The holiest of relics?

Jimi Hendrix’s 1968 “Woodstock” Fender Stratocaster

IT’S an eerie experience, quite unsettling in fact, to stand in the middle of this cavernous, futuristic hall in Seattle and gaze down upon a rare and precious holy relic, literally close enough to touch. A mere six inches of air and half an inch of (presumably armoured) Perspex separate you from the object of veneration.

Not the Turin Shroud, not a splinter from the True Cross, nor the bones of a revered saint, but one of the most famous and most valuable guitars in the world. The experience (no pun intended) is all the more surreal because, as you peer through the Perspex at Jimi Hendrix’s white 1968 Fender Stratocaster, you hear the sound of that same guitar – awash in a sea of electronic vibrato, punctuated by violent tremolo arm swoops and dives – echoing around the hall. Look up and it’s impossible to miss a giant, be-tasselled Jimi brought back to life on the 40-foot video wall before you.

Jimi playing on a giant veideo wall above where the Strat was displayed.

Hendrix is playing – what else? – his iconoclastic version of the American national anthem to an enraptured Woodstock crowd…four minutes of melody, noise – and if you believe some pundits – searing anti-Vietnam war commentary.

British music journalist Charles Shaar Murray, author of a fascinating and thought-provoking book on Hendrix,  put it this way: “One man with one guitar said more in three and a half minutes about that peculiarly disgusting war and its reverberations than all the novels, memoirs and movies put together.” (Crosstown Traffic: Jimi Hendrix and Postwar Pop

In the clip below, Hendrix, typically, had a more straightforward take on his August 18, 1969 performance…or was he merely toying good-humouredly with TV chat show host Dick Cavitt?

Political statement or not, the guitar on which Hendrix performed his controversial rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” is a special object. Apart from anything else, its sale at auction in 1991 precipitated a whole new megabucks market in vintage guitars with celebrity connections. Before that, instruments previously played or owned by music legends had held a certain cachet and often attracted substantial price tags, but none had commanded the sort of price Hendrix’s Woodstock Strat did that day at Sotherby’s in London.

Italian TV presenter promoter and music writer Gabriele Ansaloni, aka “Red Ronnie”, paid £198,000 (allowing for inflation, about £380,000 today), a sum considered astronomical at the time.  Since then, the vintage guitar world has never been quite the same again.

The Strat ended up, via at least two subsequent sales, in the Experience Music Project museum in Hendrix’s Pacific West Coast home town. Ten years ago, around the time I last visited, it was said to be worth between $1 million and $2 million. Its current value is probably three or four times that.

It started life as a pretty bog-standard white 1968 large-headstock, maple-neck Strat – serial number 240981. Sometimes referred to as “Izabella” (after one of the tunes Hendrix played on it at Woodstock, it is often said), the guitar is the centerpiece of a vast collection of musical memorabilia linked to Seattle and America’s Pacific North-West region in what is now known as the Museum of Pop Culture (MoPOP for short). The museum is home to a hoard of memorabilia related to the many musicians who hailed from the area – from instrumental band the Ventures to grunge heroes Kurt Cobain, Nirvana and and Pearl Jam. The Hendrix display is the jewel its crown. Along with the Izabella Strat, you can see all manner of “Jimiabilia”, including the remnants of a Sunburst Stratocaster the guitarist smashed in mid-concert, several amps, effects pedals, stage clothes and any number of wonderful old photos.

Yours Truly by a giant version of Hendrix’s hand-painted Motrery Strat at the EMP in Seattle in 2010

It’s a fascinating place to visit, an absolute must-see if you ever visit the Emerald City.

In the days when Jimi acquired Izabella, nobody, it seems, kept detailed records of where his guitars came from, or what happened to them – not helped by the fact Hendrix was in the habit of giving away instruments from time to time. What we do know is that Izabella was one of a pair of 1968 Strats Jimi played in the period leading up to Woodstock. As far as can be told from live photos, the white guitar doesn’t seem to have been played much until the festival, Hendrix generally favouring a older white Strat (with a rosewood fingerboard) and a black maple-board one.

