George Stroud/Hulton Archive
The Jimi Hendrix Experience (L-R: Noel Redding, Jimi Hendrix, Mitch Mitchell) at Heathrow Airport in London on Aug. 21, 1967.
There were great rock drummers before Mitch Mitchell, and there were even better drummers after him. But Mitchell's drumming was just as indispensable as Hendrix's guitar in the Jimi Hendrix Experience. The last surviving member of the band was found dead in his hotel room early Wednesday. He was 61.
Back in the mid-1960s, many drummers came to rock, either from the snap and precision of a youth spent in drum and bugle corps (like The Grateful Dead's Mickey Hart) or jazz (like The Rolling Stones' Charlie Watts). Mitchell fell into the latter camp, using jazz as a touchstone for what was supposed to be just a two-week gig.
His inspiration was John Coltrane's drummer, Elvin Jones, whom he clearly emulates on "Manic Depression," the psychedelic waltz from Are You Experienced? Mitchell used the entire drum set for all of its sonic possibilities in an impossibly complex 3/4 time signature.
Jazz drummers hold their drumsticks in a much more delicate manner than rock drummers, who use a grip much like you would use for a spoon or fork. Jazz drummers lay the stick in their open palm, lightly held in place by the thumb and two fingers. That positioning gives them the dexterity needed for the speed, power and delicacy of jazz.
Mitchell held his sticks like that. And his accompaniment showed it.
If you go back and listen to the short guitar break in "Wind Cries Mary," Mitchell shadows Hendrix's solo almost note for note while throwing in jazz-like drum fills before going back to playing the second and fourth beats that serve as the pulse of R&B and rock 'n' roll.
It's mind boggling to realize that the original Jimi Hendrix Experience only recorded three full albums and a couple of singles given their impact on rock. While Hendrix's guitar legacy justifiably continues to inspire, it's important to recognize, as many others have done before, the invaluable contributions of his bandmates.
Mitch Mitchell was in the right place at the right time, with the right chops.