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Comparison of

Jimi and Eric's

Guitar Techniques


By Jeffrey Aarons



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Any comparative analysis is dependent on two major parameters: the subjective or the objective analysis. If it is objective, standards of reference or criteria need to be defined:

Technical - based on facility, knowledge of overall musical vocabulary as it relates to the guitar (scales, riffs, chord inversions, solo architecture, tricks).

Ability to express levels of ascension and descension, climax and rest, negative space verses excess.

Live verses studio performance

Responsiveness in terms of taste and creative intelligence in a given situation or musical idiom (within their harmonic limitations).

Consistency within and across these criteria

The issue of creativity or the transmission of expression, emotion, and intensity crosses into the realm of subjectivity more than objectivity, but there is an overlap. The subjective analysis is just that – it is dependent on ones own emotional response at a particular time. One cannot ultimately divorce oneself from that, but the march of the years can provide a more balanced response.

Keeping these complexities in mind, lets first apply the technical criteria.

Hendrix and Clapton are pretty even in most categories:

Hendrix beats out Clapton on the inventive use and facility of hybrid 6/9, major 7th or 11th chords, hybrid major 9ths, minor 7ths and 9ths, chord triads or fragments consisting of major and minor passing chords and passing tones within chords.

Clapton transcends Hendrix in solo architecture with his ability to slowly build, with weaving beautifully constructed modal riffs and occasional small triad clusters, to a blazing climax, lifting the listener to an apex, with either perfectly, (and emotionally intense) executed stretch vibratos and/or bends with just the right amount of speed to exhilarate the audience. This achieved without excessive speed or amplification pyrotechnics.

In most cases, Clapton's ability to almost vocalize a blues based solo with brilliant architecture, attack and flawless technique, both live and in the studio, is unsurpassed in the modern blues-rock idiom. It was no accident that Hendrix asked to meet Clapton as one of the conditions for his export to England. Hendrix KNEW what he was hearing immediately when Clapton's notes reached his ears for the first time and KNEW it was something that far exceeded what he was hearing on a daily basis from other well know guitarists in the blues-rock vein. That impact on Hendrix is obscured within the Hendrix industry.

jimbagonails.jpg (21828 bytes) Hendrix is a different type of performer with an attitude and interpretation quite dissimilar to Eric's. Jimi did play the same basic minor/major modal, pentatonic riffs etc. which are the staple of the blues-rock guitarist who is somewhat harmonically bound as opposed to a Jazz player. However, Hendrix was consistently more adventurous and aggressive than Clapton. Though the second half 1967 bootlegs have Eric displaying high levels of aggression and adventure.

Hendrix didn't (seem to) care if he made mistakes during a live performance,  almost playing with a reckless abandon which was as much admirable as it was risky and even indulgent. Hendrix as a result of his attack, displayed a much more erratic range of performance than Clapton. You can clearly hear the marked difference in Clapton’s ability to turn in a consistently clean (if not always brilliant), well executed performance. Often he was doing very similar note modes to Hendrix but with more control over his stretch vibratos, straight vibratos, high register riffs and bends plus cleaner, variable picking pressure. This assumes that both were subject to the impact of chemical intoxication from time to time.

Clapton' fastest riffs are AS FAST as any thing recorded by Hendrix (allowing for performances of both that I have not heard). Among many notable examples are: the ending climactical riff on the released live Sitting on Top of the World plus two fast minor modal riffs in the solo, climax riff in the live Cream Sleepy Time Time, fast modal riff in the Studio Spoonful and an abundance of extremely fast riffs permeating every solo from the live recording of the Detroit Grand Ballroom Concert in October 1967.

Each had a little favorite riff that was their signature, for instance Hendrix had his fast interplay between the first and second string in any root position, where he would bend the B string then quickly pick two notes on the E string an descend, producing a very nasty, fastriff as heard during the beginning sequence of the Manic Depression solo. Clapton also has many signature riffs, one of them being his super bending of the second (B) string when in the root (relative first position) to simulate the 7th tone of the root chord. then he would come off with a hyper quick third string bend. Eric also would frequently "quick" bend and release the third (G) string during climactical riffs as in Crossroads which gave off an effect that was purely Clapton.

