Voodoo Child: Hendrix’s Guitar Tech
Keaton Patti is a rock and roll writer currently interviewing lesser-known figures in music history for a yet unnamed and uncreated magazine. This article is a part of that project. If you’d like to be interviewed for the project, that’s nice.
Jimi Hendrix. No incorrectly spelled first name followed by a weird last name has changed rock and roll music and guitar playing as much as it. Hendrix is often considered a guitar God among the likes of David Gilmour, Eddie Van Halen, and the Roman Catholic God who allowed his only son to die on the cross because He was busy soloing on top of some funky jazz chords.
However, just like a God is nothing without its priests or rabbis or whatever celebrities do for Scientology, a guitarist can’t exist without its guitar technician. Well, I guess they can exist, but they can’t play well. Then again, if the guitar tech is their actual mother or father, they couldn’t exist. I guess what I’m saying is, I’m visiting Jimi Hendrix’s former guitar tech to find out if he had sex with Hendrix’s mom.
Nate Shalfo toured with the Jimi Hendrix Experience throughout the late sixties as their head guitar tech. The 88-year-old doesn’t tour anymore, choosing instead to spend his time confined in a retirement home in Plano, Texas.
“Jimi liked his guitars hot,” Nate says to me. We’re sitting in the Shady Lake’s community room, a place where seniors can die on top of a board game or while watching the only Blu-Ray they have, My Cousin Vinny 2: My 2nd Cousin Vinny. “He’d have me put them near a fire before a show. As an American in the sixties, you could just build a fire anywhere. Hell, we built a big one in Vietnam, didn’t we?” Nate’s laugh turns into a hacking cough. A nurse comes over and orders him not to die, so he keeps living.
“Did you fight in Vietnam?” I ask. This is a question I pose to everyone I meet, adults or children or Siri, because it’s rude not to.
“I got drafted, but I never went.” A nurse hands Nate a pill and tells him not to die while swallowing it.
“How’d you get out of it?”
“They’d tell me to report on so-and-so day, and I’d just tell them I was getting a haircut. So they’d say okay, just report on so-and-so other day, and I’d tell them I was getting a haircut that day too. I did that for 5 years. During that time I learned everything I know about guitars and first met Jimi.”
Nate tells me he first saw Jimi Hendrix playing guitar at a local bar. “Jimi was great, but he sounded terrible. After the show I checked out his guitar and it was a mess. Two of the strings were covered in rust, one was made out of yarn, and another was just a long breadstick strapped to the fretboard. I told him I’d get him some proper strings if he let me be his guitar tech. He agreed, and as a symbolic gesture we both ate half of that breadstick.”
“Was it good?”
“It was better than sex with a breadstick, I’ll tell you that.”
A nurse comes into the room and tells all the seniors that it’s time for dinner, so I help Nate down the hall into a cafeteria area. We sit down next to two old ladies and I do the nice thing of saying hello and asking them if they fought in Vietnam. A bowl of soup is placed before Nate, and after I take it from him he says I can have it. It’s good. Like if chicken and noodles hung out together in a liquid.
“A lot of people say Jimi’s the best guitar boy of all-time,” I say after draining Nate’s soup bowl and starting on one of the old ladies’. “What made him so good?”
“I always say he didn’t play a song so much as he beat it up. His notes were gunshots. His chords were bombs. His solos were firing squads. Other guitarists are too gentle. Before he’d start a song, Jimi would imagine the song had just called him fat and ugly, that’s why he attacked it so hard. Also, he did drugs. Those made him good too.”
“He did slugs, you say?”
“Ah. Shame.” There went the big “HENDRIX DID SLUGS” headline that would win me my MacArthur Genius Grant, but I could always still win the MacArthur Somewhat Intelligent Loan. There’s always that.
I thank the young orderly that takes my three finished soup bowls and find out he didn’t fight in Vietnam, but he plans on soon. I escort Nate to his room, a dinky one-bedroom that smells weird. I tell him my room is much bigger and doesn’t smell weird and he pretends not to hear, so I say it louder and he smiles. He asks if there’s anything else I want to know about Hendrix. There’s so many questions I have, but that room smells really weird and I want to be out of it as soon as possible, so I choose one.
“How’d he come up with the ‘Star-Spangled Banner’? And what made the USA decide to make that the national anthem after he played it?”
“…what? That song’s like really old. Jimi just did a version of it. If you want to know how he made those guitar noises and effects, well that’s actually very interesting. See — ”
Thankfully, the head nurse walks in just then and informs me that visiting hours are over and that I’m banned for life for eating soups that weren’t mine and lying about being Nate’s son and mentioning Vietnam in a “Vietnam-Free Zone.”
I wave goodbye to Nate and walk out of Shady Lake Retirement Home humming the guitar riff from Hendrix’s “The Wind Cries Mary,” a song Nate told me wasn’t actually about the wind crying out the name Mary. It was about something else entirely. Something meaningful. Something important. Something I forgot.