Hendrix playing the guitar at Woodstock

After Woodstock, however, stage photos suggest Izabella did get more stage time – it’s not unusual for musicians to heavily favour a particular instrument for a while, only quickly then to move on to a new favourite. Pictures from gigs in the months before his death in September 1970 definitely show him playing a white maple-board Strat. This guitar seems to have a mark of some kind on the lower edge of the body, which wasn’t visible in the Woodstock footage, nor on the guitar now on show in Seattle.  Either this was an entirely different instrument, or the mark was removed when the Strat was cleaned up for an exhibition in London in 1990, commemorating 50 years of Fender electric guitars.

By then, the guitar was owned by Hendrix’s drummer Mitch Mitchell. He agreed to loan it for the exhibition, then presumably, prompted by the interest it sparked, decided to put it up for sale.

MItch Mitchell with the Strat at the time when it was put up for auction. Below is the letter of provenance he wrote, vouching for its bona fides:

“The white Fender Stratocaster guitar belonging to Jimi Hendrix came to be mine in September 1970 in the following circumstances:
Jimi Hendrix was always breaking his guitars and getting new ones but this particular white Fender Stratocaster serial number 240981 was a particular favourite of his. He used it at the Woodstock Festival in August 1969 playing the now famous “Star Spangled Banner” on this guitar. I had given him a drum kit as a present some time before and I said to him “I’ll have that guitar before you break it up” (I do not think that he would in fact have broken this particular guitar). He said, as was his way “You got it” and he then gave me the guitar. In retrospect I think it was by way of a gift as my daughter had just been born a few days previously. I think this was one of the last gigs ever played by us.
Jimi Hendrix bought the guitar from Manny’s in New York in 1968. As it was one of his favourites, it was used all the time at both live concerts and recording sessions. A picture of it can also be seen inside the Rainbow Bridge Album Cover and on countless posters and in most books written about Jimi Hendrix.
This guitar has never been out of my possession since it was given to me and it has remained in my possession until I delivered it to Sotheby’s in London for sale by auction.”

The job of getting the Strat ready for display and subsequent sale fell to an acquaintance of mine, the British author and journalist Neville Marten. I know Nev from his days as a regular in the house band at the Chelmsford blues jam where we used to go in the 1990s. He worked as a repairman for both Gibson and Fender in the 1970s, but by the early 1990s, was the editor of Guitarist magazine in the heyday of this fine publication and so he wrote at some length about his role in bringing the white Strat back to the world, first in his own magazine and later in a 2008 piece for the Musicradar website.

Hands-on- Neville Marten

In the Musicradar article, he says: “Mitch Mitchell brought in a guitar case and nonchalantly opened it. The Stratocaster had been in the drummer’s possession since Jimi’s death in 1970 and this was the first time it had seen the light of day. Just glimpsing the thing was a ‘Spinal Tap’ moment of epic proportions. Mitch said it needed looking at because the frets had tarnished, the strings were rusty and he had decided to put it up for auction.

“The nut had been switched around in its slot to accommodate Jimi’s left-handed setup, it had a separate maple fingerboard (something Fender did for a short time in the late 60s), cigarette burns were evident on the headstock (Jimi would secure his cigarette under the sixth string, and when he went off on an extended solo it would burn down to the stub) and there was staining from his shirt on the creamy-white finish.

“The strings were indeed rusty and the frets had gone a bit green. Taking the guitar to my workbench, I checked the neck for straightness and it needed a slight tweak of the truss rod. That done, I cut off the strings and threw them in the bin. Isn’t hindsight a wonderful thing? Today they alone would probably be worth £50,000 with Jimi’s DNA all over them!

“Having cleaned the whole guitar and polished the frets the next step was to restring it and set the action. It was weird to realise that the last person to do this might well have been Hendrix himself, as there are well-known photos of him doing it backstage before a gig.

“It didn’t need a lot more doing to it, but I tweaked the saddle heights, made minor intonation and pickup adjustments and that was it. I did plug it in to an amp, but as I am right-handed and it was strung upside-down, a quick ‘Little Wing’ was out of the question, so I simply played a few notes to check the electrics worked.”

