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Hendrix & Clapton

Experience & Cream

An Alternate View

from Caleb Kennedy

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Hendrix: "I've played with him and he's good. It's difficult to compare us, because our styles are so different."

I was glad to read the article about the influence of Cream & Hendrix on each other. Most accounts ignore the way their careers intertwined, instead treating each in isolation and just touting their superiority over all competitors. So the more open approach is refreshing. It's true that Hendrix & Clapton had a kind of mutual appreciation society going - you don't hear either of them claiming greater greatness for themselves.

Hendrix:"There is no best guitarist. There are so many styles in music. It's a matter of taste."

Hendrix in particular downplayed his own abilities in interviews, often saying that he could not play what he heard in his head, and that it was unfair to compare him to players with different styles of playing. He even criticized a comparison of him and Clapton--"the notes might sound like it, but it's a completely different scene between those notes" - which seems to me to be saying that while they both played in a blues-rock style, their approaches were different and one was not better than the other.

I'd like to mention the 1 Oct '66 moment where Hendrix tore into 'Killing Floor' -I find it interesting that Clapton seems to have been the only one there who was blown away by Jimi's playing - Jack & Ginger were not impressed, Betsy Fowler was unimpressed, but Eric was moaning in misery! I don't think it really matters how well Hendrix actually played on this occasion, because his playing was still pretty primitive in Oct '66 and had not reached the levels that we're familiar with today.

Clapton's statement that "he heard everything Hendrix ever did wrapped up in one long solo" is almost identical to Mike Bloomfield's comment when he saw Hendrix several months earlier--"He was getting every sound I was ever to hear him get right there in that room." I think these are expressions of awe - not statements that Hendrix, this early on, was limited to a few pyrotechnical and gymnastic tricks. And besides, both these comments are inaccurate. While Hendrix through the years rarely strayed much from his basic technique, and had a few tricks that he'd return to in each performance, his playing became steadily more fluid and impressive up to his death. In '66 I doubt he could even have contemplated Electric Ladyland, let alone the playing on the newly-released Fillmore East shows. But who knows, maybe he was already hearing them in his head.

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I'll also mention that Hendrix & Clapton did jam together on occasion - at the end of July '67 and (also with Jeff Beck) in June '68. But as far as we know, nobody taped these jams - so we'll never know how Jimi & Eric might have sounded together.

I'd mainly like to talk about other ways to compare Clapton & Hendrix as the Clapton/Hendrix page focuses exclusively on guitar techniques. I think this produces a somewhat distorted picture but that is ameliorated, to a degree, if considered in conjunction with the Beck/Clapton/Hendrix/Townshend page. I'd agree that Hendrix's playing was generally sloppier than Clapton's. In part this may have been because he cared less, or, more likely he concentrated on a groovy feeling rather than precise technique. Also, in part, it's probably also because he seems to have had an aversion to practice, instead preferring to constantly strive for something new (and perhaps out of his grasp), and settle for whatever came out. [Cream didn't practice either - they were both intensive performing bands where practice time was superfluous]

He spends much of his time on bootlegs feeling around, apparently looking for the switch. As he said in a Dick Cavett appearance, "I can't practice--it's just always like a jam…it's hard for me to remember any notes 'cause I'm constantly trying to create other things. That's why I make a lot of mistakes." I'd also agree that Hendrix "wanted to hear perfection but had great difficulty achieving it," due to his "lack of focus and relatively sloppy approach". Though these may be the least important reasons for his eternal redubs. Perhaps it's simpler to say that such a high level of perfectionism usually defeats itself, unless the artist is very focused indeed [John Coltrane is a rare example].

Hendrix apparently spent almost every waking hour in front of a rolling tape-recorder, thus giving us thousands of hours of proof of his 'lack of focus' (and his love of the never-ending jam). By contrast, Cream's recordings are quite sparse (with the exception of the live tour of 10-68). It's true that they were able to apply themselves with "precision and concision" when the tapes started rolling; they spared us their hours of fumbling for the switch. But the other aspect that is downplayed is the far greater burden Hendrix placed on himself.

