Like his hero, Jimi Hendrix, Ralph Woodson took up the guitar at age 15.
But by age 27, his life had taken a much different path.
While Hendrix was considered a guitar god at 27 — someone who had left an unforgettable imprint on rock music — Woodson at 27 was a father of three and a salesman at Pacific Electric Supply.
“I wasn’t able to do like Jimi when I was young and just play all the time,” Woodson said. “I had to put the guitar down and go get a job.”
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But now, with his kids grown, Woodson is making up for lost time. And, once again, he is back on the Hendrix track, knocking out distortion-heavy Hendrix licks in his tribute band, Purple Haze.
“It’s like a dream come true to do this for a living,” said Woodson, who will bring Hendrix music to life at The Ranch in San Miguel Saturday. Opening for Purple Haze will be Vu Doo Lounge, a Rolling Stones tribute band.
Woodson’s appreciation for Hendrix began the year Hendrix
died, in 1970. After hearing the song “Machine Gun,” he was hooked. And somehow Woodson connected that song — and Hendrix’s untimely death — to the death of his oldest brother, who was killed in an Oakland street fight that same year.
“When I heard ‘Machine Gun,’ I had never heard an instrument that sounded like that,” Woodson said. “But the spiritual aspect connected right away. I could tell — this was church.”
Only 10 at the time, Woodson couldn’t get a guitar right away because he was one of nine children, and his parents couldn’t afford an instrument. But when he was old enough, he found work that would allow him to buy one.
“I ended up getting a job at the Wienerschnitzel, cleaning the bathroom, so I could earn enough money to buy a used guitar,” he said. “As soon as I got enough money to buy a used guitar, I quit the job.”
Upon buying his own six-string, Woodson immediately began teaching himself Hendrix songs.
“That’s how I learned to play — sitting down, listening to Hendrix songs over and over,” he said.
Woodson played in several bands before forming the Ralph Woodson Trio, an original rock band that occasionally played Hendrix covers. Then, having played Hendrix songs for so long, he eventually decided to go with a tribute band in 2001.
Which, of course, gave him an excuse to buy some funky clothes.
“I found some nice vests from this lady that were hand-made in Afghanistan,” Woodson said. “They look real Hendrix-y. And we go to Goodwill stores and look for old stuff.”
At 50, he’s almost twice the age Hendrix was when he died. But he captures the essence of Hendrix’s playing, which combined technical proficiency with innovations in sound.
“As far as innovation and creativity, I think he’s still the No. 1 guitarist today,” Woodson said. “Take ‘Purple Haze,’ for example. Real simple song. It’s not that complicated. But who would have thought of that?”
While he plays the familiar Hendrix licks, Woodson also adds a few of his own.
“It’s more interesting than just playing it all note-for- note — to interject your own emotion into it,” said Woodson, who plans to release a solo album of original music, “Incredible Dreamer,” this fall.
Playing on an old Stratocaster once owned by Journey’s Neal Schon, Woodson confidently takes on Hendrix’s work, backed by drummer Dan Cueva and bass player Pete Roberts. Yet, he admits, Hendrix had the advantage of bigger hands, which helped him to play bass notes on guitar.
“Old blues players used to use their thumb to play bass notes, and Hendrix was the best at that,” Woodson said.
Before Hendrix died, the guitarist was exploring different kinds of music. And Woodson thinks Hendrix would have explored other genres had he lived through the ’70s.
“I think when disco was happening, he would have been doing jazz fusion,” Woodson said. “I think he and Miles Davis and Stanley Clarke and Chick Corea and all of those people would have somehow mingled. It was just about to happen with him and Miles.”
Reach Patrick S. Pemberton at 781-7903.