelisonic embellishments and affectations and seeing what was left, I landed squarely on a very cool spot...Skip James.
Why Skip James? Because at the time, he was the only really old school ACOUSTIC blues I was familiar with. Yes, I knew Howlin' Wolf, Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, and all of the great Chicago ELECTRIC blues guys that influenced the British invasion. But the acoustic tradition of the delta and points south was far less familiar. However, thanks to a confluence of cultural events that included Wim Wenders' PBS piece on the blues and the Coen brothers movie Oh Brother Where Art Thou, I was familiar with Skip James, and most particularly Killing Floor Blues. So when I started learning Manic Depression, I was primed to hear elemental blues at the core of Hendrix. I couldn't get over how much Manic Depression reminded me of an old time, depression era acoustic blues, at least once you stripped away all the psychedelia, which I did at the time, and captured during a recording session when Doug stopped by to record one of Aurora's Rabbathian bass solos.
Which brings us to this month's no frills arrangement of Purple Haze...No big ass fuzzed out electric guitar swimming in a pool of reveb to mesh with Jimi's own brother from another planet overdubbed vocal mayhem. No backing band driving the cacophony between miltaristic march and loose as a goose jam.
Just the essence of the song. Which it turns out, is a fairly standard blues.
Those who listen for such things will find me deliberately switching between E major and E minor chords, playing with major minor tonality just like Skip James in Killing Floor blues.
The guitar is one that was languishing in Baltimore at my daughter's place. It is a family heirloom that belonged to Jed's grandfather. Jed is my daughter's significant other, and on several occasions I had spied the guitar gathering dust around their house. Turns out that the original tuners had lost their buttons so the instrument was a bit of a challenge to play. I offered to install new tuners for playing privileges. It is a nice old guitar that I date to the 1950's based on the style of Kluson tuners that were on it. It projects nicely and has snap and reverb that paired well with the sound I wanted for this recording. I love Gibson necks, and this one is no exception, playing smooth and easy over what I assume are the origninal frets.