Cream could rely on each other for musical support (friendly or not). In the studio: Jack/Pete & Ginger could write the songs, Jack and Felix develop the arrangments, while Clapton perfected his overdubs [and Ginger go and have a drink to escape the tedium].

Hendrix:

Wrote almost all his songs (generally superior to Cream's),

Worked out all the arrangements to the tiniest detail,

Played multiple intertwining guitar lines in a variety of speeds and directions (which I find much more impressive than even Clapton's gorgeous solos on Wheels of Fire)

Oversaw the production and mixing after the exhausted Chandler left (Electric Ladyland is, to me, the epitome of production art and imagination, though Hendrix's effort seems to have collapsed after that).

All these abilities lie outside the strict guitar-playing realm (which I recognise you weren't really considering). I think Hendrix displays more talent than Clapton/Cream.

jhebed.jpg (14752 bytes) As far as live shows, Cream and Hendrix were more similar - each had a basic and mostly unvarying setlist that, in their peaks, served as a framework for the solo jams. Cream had the advantage of being three brilliant players and soloists; Mitch was a great drummer (though his solos tend to imitate Ginger's), but Hendrix apparently only wanted his bassists to be timekeepers. I think his shows could have greatly improved if he'd had better bass-players - often you can feel Hendrix's playing being dragged down by the simple, unchanging bass patterns. Hendrix had to put on one-man shows, Mitch being the only other player who could prod him on; in Cream each player could push each other to greater heights. creambn.jpg (12704 bytes)

Hendrix is also well-known for his prodigous drug intake, as you note, and this may have had a positive effect on his playing (I'll give him the benefit of the doubt here). Eventually, it seems, to have crippled him to the point where he couldn't put on a good show without stuffing himself with chemicals first. In the '70's the same seems to have applied to Clapton.

One other aspect of the live shows you don't really bring up is the visual impact. In a review of the live 'Toad' on this site it's mentioned that a drum solo is "a very visual enjoyment live and that is lost when only listening to the recording." Hendrix live shows have much the same problem. Clapton, a stand-still player, can be appreciated entirely through the audio documents; but visual live Hendrix has a spectacular, uplifting effect that Cream doesn't match. The most obvious instance of this might be 'Wild Thing' from Monterey '67 - in audio alone this performance is almost meaningless - assuming this is a musical statement, and not just a visual one. The two are hard to separate in a Hendrix show. This is his greatest difference from Clapton:the way in which he made his guitar-playing inseparable from his body movements. (The video of Hendrix at Berkeley mid-'70 is probably the best demonstration of this, in his most 'mature' style.) Hendrix was a showoff, up to the end, and offers few moments of 'calm' playing; a stand-still Hendrix performance was a rare one (the final medley at Woodstock is a good example). This is probably the basic difference between the ways he and Clapton approached their music. jhshow.JPG (12142 bytes)

You rightly mention Hendrix's consistently high level of adventure and aggression, which makes many of his shows both exhilarating and frightening. Hendrix almost always tried to come out with both barrels blasting. Clapton certainly had more 'taste' and restraint in his soloing, and perhaps you're right to say that a concise, elegant solo is musically superior to a wandering, wailing solo. It's a matter of taste, though - I find Cream's live jams to be meandering and directionless, though delightful, and many of Hendrix's live excursions seem tighter to me than Cream's (or perhaps just less jazz-influenced).

Like everyone else, you mention that Hendrix is the unrivaled master of feedback/distortion/whammy-whanging/spring-tapping/various electronic effects. Clapton sparingly used some of these and I think less effectively, especially his wah-wah playing - which I find almost amateurish compared to Hendrix.

