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Hendrix
&
Clapton
Debate

 

 

 

Portrait by
Gered Mankowitz

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Jeff Aarons and I knew we would produce some strong reactions with our comparison of Hendrix and Clapton plus Beck and Townshend. We put up a balanced argument with a strong emphasis on the historical perspective. It was a comparison of the two greatest blues-rock soloists of the '60's and not simply as blues guitarists. That did elicit much thoughtful input (and on going email debate) from supporters of both Jimi and Eric. Unfortunately it attracted, to my disappointment and as Jeff expected, many vituperative responses from obsessive Hendrix fans.

Several Hendrix supporters put up cogent arguments, however they ultimately come down to "Hendrix is the man". That’s fine, and we accept that because for Jeff, "Clapton is his man". However one should have the breadth of hearing and open mindedness to recognise others who have equal claim to the pantheon of the greats and thankfully these thoughtful people did. One cannot just listen to Hendrix or Clapton or Page etc etc and ignore the others! My bitter response to such narrow mindedness is to say that they are all hacks and shout .."go and listen to John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Thelonius Monk, Charlie Parker, Bill Evans etc etc and hear some serious musicianship!!" But obviously I don't believe that or I wouldn't be putting the work in on this site.

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One criticism that is valid is that we are being "academic" and not listening to the music. We are being academic in that we are analysing the music/playing and trying to put it in historical perspective. Hendrix's or Clapton's or Cream's music cannot be truly appreciated for what they achieved unless you understand the historical context. To put it bluntly there has been, and are now, many rock guitarists who are technically superior to Hendrix and Clapton. They should be as they built on Jimi's and Eric's break throughs, just as both of them had built on the great black blues guitarists. Jeff and I much prefer listening to music and in Jeffs case playing! In fact as I write this I am listening to the excellent trumpet playing of Lee Morgan (he died too young) with Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock on the CD "The Procrastinator".

Another valid criticism is that Jeff is slanted towards Clapton. Yes that is true but his position is a good counter to the uncritical Hendrix fanatics. There is some negative stuff on Cream coming up in the future so keep a lookout as we've only done the good stuff so far!

Accepting the enthusiasm of the young and their inevitable lack of listening experience, some of the responses show a surprising lack of knowledge of Hendrix's recordings from such avowed fans. In several responses examples were suggested to disprove what we were saying about Jimi's technique, whether they do or not is arguable, but usually I could suggest better examples to support what was proposed. I would not have expected any Hendrix fan to seriously propose examples from that dreadful performance at the "Isle of Wight" ( I bought and got rid of the LP over 25 years ago - it should never have been released!). And before you Hendrix fans get all worked up - Hendrix was ill, the band hadn't played together for almost a month, the gear was cracking up and the gig was a bummer (check out the video) [oh yeah - like any performance from a master there are a few good passages]. Those things happen, especially when you take chances like Jimi and Cream and The Who etc.

One comment that I found interesting was "there was before Hendrix and after Hendrix". One can say the same thing about Clapton or Page or Van Halen or B.B.King or T-Bone Walker or Charlie Christian or Charlie Parker or Louis Armstrong etc etc, and some of those names do have a very real claim to such an accolade. It’s basically a narrow view of music and a very glib statement. All I can suggest is go and listen more widely and check out the dates on the recordings!

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Charlie Christian

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T-Bone Walker

One of the more amusing things was the abusive language. There is an old joke about crude language - an Englishmen has to learn to swear, an American has to be taught while Australian's are born swearing. If you hadn't noticed I'm Australian, and those who attempted to be-little me through abuse were mere amateurs.

One response was that "if I was a guitarist I would be able to counter the arguments" (a paraphrase). No musician has, the contrary is true. Those experienced, ie performing, musicians, that have been in contact have agreed, even though they are also great Hendrix fans. Hendrix played Monterey and The Fillmore in June 1967 - people were blasted by his performances, no argument. However they knew where he was from - they had seen the blues masters. Also Jimi was, at that time, largely playing in the pop limit of   3-5 min songs. So was Cream when they arrived in August, but they rapidly burst   through that barrier as they responded to the new environment of the Fillmore. Clapton's influences were equally obvious, but he was expanding the horizons with an incredible technical facility. Bruce and Baker were just off the planet. Plus they were doing it at unheard of volumes at the time. On Clapton - who do you ask? - Carlos Santana, Steve Miller, Mike Bloomfield, Jorma Kaukonen, Jerry Miller, Leslie West etc etc.

