Gibson Custom recently issued two signature guitars, the Jimi Hendrix 1969 Flying V in Aged Ebony, and the Jimi Hendrix 1967 SG Custom in Aged Polaris white, both Custom Shop limited editions of 150 pieces (including 25 left-handed Flying Vs – find out more about the R&D process that went into them here). Coinciding with the 50th anniversary of Jimi’s death, it was a timely reminder of just how important a handful of Gibson instruments were to Jimi during his short but spectacular career. Jimi Hendrix and the Fender Stratocaster – of course. But not always. Jimi’s most important deviations from his beloved Strats mostly came with these Gibsons, which he favoured for blues-flavoured pieces in his live set.
The few guitar-oriented interviews Jimi gave during his lifetime reveal little about his taste for Gibsons. It might be safe to assume he leaned towards them as suitable tools for the particular job he had in mind, in contrast to his Strats thanks to their different pickups, string tension, and scale length, as well as that handy extra fret. He probably felt better among this change of scenery when it came to painting his blues pictures.
There’s strong evidence that, like many a talented guitarist, Jimi would get a decent racket out of anything he picked up that even vaguely resembled a guitar. There are stories of him showing up for jam sessions – any jam session, anywhere, any time, more or less – and if he came empty handed, he’d turn to whatever was offered. And often he’d still blow everyone else out of the room.
In the beginning, before he came to England in 1966 and launched his rock career, Jimi like most players had moved up through the ranks of beginner guitars and also-rans. As a teenager, inevitably his first electrics were fairly cheap: a single-cutaway one-pickup Supro Ozark in white finish, followed by a double-cut two-pickup Danelectro 3022 in bronze. From those, he moved to a double-cut Epiphone Wilshire (a relatively rare vibrato version), a few Duo-Sonic solids, which were his first Fenders, and a Jazzmaster or two. When he moved to London, he arrived with a sunburst Stratocaster, the model that would serve him well as his main choice through his few years of stardom.
Let’s take a look at the Gibsons Jimi owned. He acquired a ’67 Flying V in the summer of 1967, and he had it until the start of ’69, using it as his main blues guitar for what amounted to something like half his time in the spotlight. The new guitar that Jimi bought was the revised Flying V that Gibson launched in 1967, with different hardware and materials compared to the first V issued briefly back in the late 50s.
Jimi’s 1967 V didn’t have the original korina model’s through-body stringing or body-edge rubber strip, but it did have a large white pickguard and truss-rod cover, a mahogany body and neck, a tune-o-matic bridge and Gibson Maestro Vibrola, and chrome-plated metalwork. It had a new control layout, too, placing the two volumes and single tone into a triangular group rather than the three-in-line style of the original.
The ’67-style model kept the general body and headstock shape that had always made a Flying V stand out in the crowd, with some minor tweaks, and it kept the regular scale-length, the 22-fret rosewood board with dot markers, and the all-important pair of humbuckers, now integrated into the pickguard.
The left-handed Jimi surely found the symmetrical V-shape body a good fit for the way he played right-handed guitars ‘upside down’. Left-handers have three main options. They can forget they’re a lefty and play a regular right-handed guitar in a right-handed way (Robert Fripp’s approach, for example). They can go to the other extreme and get a true left-handed guitar, with everything reversed (Tony Iommi, say). Or they can turn a right-handed guitar around to face the ‘wrong’ way, either without changing the strings (like Albert King) or taking a bit more trouble and reversing the stringing (like our Jimi).
Jimi played his ’67 V a lot, and it’s often called the psychedelic V because he used model-kit paints to add some flamboyant decorations to the body. The British guitarist Dave Brewis discovered the guitar in England in 1995, resprayed black and positively identified thanks to unique patterns in its pearloid dot fingerboard inlays. He restored the painted finish and sold the guitar to a collector in 2003, since when it’s changed hands a few times.