Fresh Cream's  'Spoonful' revealed his mastery of and ease with the quick release, which is heard at the climax point of the 'Spoonful solo'. Here he creates anticipatory tension with the hanging second string stretch vibrato (E note) on the 15th fret and then rips into a fast minor modal riff that leads the listener back into a series of lashing bends and sharply picked notes, using hammer-ons and other finger tonalities, while slowly descending and tapering off to the close. This type of solo is masterful in its construction, execution, emotional intensity and attack.

Hendrix's answer (to me) was 'Voodoo Chile",   which is also in the key of E. On this tune Hendrix also uses many of the same minor modal riffs and double stops with a different arrangement and distribution. Hendrix pulls off his fast minor model riff early on, during the later stage of his intro. Then,   during his first solo, he again attacks variations of the minor modal area with a few chromatics thrown in. These riffs are beautifully executed, exciting and intense.   However the Voodoo Chile solo and riffs are slightly more erratic in a subtle way. They tend to meander more as if Hendrix is just wailing away, gnashing his chops for sheer fun rather than taper off and allow some needed negative space and relief. His fast riffs including 'Come On' are no faster than Claptons fastest Cream riffs.

Hendrix is the master of electronic special effects and the vibrato bar (WAMY) which allowed him to compensate for where he lacked in pure finger vibrato technique and tonality. Hendrix could no doubt, pull off a masterful solo showing architecture and practically everything a rock guitarist would ever want compacted into one solo. Where I believe he falls short of Clapton is that Eric allowed negative space and knew when NOT to pull the trigger - saving the blast for the right moment, resulting in maximum intensity.

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Note: Fender Dual Showman amps/cabs
(early '68 tour)

Hendrix was at his best when being more restrained and sweeter as in soft ballads such as 'Wind Cries Mary', 'Little Wing', 'Wait till Tomorrow' or a semi soft rocker like All Along the Watch Tower. The blues dynamo 'Red House' is great fun to hear and once again Hendrix throws every thing from his arsenal onto the tune but he doesn't holdback when he could in order to increase anticipation. Also he doesn't show the degree of fines in seducing the listener as Clapton does by using bends and stretch vibratos leading the listener down a melodic trail to a climax. Or, alternatively, just using sweet, soaring, high register bent notes that hang suspended in the air, literally singing.

An experienced guitarist will find that Hendrix's riffs, with few exceptions, are easier to handle and in some cases more simple than Claptons more complex riffs. In this I am considering pure guitar playing and not Hendrix's incomparable, and unreplicable, integration of feedback/distortion/wamy effects within solos. Though Clapton shows he was quite capable of achieving some of these effects using the dual Marshall stacks on the Grande Ballroom, and at lesser distortion/overload levels.

When I was directly comparing the Live Sitting on Top solo and ending piece (from LA forum) along with the Grand Ballroom 'Stepping Out', to Jimi's 'Red House', 'Voodoo Chile' and 'Long Hot Summer, I found two interesting items.  Number one: Jimi's fast riffs are actually easier to play as they are based on a more simple construction of the modal notes and how they're picked. On the other hand, Claptons fast riffs are usually trickier than one realizes especially when you try to duplicate them NOTE FOR NOTE. It is then that you run into interesting picking difficulties and unexpected timing complexities. Eric makes it sound so easy until you try to learn a solo verbatim. Hendrix, however, challenges the guitarist with his odd chordal movements,  hybrid clusters and occasional bizarre key changes such as 'Red House' (Key of B) and 'Long Hot Summer' (key of D flat).There is only one tricky riff that is difficult, due to finger strength, during his signature riffs such as Manic Depression solo and parts of Red House etc. but that is overcome by practicing riff enough until your bending finger is rock solid. Other wise, Hendrix's fastest riffs (at least to me) are fairly easy to replicate and have a straight forward note attack where as Clapton's solos can throw in totally unexpected picking problems and rhythm challenges. Of coarse, Claptons finger vibratos are the best and take years of practice to perfect in terms of frequency and tonality and require tremendous third, second and first finger strength. In some cases a very fast or even marginally fast Clapton riff will demonstrate spontaneous ALTERNATE picking, that is, the famous down and up movement of Jazz players! I believe that Eric was not even aware of this due to his incredible picking dexterity. His gymnastic abilities integrated with superb timing and gut wrenching emotion, allowed him to create some of the penultimate rock blues solos ever recorded.

