Jimi Hendrix secured his throne in psychedelic rock’s Olympus with the completion of Electric Ladyland. The double album was the final and brightest jewel in the acid-and-paisley-era trilogy he’d begun in 1967 with his debut full-length Are You Experienced and the next year’s Axis: Bold As Love.

For Hendrix, it was a triumph over considerable obstacles. His band, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, was falling apart, and the studio he envisioned, where he intended to record the album, was plagued with construction and cost troubles. (His Electric Lady Studios was finally completed several months before his death in 1970.) The Experience’s hectic concert schedule made the Electric Ladyland sessions at New York City’s Record Plant sporadic. And then, there was Hendrix’s drug intake, which by all accounts was astronomical by the time the band returned from a European tour and began recording in April 1968.

Nonetheless, Hendrix’s efforts were rewarded. Taking the producer’s role from manager Chas Chandler, Hendrix was able to capture both his freewheeling improvisational aesthetic and his visionary sonic architecture in the studio for the first time. His experimentation with amplifiers, guitar tones, multi-tracking, and the extended use of the wah-wah pedal allowed him to construct the “electric church” he often spoke about when describing the spiritual destination he longed to create with sound.

Jimi Hendrix Electric LadylandFurther, the public responded. Electric Ladyland became Hendrix’s only No. 1 U.S. hit album when it was released in October 1968, and “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)” and “Crosstown Traffic,” as well as an epic version of Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower,” remain rock and roll classics—recognizable from the first note.

Among guitarists, the tunes “Gypsy Eyes,” essentially a superheated R&B vamp, and “Burning of the Midnight Lamp,” with its mournful, wailing lines and quavering wah-wah footwork, are revered. And the jam “Voodoo Chile,” Hendrix’s longest studio recording at 15 minutes, is a spellbinding journey from his blues roots to his psychedelic flowering. Forty years later students of studio technique remain spellbound by the layering of “1983… (A Merman I Should Turn to Be)” and the playful wash of tape effects in “…And the Gods Made Love.”

During the period Electric Ladyland was recorded, Hendrix was most closely associated with his battery of Stratocasters and the famed 1967 Flying V he hand-painted with a psychedelic pattern. However, he appears to have written many of the album’s songs on his Epiphone FT-79 acoustic. According to Chandler, Hendrix typically worked out the chord changes and riffs of songs he was writing on the Epiphone. Then he refined them on an unplugged electric guitar before taking them on stage or into the studio. In 2001 Hendrix’s FT-79 was sold by an auction house for $77,000; on January 8, 2008 a 1949 model was sold on eBay for $676.66, establishing the value of the Hendrix touch at $76,323.34.

Jimi Hendrix's EpiphoneThe Electric Ladyland sessions forced Hendrix’s split with manager Chas Chandler. Chandler felt that drugs and the entourage of hangers-on who settled into the studio eroded Hendrix’s focus. Previously the guitar wizard had nailed tunes in just a few takes, but Hendrix did 43 of “Gypsy Eyes” alone.

It’s a matter of perspective. Hendrix felt his previous recordings under Chandler’s stewardship were rushed. This time he was in control and he alone would determine the disc’s balance of perfectionism and spontaneity. Hendrix pushed his A-list musical guests as hard as he pushed himself. Dave Mason had to play the acoustic guitar track of “All Along the Watchtower” 20 times before Hendrix was satisfied.

Hendrix actually played bass on “Watchtower” after Experience bassist Noel Redding left the studio in a snit. The song’s legend also holds that Hendrix used a Zippo lighter for the song’s unique slide with wah-wah pedal guitar solo.

Redding and Hendrix had been increasingly at odds during early ’68. To dissipate the tension Redding was thrown a creative bone and allowed to record his “Little Miss Strange” for Electric Ladyland. He and Experience drummer Mitch Mitchell sang on the tune and Redding played acoustic guitar. He’d been given a similar gift on Axis: Bold As Love, which featured his “She’s So Fine.” Both songs are pleasant pop excursions, but lack the gravitas and drama of Hendrix’s creations. 

The album’s two longest tracks are polar opposites in terms of their creative process. The 14-minute “1983…(A Merman I Should Turn to Be)” is an elaborately tailored studio opus with layers of guitar lines and feedback, including backward tracks and other tape manipulations. “Voodoo Chile” is one of the greatest improv sessions ever committed to disc.

“Voodoo Chile” began on a May night after Redding had once again stomped out of the sessions, bringing them to a halt. Hendrix went to the Scene Club and jammed there with Steve Winwood and Jefferson Airplane’s Jack Casady. They played a lengthy variation on the Delta standard “Catfish Blues” and when the club closed, Hendrix invited everyone back to the studio. By 7 a.m. tape was rolling, according to Charles R. Cross’ definitive Hendrix biography Room Full of Mirrors. By take three the theme of “Catfish Blues” had taken on a new life as the grinding, deep-toned, Delta-and-deep-space boundaried “Voodoo Chile.” Hendrix’s sparring—with Winwood’s Hammond B-3 organ and Casady’s throbbing bass—is a journey through the fundamentals of his style, ricocheting from sinewy blues to feedback to gentle melodicism to psychedelic screaming to chitlin circuit R&B licks. And his tone and string bending, especially at the song’s head and conclusion, is a lush, breathtaking ode to Albert King.

The 16 songs of Electric Ladyland remain the defining compendium of Hendrix’s creative interests. The set is awash with psychedelia, blues, R&B, pop, and the results of experiments with the studio and effects like phase shifting and wah. Even his then-growing interest in politics surfaced for the first time on the album. The anti-violence message of “House Burning Down” was a response to the riots that were a by-product of the Civil Rights struggle of the ’60s.

Two numbers also provided a bit of foreshadowing. “Rainy Day, Dream Away” and “Still Raining, Still Dreaming” were Hendrix’s first recordings with drummer Buddy Miles, who, along with organist Al Kooper, completed the album’s guest list. After Hendrix broke up the Experience in June 1969, he regrouped with Miles and his Air Force buddy, bassist Billy Cox. They became the Band of Gypsys. Their brilliant, spontaneous 1970 live Band of Gypsys album was Hendrix’s final artistic triumph before his death on September 18, 1970.