A rather haphazard list of Jimi’s guitars was published in response to a reader’s letter in Melody Maker early in 1968. “Jimi has about eight guitars,” came the reply. First on the list was – surprise, surprise – a Fender Stratocaster. Next was a “Gibson Flying Angel”, meaning the psychedelic V, and a “double-neck six and 12-string Gibson”, presumably an EDS-1275. Also noted were a Rickenbacker bass “which he shares with Noel Redding” and “two eight-string bass guitars”. Nothing much is known for certain about the double-neck or the Rick bass, but Jimi and Noel had used a pair of Hagstrom eight-string basses when recording Spanish Castle Magic a few months earlier.
By the time Jimi gave his 1967 Flying V to Mick Cox early in 1969, he’d already got a couple more Gibsons. By the last few months of ’68 he had a new SG Custom, which he used on and off for about a year, again mostly for the bluesier live pieces – notably Red House – where it took the place of the discarded V. Jimi, who surely noticed Eric Clapton using an SG with Cream, played his regular right-handed Custom flipped as usual for lefty-friendliness. In a similar way to his V, the SG’s almost-symmetrical body suited his upside-down approach well – certainly more than the staple-pickup 1956 Les Paul Custom he played at the Fillmore East and Miami Pop Festival in May 1968.
Jimi’s SG had a gorgeous white finish, three gleaming gold-plated humbuckers, and the high-end Custom’s other fancy appointments that included a large ‘bat-wing’ pickguard that Gibson had recently added to the SGs. It had Gibson’s regular two-pickup control layout necessarily wired differently for this three-pickup model. A three-way selector offered neck pickup alone, bridge and middle pickup together, or bridge pickup alone. The two nearest knobs were for neck pickup volume and tone, and the two furthest for volume and tone of bridge or bridge-and-middle, depending on the selector position.
The best known outing of the SG that survives on video was Jimi’s appearance on the Dick Cavett TV show in 1969, where he plays Izabella and Machine Gun with Mitch Mitchell on drums, Billy Cox on bass, and Juma Sultan on congas. After Jimi’s death, the SG made its way to north-east England, where it stayed for some time – Hilton Valentine played it on an Animals reunion tour in 1983 – and today it’s owned by the Hard Rock Café.
Back in 1969, the restless Jimi moved on from the SG, which he had knocking around until September or so. Earlier in the year, he’d got another Flying V, a sunburst ’69, which he used for a short while, and that one, too, ended up with the Hard Rock Café, who bought it at auction in 1994.
Probably toward the end of 1969, Jimi commissioned a custom Flying V from Gibson in black finish, and this time – unusually for him, and a benefit of a custom order – he got a proper left-handed guitar. It arrived around May 1970, broadly similar to his ’67 V, but the custom appointments included a bound ebony fingerboard with split-diamond inlays (similar to Gibson’s contemporary Trini Lopez Deluxe) and gold-plated metalwork.
Jimi used this left-handed black V at the Rainbow Bridge concert in Hawaii in July – recently included in the Live In Maui set that includes a documentary aptly titled Music, Money, Madness – and at the Isle Of Wight festival the following month, notably for a fine version of Red House. A few weeks later, Jimi was dead. His roadie Eric Barrett later sold the custom V to the Hard Rock Café.
Aside from his Gibsons, Jimi’s predominant fondness for Stratocasters didn’t rule out a few other Fenders. He had a thing for Jazzmasters, owning at least a white one and a couple of sunbursts. Mostly they came and went, like a lot of things in his short, hectic life, but one was a sunburst ’64 that Jimi gave away to Billy Davis, a guitarist who’d worked with The Isley Brothers and Jackie Wilson among others. Also, the actor Steven Seagal owns a sunburst ’65 sold to him by another Jimi roadie, Tappy Wright.
At his best, Jimi was an experimental and inquisitive musician, yet he still understood the value of simplicity and directness when it came to plugging in and letting rip. He knew that a lot of the time it all came down to his own two hands on six strings, but that the musicians he chose to assemble around himself could determine the success or failure of his ideas. “We use the same thing anyone else would,” he told Guitar Player in 1968, “but we use it with imagination and common sense.”