It was August of ’69, about a month after the US put three men into a tiny little can and shot them to the moon. The war in Vietnam was raging, Johnson was president and a little music festival called Woodstock happened over the course of 4 days, August 15th-18th, in Bethel, NY. I was 16 months old at the time so, unfortunately, I missed it.
The Hendrix portion of the festival should have been Sunday night (the 17th) but scheduling and transportation issues forced Hendrix to perform on Monday morning. Instead of the 400K fans expected Sunday night, the show’s headlining act, the biggest band in rock, played to under half that number. Some estimates were as low as 35K watching Jimi and the newly named “Gypsy Sun and Rainbows” band tear through their set. The highlight of the performance was Jimi’s blistering performance of the national anthem which was the primary reason this guitar has such fame.
Hendrix was the highest paid act at Woodstock, pulling down $30K for his efforts. The artist cap was $15K but Hendrix was slated for 2 “individual” sets and got twice the cap. Santana only earned $750, the Grateful Dead, $2500. In today’s dollars it was a pittance ($200K in 2016*) when considering 7 figure sums are paid regularly for single shows now.
(*Rock performers do land around $200K in 2016 though pop stars make significantly more, acts such as Taylor Swift, Madonna and Justin Bieber easily make a million per show)
But I digress, this is about the guitar. This was reportedly one of Jimi’s favorite guitars, if not the favorite at the time, a 1968 Olympia White Fender Stratocaster. The guitar bears the serial number #240981, and was purchased from Manny’s Music on the iconic 48th avenue (also known as Music Row) in New York City in 1968. Music Row was a historical section of NYC where musicians flocked to walk numerous guitar and instrument shops all next to one another. Stories of famous musicians buying or trading instruments on 48th street are legion. I saw Vernon Reid from Living Colour at a Sam Ash (also on 48th street) once, in December of 2001. I was trying out a Mesa Boogie amp, and unbeknownst to me in walks Vernon and the place just lights up. I am wanking away on a PRS guitar and the hugely popular Reid is trying chat it up with the sales people over my playing. Face-palm Kris. Sadly, this district is now office spaces with very little recognition of the historical impact on music 48th street had. But again, off track and here we go, back on topic.
Given Jimi’s left handed playing style on a right handed instrument meant the nut (the place where the strings cross to the tuning machines from the fingerboard) had to have slots cut in reverse order to accommodate the thicker strings where thinner strings normally went. Also, of note, is that despite the neck and fingerboard both being maple, the fingerboard was glued on instead of being all from one piece of wood. Fender usually only used this production method when rosewood or in rare cases, ebony was employed as the fingerboard material in order to keep costs lower (the neck lacks a skunk stripe on the back where the guitars truss rod would have been inserted). How much tonal difference is negligible but it is a difference. The body wood is alder, everything else is stock.
Jimi used this strat both in live performances and in the studio right up until his death. All of the material that was recorded using this guitar was released after Hendrix’s death on September 18th, 1970 (“The Cry of Love” album has tracks recorded with this guitar). At the close of Hendrix’s last live performance at the Isle of Fehmarn, September 6th of 1970, drummer Mitch Mitchell reportedly told Jimi ‘I’ll have that guitar before you break it up’ as Hendrix was notorious for doing (think of the Monterrey red strat he lights on fire and then thrashes the stage with). Mitchell had gifted Jimi a drum set earlier in their relationship and this was Jimi giving back to his long time friend. Hendrix would be dead 12 days after this show, shocking the rock and roll world.
After Jimi’s death, Mitchell held onto the guitar until 1990 when he pulled it from storage, had Neville Marten prep the guitar for auction at the prestigious Sotheby’s in London. See the article here on Neville’s experience withe iconic instrument, it’s a great story. The most iconic guitar in rock history went for £198,000 in 1990 (an auction record at the time for a guitar, since being eclipsed by Eric Clapton’s Blackie pre-CBS strat). Winning the auction was Gabriele Ansaloni who kept the guitar for two years before selling it to Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen for an undisclosed sum (rumors are it was close to $2,000,000). Allen has the instrument on display at the Museum of Pop Culture, or MoPOP (formally known as The Experience Music Project) in Seattle, Washington.