In Nev’s original Guitarist piece, he speculated it might make £100,000 under the hammer. Prior to publication, he showed the article to Fender which – incredibly, with hindsight – suggested he should reduce his estimate to £10,000, arguing the original figure was completely unthinkable.*

* In 1968, the list price for a Fender Stratocaster (with none of the huge present-day choice of models – the only options involved the finish, maple vs rosewood fingerboards and whether it came with or without a tremolo bridge) was $264.50 (£111.00). A standard black Fender Original Hardshell Case was $57.50 (£24.12) extra . To put this in context, this amounted to roughly two weeks wages for an average American in 1968.

In the event, Nev’s  original estimate was indeed wildly out – and not in the way Fender expected. The guitar sold at Sotheby’s on April 25, 1990 for £198,000 ($344,000 at 1968 exchange rates) generating headlines around the world. It set a new record and launched onto the public consciousness the notion that the provenance of  “celebrity” guitars could add hugely to their value.

Since then, several other Hendrix guitars have appeared on the market….

*Earlier this year, Rolling Stone magazine published an account of one such instrument being brought to the team on an American TV show called Pawn Stars, which appraises valuable items brought before its experts.

The one that got away – the Pawn Stars guitar.

“A customer comes in with a 1963 Fender Stratocaster he claims was played by Hendrix and asks for $750,000 for it. [Show host] Rick Harrison gets expert Jesse Amoroso to take a look, and he confirms that the guitar is indeed one of Hendrix’s, by comparing it to photos previously taken of the axe, as well as identifying the serial number. It’s without a doubt legitimate, and he goes on to say that the guitar could fetch anywhere between $750,000 and $1 million.

“Naturally, Rick Harrison doesn’t give up that kind of money just willy-nilly and starts negotiations at $450,000. Unfortunately for the Pawn Stars crew, the customer holds steadfast at $750,000, and the two just can’t come to an agreement, resulting in the guitar slipping through Rick’s fingers. It’s a common ending for some of the higher-profile items that come into the store – such as a contract signed by The Beatles that could’ve been sold for a million bucks that also went by without a deal being made”

*Then there was a 1965 Strat Hendrix set ablaze with lighter fluid on stage at London’s Finsbury Astoria on March 31st, 1967. Collector Daniel Boucher paid $560,000 for it in 2008, though there has since been some debate as to whether this was the guitar in footage and photos of that destructive gig – some say it doesn’t look quite the same.

*In 2010, probably the very last guitar Hendrix ever bought sold for $187,500. He got the 1970 sunburst Stratocaster from Manny’s Musical Instruments in New York on July 14th, 1970, while recording in his then brand-new Electric Lady Studios – he played it at the studio’s opening party in August, 1970 and on what would be the posthumously-released  album, “The Cry of Love.”  Tragically, just two months after buying it, Hendrix would be dead.

The guitar Hedrix torched at Monterey Pop

*In 2012, the black 1966 Strat Hendrix burned at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival sold for £237,000 ($312,500), though speculation ahead of the sale had put the likely price at as much as £1 million. In common with some other Hendrix guitars, the Monterey Strat had almost ended up in bits, rather than being merely scorched. Apparently, Hendrix had planned to smash the guitar, while playing Wild Thing, but The Who’s Pete Townshend upstaged him, smashing his own guitar first. So Hendrix doused his guitar in lighter fluid and flicked a match at it instead.

Gift – the pre-CBS Strat Hendrix gave his brother, Leon

*2015 brought another Hendrix guitar under the hammer, an early 1960s Stratocaster he had given to his brother Leon in 1968 in Seattle to help him start a band. Almost 50 years later, Leon Hendrix decided to put it up for auction. It sold for $385,917.

Frank Zappa with the guitar Hendrix gave him after breaking it on stage.

