How did Jimi Hendrix learn guitar? In short: He taught himself! Jimi was a big blues fan alongside enjoying rock and roll, so his father bought him an acoustic guitar when he was 15. With his father’s gift and ongoing encouragement, Jimi became a self-taught guitarist very quickly.
What motivated Jimi to start learning?
Jimi Hendrix is, of course, an absolute legend in the music world. His work has inspired countless people to create art and music of their own, and offered many others some much-needed solace.
In fact, finding solace in music is what fueled Hendrix’s drive to learn guitar early on.
James Marshall Hendrix was born in Seattle, Washington, in the year 1942. Lucille had Jimi when she was only 17, and he soon became an older brother to two other boys: Joseph and Leon. Lucille and their father, Al, went through a great deal of turbulence during the course of their relationship. They would often clash to the point where Jimi would stay for long visits with relatives or friends in order to avoid his stressful home environment.
In 1957 when Jimi was helping his father with a side-job, hauling away unwanted junk from an elderly woman’s garage, a discarded ukulele caught his attention. The sparkle in his eye when he spotted it must have been bright, because the woman told him to keep it for himself.
Despite only having one string, the ukulele turned out to be a great tool for Jimi to learn individual notes by ear. His brother later said that Jimi actually figured out how to use the tuning peg on the single string to further alter the pitch as he played so that he could follow along with songs from Elvis Presley and other stars. Jimi’s drive to learn music quickly became clear to everyone around him, and anyone who heard him playing the ukulele’s single string was impressed. Before long he was nailing down tunes from his favorite songs with surprising accuracy, making his knack for music crystal-clear.
Unfortunately, despite Lucille and Al’s struggles to keep the family together, she ultimately left the family. Jimi only saw her every now and then after her departure, and was shaken when she died in 1958. His intense need for an emotional outlet after her passing was clear, and he immediately poured his soul into the Danelectro guitar that his father then bought for him. The guitar cost only $5 at the time, and Jimi spent many hours out of each day learning to play it–he had a good ear thanks to his old ukulele, after all, but now it was time at last to learn to play with more than one string!
Jimi watched other, more experienced rock and roll guitarists and blues artists to learn, carefully observing what they did–how they held their guitars, the way they moved their hands, the way they formed each note and chord, and so on.
How early on did Hendrix start to perform?
Jimi’s musical journey quickly picked up speed, and he began participating in live performances at the age of just 17. His guitar skills might have been impressive, but he still knew only three songs and was extremely out of his element on stage. In fact, when he first played, he was so shaky and nervous that he couldn’t come out from behind the curtain and played behind it instead!
Hendrix talked later on about how disheartening it was to play his first gig from behind the curtains and then listen to others with so much more experience than he had. This could have been a turning point for Jimi that would later have cost many people their favorite songs–but luckily, the young guitarist had enough grit and determination to keep his head up and continue learning to get better.
He has said that people who are truly serious about guitar might get so frustrated with the learning process that they hate their instruments and just want to give up, but he insisted that if they keep trudging through their rough patches, they’ll break through eventually. Memorably, he stated “If you’re very stubborn you can make it.”
And Jimi was inspiringly stubborn indeed, deciding after his rocky first-time performance behind the stage curtain that he was going to get better. Instead of avoiding future performances, he worked on improving his ability to put on a good show and engage with the audience more confidently. Jimi later picked up a great deal of his polish from Little Richard, looking to him to learn how to dress and behave on stage.
What was next for Jimi Hendrix?
Technically, Jimi’s personal musical career didn’t begin until 1966. He played in a few casual group settings and continued to develop his skills, but he was a bit of a rebel and got caught riding in stolen cars, resulting in a choice between jail or Army service. Hendrix chose the Army and joined in 1961, and it wasn’t long before he wrote home and begged his father to send him the guitar that he missed so much.
Hendrix met another serviceman, Billy Cox, when he overheard Jimi playing the guitar. Cox turned out to be a bass player himself, and the two jammed together during their spare time. Once they were discharged, they formed a little group called the “King Kasuals,” which was the first of several groups that Jimi would play guitar in.
Jimi moved with Billy to Tennessee, getting actively involved in the black community by playing a circuit of soul and R&B. Before long they were joined by Alphonso “Baby Boo” Young, a second guitarist who played alongside Hendrix during gigs. The southern circuit they played was successful, but soon Jimi craved more of a challenge. Butch Snipes played the guitar with his teeth for an impressive stage trick to set himself apart from others in the growing music scene, and then Baby Boo learned the same trick. Naturally, Jimi took this as a personal challenge and learned to do the same!
The musical legend continued to grow, moving on from the southern gig circuit to play in a backing band for the Isley Brothers, and then joining forces with Little Richard to play and tour together during the 60s. Hendrix started out working as a valet for Gorgeous George, but Little Richard soon invited Jimi to play with his bands “The Upsetters” and “the Royal Company” on stage. They toured nationally together, and it was during this time that Jimi polished up his personal image and style, but Little Richard had two rules: Be on time, and don’t upstage. Jimi repeatedly broke both of those rules, with his showboating and a missed bus serving as the final straws that got him fired! But afterwards, his solo career soared.
The Legend Never Ends:
Sadly, Jimi Hendrix passed away too soon in 1970 under murky circumstances involving drug use. However, the mark that he left upon the music world had already long since become permanent, and people everywhere clearly still love his music today.
Jimi’s difficult life and incredible musical career serve as proof that, with enough spirit and determination, someone can achieve their dreams–even if they start out with a discarded, one-stringed ukulele and learn guitar by teaching themselves!
Eduardo Perez is a multi-instrumentalist with over 20 years of experience playing instruments such as piano, guitar, ukulele, and bass. Having arranged songs and produced music in a recording studio, he has a wealth of knowledge to share about analyzing songs, composing, and producing. Currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in Interdisciplinary Musical Studies at Berklee College School of Music. Featured on Entrepreneur.com. Subscribe to his YouTube channel, or follow him on Instagram.