 

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The master of the wammy

Now for some Jimi centred responses:

Hendrix was a much better rhythm player than Clapton. Jeff was comparing them as soloists which is where their massive influence lays. Clapton fundamentally remains a blues soloist as he adopts the B.B. King approach of employing guitarists who are better rhythm players.

Hendrix was a better singer then Clapton. At this time he unarguably was, but Jack Bruce was the lead singer of Cream - so what's the point? By the early '70's Clapton became, at least, as well an accomplished a vocalist as Hendrix. And sorry another blow: Hendrix was not a great singer (limited range, ragged pitch, off-key too often etc) but still very effective - listen to Jack Bruce as just one very obvious example of a better singer.

Hendrix was a better songwriter. Clapton was a struggling writer at this time, by his own admission. But so what - Bruce/Brown were Cream's songwriters!

Hendrix's albums were more balanced and coherent. The Experience was fundamentally a leader and backing band and the albums reflected that (and that’s not demeaning Noel or Mitch!). Cream were a group of three equal talents and all three remain, to this day, potent performing and recording musicians. Cream's albums reflected their individual musical skills and outlooks in an extraordinary, but fragile, synergy. Jimi's greatest album (and one of the great albums) "Electric Ladyland" exhibits much the same schizophrenia as Cream's albums - the strained mix of pop songs, blues, jams and instrumental extravagance.

Hendrix was one of the great guitarists of all time who remains a major influence on electric guitar playing. The same statement applies to Clapton and, if you doubt it, the most influential guitarists of the '70's were Page and Van Halen - self confessed Clapton disciples!

There are many bootleg recordings that show what an extraordinary guitarist Hendrix was. No arguments and I don't see why we need to be patronised in such a way - we knew that 30 years ago without listening to bootlegs! On the point of bootlegs - listen to Cream's from 2nd half of '67. Also, many of the Hendrix bootlegs, let alone some of the official releases, show how inconsistent he was and the large number of 'wasted' performances. Clapton was uninspired on occasions but he was in tune, in time and balanced with the rest of the band. Admittedly he could rely on the rest of the band to fill the gaps in creativity even if he didn't recognise the potential!

Hendrix had a great sense of time. All great players do! Clapton has a more rigid (and reliable) sense of time from his more reverential approach to the blues. Time in Cream was incredibly flexible - Jack and Ginger were Jazz players with an innate sense of One, wherever that may lay at that musical point. Clapton had to negotiate that, while in the Experience there was only one One. In 2nd half 1967 Clapton's playing became incredibly time fractured during the jams as he responded to Baker and Bruce. By 1968 he had became more locked down but "Crossroads" is the great example of the shuffling beat they could pull off. By the final tour Clapton had completely locked up but on the frenetic "I'm So Glad", it freakily worked against the rampant syncopation of Bruce and Baker.

Clapton does recycle blues riffs. So did Hendrix and all blues guitarists! Blues playing is a musical language that has a limited vocabulary. To communicate effectively in that language you must master that limited vocabulary and its subtleties. Jimi and Eric were masters of that vocabulary and Eric remains one of the few living masters. Eric, in the Bluesbreakers and early Cream, was very clearly influenced by Freddie King and, to lesser extents, by B.B., Albert and Muddy Waters. During 1967 that vocabulary began to be distorted by the Jazz influences of his fellow band members. Hendrix's influences are broader and more integrated, thus harder to identify, but Albert King, Muddy and Guitar Slim are clear. Jimi also blended in R&B that clearly distinguishes his approach from that of Eric's. Hendrix was a more rounded player in early '67 with Eric having the superior technical facility, but less clear musical concept. By 2nd half of '67 Clapton was rampant and it wasn't until 1st half '68 that Hendrix fully rounded out his musical approach. Unfortunately by that time he was trapped into his stage act, under all circumstances, to considerable detriment to his playing. But it was a great performance especially compared to Cream's complete lack of one.

 

Well that's the end of the debate - I'm closing the "Feedback" page as it's become pointless. Thank you to those from both camps who have enhanced the debate. To those who can't come to grips with what we are saying: just open your ears and then your minds and listen widely - there's a world of wonderful music to listen to!

 

Final words from Ron Newark:

"We all miss Jimi, but surely there is room for two."

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Jimi & the Gibson Flying V.  He was playing more Gibson
guitar near the end

 

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Monterey soundcheck before the, legitimately, legendary performance.
by Jim Marshall from his beautiful book "Not Fade Away"

PS - Hope the Hendrix fans appreciate the picture bias! And do you remember what you did when you heard that Jimi had died?

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Graeme Pattingale, 1999