Jimi’s vast numbers of ‘alternate’ studio performances are often cited as his search for perfection. Another less charitable view is that they were a result of his lack of focus and relatively sloppy approach. Jimi wanted to hear perfection but he had great difficulty achieving it except by re-recording, re-dubbing etc. The Cream alternatives are sparse as all three performed at the highest level of precision and concision within the studio. Eric’s ability to toss off a superbly constructed, tight and appropriate solos is well displayed in various non-Cream recordings from these times. By Comparison, Hendrix's session work from this era is decidedly unimpressive. Clapton’s Cream work remains a benchmark for all guitarists.

These comparisons are just a few examples of how Eric and Jimi are both extremely similar in some areas yet extremely dissimilar in others. Unquestionably both are guitarists of the highest order in any terms.

The real problem is that the media has hyped Hendrix beyond what he was. He is truly one of the legendary, all time greats. Unfortunately he, like all other legendary artists and personalities after their passing, has been deified to new heights of mythical, super human abilities. This cultism has unfairly and unreasonably overshadowed not only Eric, as the accompanying essay describes.

ec335.jpg (18168 bytes) Even Eric (in self-effacing mode) is diplomatic in heaping superlatives upon Jimi. This may be genuine but Clapton gave a more honest account of Hendrix in an early interview recounting his reaction to the October 1st 1966 Cream concert when Jimi played 'Killing Floor'. Clapton stated that he heard everything Hendrix ever did wrapped up in one long solo including the physical gymnastics. I believe that Clapton showed his honest reaction to his future friend and could not have been technically very intimidated [see below for an eyewitness account]. It was more the presentation and lack of reverence for his beloved blues. His response was increased aggression in his playing, a growing confidence in his own ability and a marked move away from pure blues by early ‘67. farewell2.jpg (9215 bytes)

The most fundamental difference between them was non-musical, it was one of temperament and outlook. Jimi was the flash dude from America out to conquer the world. Eric the conservative Englishman wanting to be the best blues guitarist in the world. For both it was a way to make their mark in a society that had scarred them as children. Each had their own path to follow which, to a large degree, was not to be under their personal control.

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Jimi and EC at the London Polytechnique
by Betsy Fowler

"I was present at the Central London Poly gig where EC first heard Jimi. EC was living in my flat at the time. After Jimi's pyrotechnical performance, EC was absolutely *DEFLATED* emotionally and uncharacteristically left the gig in a taxi with me and another roommate. During the ten-minute ride back to our flat he LAY ON THE FLOOR OF THE TAXI and literally MOANED in MISERY. He thought his career was over! We tried to comfort him--we were unimpressed with the musicality of Jimi's playing even though we were amused by his fabulous tricks. He refused to be comforted.

All this goes to show how competitive EC was at that time."

A further comment: EC would probably be embarrassed by this story (he really shoudn't be - he was only 21) however it shows, without a doubt, how much he was dedicated to his art and how resiliant he was/is.  He came back fightin'!

Since 23rd July 1998

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Jeff playing the final notes of the Live "Sitting on Top of the World"

An Alternate View
The Debate

1998 by Jeffrey Aarons & Graeme Pattingale