Equipment used by guitar legends always receive some attention. However, the gear that Jimi Hendrix used – specifically his Stratocasters – have been analyzed more than any other instrument. Hendrix played a number of Strats in the brief time that he performed, and was quite partial to an SG and the Gibson Flying V. He also showed fondness for late-60s CBS-spec Stratocasters, as opposed to ones that were released in the early or mid-sixties. The last Strats the world watched him play on were models that were released before 1965, as noted by their modern logos, maple fingerboards, and large headstocks. The white version was seen in 1969 with stock performance. The black Stratocaster was seen in 1970s “Isle of Wight,” particularly in photographs from that time.
However, early on, when “Are You Experienced” was released, and during the memorable performance in 1967 at the Monterey Pop Festival, Hendrix often played one of several pre-CBS Stratocasters with transition logos or “spaghetti” and small headstocks. A couple of Stratocasters were played at the Monterey festival – a mid-60s black model with a rosewood fingerboard and a small headstock; as well as the Strat he poured lighter fluid on and set on fire at the close of his “Wild Thing” performance. This transition-era 1965 Strat supported the small headstock of the earlier model. This world-renowned Stratocaster wasn’t as photographed as other instruments he would later play (because he hadn’t yet achieved his peak popularity when the Monterey performance took place). Also, due to the damage the guitar suffered during that performance, it was in no shape to play (it was burned and in pieces). The instrument was seen infrequently before the appearance at Monterey. Hendrix had the instrument customized by having 50% of the body painted with fiesta red, and the other half painted white with floral images. Aside from that, this standard 1965 Stratocaster featured a variety of features, short-lived as it was. They included a wider new logo in gold and black over a compact headstock, as well as a rosewood fingerboard that had Pearloid parquets. Another Strat from 1965 – the sunburst model – also happened to be used before being set on fire and destroyed by the musician. This incident took place at the London Astoria. The guitar would eventually be issued to Frank Zappa. Posthumously, the guitar founds its way to Zappa’ son, Dweezil.
Although pre-CBS Strats are considered to be collectors memorabilia, a lot of fans feel that Jimi had a preference towards guitars made after 1965, mostly because of the tone they conveyed. There is a theory that Hendrix believed the surplus of wood inside of the bigger headstocks (post-CBS) enhanced sustain. Another theory is that the moderately weaker one-coil pickups that were available in the 60s created more noise when they were connected to the musician’s Marshall 100-watt stacks. Though this comes across as contrary to logic, the actual theory does hold up: weaker pickups stop the signal from being broken apart too early within the chain of the signal. As such, a modicum of fidelity must be maintained right up to the large amp’s output stage. Another thing that is often talked about is the musician's preference for playing right-handed Stratocasters upside down (in spite of the availability of left-handed Stratocasters). Hendrix had his right-handed Strat re-stringed with a low-E back on the top. It was wound up around the turner post furthest away from the nut, creating an alteration in the strings’ vibrational characteristics.
Someone who can shed some light on such theories is Roger Mayer, the technician who worked for Hendrix both in-studio and during concerts. His experience with the musician's guitars was very hands-on. Mayer put together and changed many pedals used by Hendrix. Additionally, he worked as Hendrix’s assistant, helping him choose and establish most of the guitars he played with. Here’s what he had to say regarding the greater sustainability/wide headstock theory:
“No, Jimi wouldn’t have considered that,” Mayer told this writer. “All the guitars that we used were bought out of necessity; there weren’t that many Stratocasters around [in London] in those days, and they were very expensive. Also, in the 1960s nobody paid much attention to whether pre-CBS Fenders were any better than CBS Fenders. They were all about the same. I can’t see a slightly bigger headstock making any difference anyway.”
Regardless, the Stratocasters Hendrix used are legendary because he was the one playing them. Whatever guitar the musician wailed on, the uniqueness of the sound would go on to live forever.
Next player: Buddy Holly