jhfv.jpg (11511 bytes) The real question is: do these enhance the playing, or do they obscure it beneath a show of fireworks? When you consider pure guitar-playing, you can ignore this question. However, I think it's central in a discussion of these two guitarists. As you hint, Clapton can distinguish himself in 'straight' playing simply because Hendrix rarely bothered playing straight, but always turned on the sparks. Care and control were not Hendrix trademarks...his approach would not produce a Clapton-esque solo, just as the reverse is true. Maybe 'Little Wing' is closest, and naturally that's the one Clapton covered in the Dominoes. In live terms, from the official releases, 'Red House' from "Live in the West" (ignoring the teeth stuff near the end) and 'Machine Gun' from "Band of Gypsies at Fillmore East", where the pyrotechnics are integral to the song/musical/political concept and enhance the jam in 'architectureal' terms, are also close.
Hendrix's special effects can't really be considered apart from his style; in large part, they were his style. There's an interesting quote from a 'classical' blues player, Albert King, on this: "He'd punch a button and get some smoke. And punch a button and get something else... But when you want to really come down and play the blues, well I could've easily played his songs, but he couldn't play mine." All this, of course, depends on personal tastes and feelings: when you note the elements that Hendrix leaves out of his live 'Red House', ie "leading the listener down a melodic trail to a climax" and "using sweet, soaring high register bent notes that hang suspended in the air, literally singing" - these are the same things that define that performance for me. But as Hendrix said, "it just all depends on how your ears are together and how your mind is - where your head's at." The conclusion to this is that Clapton solos were more 'architectural' where as Hendrix's were more 'conceptual'. aking.JPG (20669 bytes)

The Hendrix Style

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with the Isley Bros

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with Curtis Knight

When you listen to Hendrix's earlier recordings with Curtis Knight or Lonnie Youngblood, it's clear how heavily he was influenced by the R&B style of that time. His playing, when he burst onto the English scene, was not far removed from his playing on the "chitlin circuit" in previous years. He never fully moved out of that style, though his playing did become more sophisticated. There is none of his choppy rhythm style in Clapton's work with Cream. Clapton's rhythm playing feeds of what Jack Bruce is doing, whereas in Hendrix's songs the bass-player almost usually follows a riff that Hendrix initiates. This difference is because Hendrix came up from the bottom, spending years playing chords and absorbing rhythms, before he could come into his own as a solo player. Clapton came from the top, learning the solo styles of the great blues players, considering his rhythm work almost as an afterthought, as his bands required a blues soloist which is the role he continued right to today.

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with the diminutive Richard Penniman

Hendrix's bass patterns usually establish a simple groove ('Voodoo Child (slight return)' being the best example). Hendrix's bassists rarely do much more than repeat the basic riff throughout the song. By '70 Hendrix's songs tended to be even more riff-centered than his Experience songs - perhaps because of the writing slump he fell into after Electric Ladyland. His later songs are built from the riff up, rather than the riff expressing the song's emotion as in earlier days. I think this is a limitation, but Hendrix seems to have preferred it this way. In live performances it meant that his solo playing was almost always tied to the song pattern - he didn't drift out very far, but instead restricted himself to the framework of the song.

Cream's style is vastly different. Most of their songs are not riff-based - they were more experimental than that and of course, they are known for dropping the framework of the song in live performances; when they hit the solo, it was time to set off for uncharted terrain. Though they did strike a balance in live shows between jam-songs and more concise songs where they stayed within the song's borders. Although as band-players Cream could wander more than Hendrix did, as an individual player Hendrix was a lot more experimental and unconventional than Clapton (even taking into consideration only Clapton's work with Cream). This is not referring to their 'straight' playing styles, or what levels of excitement they could reach, but to the uses to which they put the guitar. Clapton was more conservative; to him the guitar was a musical instrument above all, and although he inventively used electronic technology to enhance (even transform) his playing, at all times his style is 'guitar' playing - that is, you can always trace his sounds back to his fingers. Hendrix, on the other hand, was apparently determined to 'think outside the guitar'. His guitar could be a physical prop, an instrument of sexuality or destruction; and his playing often covers a bizarre variety of sounds that seem to have no physical connection to the guitar.

In conclusion I think that Clapton created a more distinctive individual style than Hendrix. I mean this in the sense that Clapton's playing is more recognizable and adaptable, as can perhaps be proven by any of Clapton's guest appearances. When you find post-Experience Hendrix appearing on other people's albums, he usually doesn't contribute much that another guitarist couldn't (his solos don't have the same zing and flair that they have in his own songs, and he frequently prefers to stay in the background). His style worked best for his own material; I don't think that Hendrix as the guitarist we know would be possible without Hendrix the songwriter to provide the right contexts. This is not the case with Clapton.

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(if you have read this you should know this perfrormance!)

Caleb Kennedy, 1999
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