* Dweezil Zappa, Frank Zappa’s son owns a Hendrix Strat, given to his late father at the Miami Pop Festival, after Hendrix broke the neck on stage. Zappa senior put it on the wall at home for a time, then had a new neck made. He played it with a variety of different pickups and electronics for several years, also lending it to the succession of stellar guitarists who passed through his band. Eventually Frank stopped using it – Deezil was amazed to find it discarded under the stairs in his dad’s house! He then returned it to a playable state with another new neck. Unlike many of the other Hendrix guitars which have emerged over the years, this one is most categorically NOT for sale!

Here he tells its story to Norman Harris, of Norman’s Rare Guitars in Tarzana, California:

For all this, however, to a great many Hendrix fans, the white Izabella Strat will always be THE Hendrix Strat – the original icon. Down the years, Fender has issued several guitars inspired by it, some closer the original than others. All other considerations aside, Jimi played right-handed Strats, upside-down and strung left-handed – most guitarists would simply be unable to pick up such an instrument and play it!

The first attempt to square the circle was the official 1997 Jimi Hendrix Strat . It was basically a left-handed Izabella copy, with the nut flipped and the strings put on upside-down so it could to be played as a conventional right-handed guitar.  Hendrix played guitar practically every day of his life, so very easily took in his stride things such as having the controls on the top bout of the guitar and the tremolo arm emerging from the top of the bridge instead of the bottom. More conventional right-handers, I suspect, will have struggled with this “authentic” version Fender created for them!

Cue the current Hendrix tribute model, the Jimi Hendrix Voodoo Child Strat (available in only – what else? – Olympic White!) which offers an interesting take on the guitar Hendrix played. It combines a right-handed body, controls and trem with a left-handed, reversed-headstock neck, and a pickguard with the treble pickup slanted the opposite way to that on a normal Strat.

Compromise – the Fender Jimi Hendrix Voodoo Child Strat offers the reversed headstock and flipped treble pickup of Hendrix’s original with a conventional body.

There are good, practical reasons why Fender chose to emulate these particular features. On the Fender headstock, the low E string tuner is usually closest to the top nut, giving the low E the shortest length of string between bridge saddle and tuner, while the top E tuner is furthest away. If you flip the guitar over and string it left-handed, it means the low E now has the longest run and the high E the shortest. This makes the high E looser and easier to bend, while the low E has a bit more snap to it – I know this to be true – one of my Strats has a left-handed neck.

Slanting the bridge pickup the opposite way to a normal Strat – as effectively was the case on Hendrix’s flipped-over Strats – is said to make the high strings a bit more resonant and zingy, though personally, I’ve never put this to the test. Still, it’s probably considered another ingredient for some players chasing that elusive Hendrix sound. I do wonder, however, why Fender didn’t also fit a left-handed tremolo, with the bar fixed at the top of the bridge, (as the great Stevie Ray Vaughan did with his famous “Number One” Strat.) If you fancied playing one of these curious modern Hendrix hybrids, the USA-made “Voodoo Child” (sic) Strat currently retails for about £3,300 – or you can buy a similar, more affordable Mexican-built version for a shade under £1,000.

So, no shortage of options for the player looking to soak up some of the Hendrix vibe…but what could possibly match the sensation of actually lifting the lid of that glass casket in Seattle, taking out the original Izabella Strat, plugging it into a big old Marshall stack and hitting a typical Hendrix 6/9th chord or two?

Well, if as fine a player as my pal Nev Marten was too much in awe of holding such a mythical instrument to attempt to play it, I don’t think I would presume to do so either.

Presumptuous? Kenny Wayne Shepherd playing Izabella on US TV

(It didn’t, however, stop American blues-rocker Kenny Wayne Shepherd borrowing Izabella – even going so far as to have her re-strung right-handed – to play on a special Hendrix-themed Late Night With Jimmy Fallon Show in New York City in 2010. )

Sacrilege, some might say! Me, I’ll just settle for the memory of standing open-mouthed over that perspex case, gazing down in awe…

Published by 43guitarsandcounting

I'm a musician, studio owner, writer and former specialist broadcaster of far too many years experience. I started writing and posting this daily blog on Facebook at the beginning of the Lockdown for something to do and it took me something like 19 days to run out of guitars to talk about!

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