The electric guitar is not something to be taken for granted. It is a source of endless inspiration for millions of human beings who wrap their hands around it’s beautiful neck each and every day. There are many famous musicians who are credited with furthering the development of possibilities on the instrument, but Jimi Hendrix will always be the most prominent person in that regard. His of the electric guitar is where the term ‘guitar hero’ originates. Certain things Hendrix did on stage, like lighting his guitar on fire, was not something people ever witnessed before. But the man did it to prove a point, and he succeeded, greatly.
People are well aware of Hendrix’s tenure with The Jimi Hendrix Experience, not to mention the many well-known rhythm sections and sidemen posse’s he was a part of that led up to his solo career. But it was his Band of Gypsies project that always tickled my fancy the most. Like the Experience, Band of Gypsies was a three piece, filled out by drummer Buddy Miles, and bassist Billy Cox. Hendrix went way back with Cox, whom he first met in the military in the early sixties, and the two continued playing music together in Tennessee shortly after being discharged. Buddy Miles had founded the band The Electric Flag, which included guitar extraordinaire Mike Bloomfield, and was a frequent jam partner of Hendrix in the late sixties.
The album’s opener, “Who Knows”, has been covered by numerous bands, from world-renowned national touring acts to your run-of-the-mill cover bands that you’d find in most drinking establishments. It’s a great way to introduce the listener to the new sound that Jimi had cultivated, with it’s hooky guitar riff that’s as funky as it is bluesy, and the R&B/Funk rhythms Cox and Miles created that would permeate through most of the album, a sound Hendrix never really explored with the Experience. It showcases not only Buddy Miles’ ability to simultaneously sing and lay down a fat, funky beat like a boss, but also his talent for scat singing, something which Hendrix supposedly wanted him to dial back a bit. Hendrix uses some kind of octave, pitch-shifting pedal for his soloing towards the end, and it’s one of my favorite effects of his that I’ve always been chasing after.
The song that’s the most well-known from this album, and considered a Hendrix classic, definitely the twelve and a half minute jam “Machine Gun”. With it’s anti-Vietnam lyrics, syncopated rhythm breaks that are meant to mimic a gun firing, and Jimi’s fat, single coil guitar tone which so many, lust after, it’s one of those songs that defines the era so well, both lyrically and musically. “Changes” is another one off the album I’ve heard covered fairly often, with Steve Winwood doing a great rendition this past SunFest in West Palm Beach. The main riff is another example of Hendrix’s great interpretation of a simple blues scale like the pentatonic, which almost every guitar player knows inside and out. Through in an up-tempo rhythm, some choice vibrato, and Cox’s driving bass lines in the verses, and you’ve got another track that defines the stylistic change in sound that Hendrix was going for post-Experience.
Don’t get me wrong, the Hendrix Experience was awesome. It introduced the mainstream to his brilliance not only as a singer and guitarist, but also as a front man, bandleader and counterculture icon. The material they produced was amazing, but with Band of Gypsys, he made his sound more dance-able, more groove-oriented, with emphasis on jamming and laying back into the pocket more, thanks in huge part to Cox and Miles. You could almost say they helped invent the funk rock genre, and Hendrix’s name is synonymous with the term ‘invention’. It’s a shame they didn’t produce more material before Jimi passed away later that same year. But than again, we all would’ve loved to see him carry on with any of his projects, but like so many of his peers from that era, he burned so bright for so little time.