In 1967, rocker Jimi Hendrix knelt on the stage of the Monterey Pop Festival, lit a match and set his Fender Stratocaster guitar on fire as his band wailed behind him. It was a flashy and memorable moment in a luminous rock 'n' roll career filled with legendary songs like "Purple Haze" and "Hey Joe."
Hendrix's mad playing skills made him a guitar hero and inextricably linked him to the Fender Stratocaster, an electric guitar with distinctive cutouts on the body that make it look like it has two horns. Hendrix's original guitars are now in the hands of private collectors and museums, but Fender has distilled the essence of Jimi's Strat into a guitar meant for any present-day player.
Fender's Artist series Jimi Hendrix Stratocaster arrived this fall. It's not a $5,000 custom-shop guitar. It's not a straight-up '60s replica Strat. It's a hybrid creature, a mixture of vintage, Woodstock-era-style components combined with the luxuries of a modern guitar. And while Hendrix was famously left-handed, this one's for right-handed players.
Hendrix was known for simply popping into a music store, picking a right-handed Strat he liked and then flipping it over and restringing it for left-handed playing. This created some subtle changes in the sound of the instrument.
"Essentially, any right-handed Stratocaster of that era is what Jimi played," Justin Norvell, Fender's vice president of product development, told CNET's Crave blog. "We tried to create all of the sonic and tension and feel anomalies that occur when you play it upside-down, and leave you with proper right-handed ergonomics."
I popped into a local Guitar Center here in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and found two Jimi Hendrix guitars on display, one white and one black. (They sell for $899, and can also be picked up in the UK for £689 and in Australia for AU$2,399). When I took the instrument for a test drive, it felt familiar and comfortable. The neck plays fast and smooth. It took only a moment to get used to having the tuners facing down.
While you're in a room full of shredders wailing on speed-finger guitar solos, it's hard to explore the subtleties of the sonic changes wrought by this Strat's upside-down pickups and flipped string lengths. But the ax still sounded sweet.
If you were to hand a modern-day hobbyist guitar player one of Jimi Hendrix's original Fender Stratocasters from the '60s, that musician might feel a little lost, and not just because the guitar was set up for a left-handed player. The fretboard, where you place your fingertips, might feel a little curvy, the frets a bit narrow and tall. The knobs and tremolo bar, also known as a whammy bar, would be facing up, getting in the way of your normal strumming routine.
The flipped headstock (where the tuning pegs are located at the far end of the neck) changes the string tension, making the lower-note strings longer than they'd normally be and the higher strings shorter. "That extra string length affects sustain and the way that notes sound," Norvell said.
It's not just the strings that make a difference. The pickups, a threesome of Fender's period-correct American Vintage '65 reissue pickups, are flipped over too. Pickups are the part of a guitar that translates string vibrations into an electrical signal.
If Jimi Hendrix himself picked up this guitar and tried it out, he'd notice a difference in the way the neck feels. It's flatter than the ones he played, and the frets are fatter. These two features (a 9.5-inch fretboard radius and medium-jumbo frets) are often found on modern guitars. The body itself has a typical Strat configuration with the longer horn on top and the shorter cutaway on the bottom. These are all nods to the desires of today's crop of guitarists.
Guitars made in the '60s could have a lot of variation from one to the next. "There was a lot more handcrafting, and the specifications are not documented the way they are today," Norvell said. Fender created the new Hendrix Strat using 3D design software Solidworks. That data is used to direct CNC (computer numerical control) machines to cut out the main guitar components, insuring a consistent product.
A precise specialty CNC machine from Haas Automation comes into play for the Hendrix guitars. In a reversal of the usual process, the bodies are painted, buffed and polished before the cavities are cut out to make room for the electronics that go inside. Normally, the cavities are cut first and the body painted later. Fender says the new process has helped it meet the demand for the guitar.
Like in the 1960s, the human touch is still an integral part of the guitar-making process. Fender factory workers sand, assemble, hand-finish, set up and play the guitars before sending them off to retailers. Fender says this gives the Hendrix instruments the right "feel," which is a hard-to-define magical quality of an instrument. You pick it up. You play it. You know if it feels right.
The Hendrix Strat, of course, isn't a magic ticket that inducts you into a secret hall of sound, imbuing you with mystical guitar-playing abilities, but it does represent a musical tabula rasa, a starting point for building a sound. "I think Jimi himself would probably tell someone it's great to be inspired by him, but the best thing and the coolest thing is to still find your own self," Norvell said.
If I was in the market for a Strat, I would give the Jimi Hendrix model a more serious look. Until then, I'm hanging onto my champagne-sparkle Telecaster, But I'll continue to appreciate Hendrix's legendary songs, like "All Along the Watchtower" and "The Wind Cries Mary," while hoping a new legion of players will get hold of Fender's Jimi Strat and dream of standing onstage before an ocean of fans waving their hands in the air and swaying to guitar licks that transcend time.