The story behind Fender's Jimi Hendrix Stratocaster signature guitar
Jimi Hendrix’s relationship with the Fender Stratocaster produced some of the greatest tones in history. Now, meet the guitar that aims to get you closer to his sound than ever...
Jimi Hendrix saved the Fender Strat’s arse in the late 60s. While contemporaries such as Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck and Paul Kossoff were all about the Les Paul Standard, Jimi reestablished the Stratocaster’s iconic status just as rock pioneer Buddy Holly and King Of The Surf Guitar Dick Dale had done years before.
The ironic twist is that southpaw Jimi couldn’t find a left-handed Strat so had to flip a right-handed model, and reverse the strings, to make it work. While he’s best known for the big headstock Olympic White Strat he abused at Woodstock in 1969, Jimi owned a various examples of Leo Fender’s iconic invention during his short but explosive career, including a favourite pre-CBS [so pre-1965] Sunburst model with a small headstock.
There’s some debate that Jimi preferred the later 60s models because the bigger headstock produced more sustain, but it’s more likely that he just grabbed whatever was available and the tonal and playability quirks that resulted from his guitar being flipped - reversed headstock, pickups and vibrato, and tighter string tension in the bottom end - were a happy accident.
The new Fender Mexican-built Jimi Hendrix Stratocaster replicates some of these tweaks to offer players a chance to get closer to the tone and feel of the greatest guitarist of them all. Justin Norvell, Vice President of Product Development at Fender, explains the thinking behind the unique guitar.
This is the most affordable Hendrix signature model yet...
“Absolutely. The idea was to produce a high-value instrument with a reach far beyond the collector market. We haven’t had a Hendrix Strat in the line in almost 15 years. An entire new generation has come up that has been influenced by Hendrix, or is open to learning about him.”
Some may dismiss the guitar as a gimmick, basically a standard Mexican Strat fitted with a left-handed neck. Is there more to it than that?
“I think if we had merely flipped a lefty Strat, people could possibly think that. This was a thoughtfully approached process to achieve a unique blend of modern features, Hendrix elements, and cool styling. It feels and sounds different enough that you might find yourself playing a little differently, opening up some new inspiration.”
Jimi flipped Strats out of necessity. What effect did that have on the sound and playability of his guitars?
“Jimi was well-known as an ‘off the rack’ player, and his guitars were pretty much stock. In flipping the guitar however, multiple changes occur.
“There are several sonic and feel alterations that occur, each somewhat subtle, that are an integral part of Jimi’s ‘sonic stew’. That extra tension in the bottom strings helps if you copy Jimi’s favoured Eb tuning...
“It helps keep the feel tight. Jimi used 0.010 to 0.038-gauge strings, which would also work in harmony with this setup. The sound is less brittle on the high end with more snap and clarity on the low end.”
How crucial is the reversed bridge single coil to the unique setup of this guitar?
“First of all, it offers more focused bass on the low strings and less brightness in the high notes. In addition, the pickups would be backwards on a righty guitar Jimi played.
“The polepieces were more aggressively staggered in the vintage days to account for balance with the B string, and there was high polepiece for a wound G. So on Jimi’s guitars, the higher G polepiece moves to the D string etc. If we think of the polepieces as a ‘fader mix’ for the strings, the guitar’s sonic balance is ‘remixed’.
Is that why you spec’d the American Vintage ’65 single coils here?
“We wanted a great pickup that was ‘of the proper time’ with the polepiece stagger we would expect on some of the guitars Jimi played.
“While the natural inclination is to think he used ’68- and ’69-era Strats he played earlier models as well. So, we wanted to go with the ’65 pickups, which are a little less bell like than ’69 single coils with more midrange focus.”
Did you consider going the whole hog and flipping the body?
“The goal here was not to make a replica instrument from the past. We were inspired by Jimi’s creativity and sound to deliver a modern instrument with some of the sonic alchemy without the ergonomic disadvantages of a flipped Strat such as balance, knob orientation, upper fret access, body contour locations and a vibrato arm in the way. We heard from a lot of players, and felt ourselves, that a reversed arm gets in the way when you are palm muting and so on...”
Lead players and fans of a low action will appreciate the modern 9.5-inch fingerboard radius you spec’d on the guitar rather than a vintage correct 7.25 inches…
“Since we were looking at a more modern interpretation, we wanted to stick with the flatter radius which most players are more comfortable with.”
Given the predicament Jimi found himself in as a southpaw guitarist, back in the day, shouldn’t there be a left-handed version of this guitar available?
“We looked into it, but the basic premise of this guitar is giving a right-hander some elements of the sounds and feel of what Hendrix was working with. That’s something that lefthanders that chose to ‘flip’ a righty guitar since they saw Hendrix do it have experienced.”