This past season, the NFL devoted one week of its 2017 schedule to a campaign called “My Cause, My Cleats.” Among other events, the endeavor involved having hundreds of players take the field for their games in specially designed, custom-made shoes that reflected a cause and organization close to their hearts. Which is how Los Angeles Chargers offensive tackle Joe Barksdale wound up walking onto the team’s home field at StubHub Center in Carson, California, in a pair of blue Nikes emblazoned with the visage of Jimi Hendrix, and covered with the sort of curlicue squiggles and hearts that adorned the hand-painted Stratocaster he famously played—and then lit on fire and smashed to bits—at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival.
“I love Fender guitars, so I chose the Fender Music Foundation as my charity,” says the 6’5”, 326-pound tackle. “And I decorated my cleats with the most famous Fender artist ever.”
The moment was an opportunity for Barksdale to reveal to football fans what are two of his great passions off the field. The 29-year-old Detroit native is an avowed guitar fanatic, and he spends much of his time away from football honing his craft at home, in hotel rooms, and at bars and clubs around the country. (He even performed “Foxy Lady” to his wife, Brionna, at their wedding reception.)
Now, Barksdale has released an album, Butterflies, Rainbows & Moonbeams (the title is yet another reference to his favorite artist), that highlights his accomplished rhythm and lead playing, as well as his singing, on a handful of original tunes and covers of songs by Freddie King (“The Stumble”), Elmore James (“Dust My Broom”), MGMT (“Electric Feel”), and, of course, Jimi Hendrix (“The Wind Cries Mary”). Barksdale’s own compositions run the gamut from blues, funk, and rock to R&B, gospel and even a bit of country.
“I look at my music like a gumbo,” he says. “It’s a huge collection of different sounds, and you just throw them in a pot, spice it, mix it, and serve it up.”
Amazingly, Barksdale has only been playing guitar for roughly five years, but his devotion to the instrument borders on obsessive—especially for someone whose day job is, to say the least, incredibly physically and mentally demanding. But he approaches playing guitar with the same confidence and passion he brings to football.
“I told my publicist straight up, ‘Look, dude, one day I’m going to win Grammys and be really famous, and I’m going to be known as the greatest guitar player of my generation,” he says. “‘So you can either get on this train now, or you can be sitting there watching the documentary and wondering why you let it pass.’”
For a long time, however, guitar wasn’t a part of Barksdale’s life at all. His love of music led him to play an instrument, but, like most public-school kids, that first instrument was a plastic recorder. From there, he moved on to the violin, and, after discovering jazz men like Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane, and Miles Davis, the saxophone. By then, he had little time to devote to an instrument, anyhow. As a star defensive tackle, Barksdale earned a spot on USA Today’s 2006 All-USA High School Football Team, and he threw himself fully into sports after enrolling at LSU.
“When you get to college, football is a job,” he says. “People work 40-hour-a-week jobs, but I worked at football probably 50 or 60. And any free time I had wasn’t going to be spent going over music theory.” In 2011, Barksdale was drafted by the Oakland Raiders. He was released the following year, and then signed with the St. Louis Rams. It was during his time that music reentered Barksdale’s life, after he experienced the death of someone “who was like a dad to me.” Rams head coach Jeff Fisher could tell he was struggling with the loss, so he suggested picking up the guitar.
“His son loved to play, so he thought maybe I should try it, as well,” says Barksdale. “And I thought, ‘What’s the worst that could happen?’ So I bought a Fender acoustic, and I got my first-ever guitar lesson from one of our equipment guys.”
A few weeks into his guitar studies, Barksdale experienced another life-changing moment.
“I was trying to motivate myself by looking at other great musicians,” he recalls, “and I remember searching for Jimi Hendrix on You-Tube. I had no idea who he was, and the first video that popped up was Jimi playing ‘Hey Joe’ at the Monterey Pop Festival. It changed my life. It was the hippest thing ever. The way I felt seeing Jimi for the first time was how I wanted people to feel when they heard me play.”
When he returned to St. Louis for the start of the new season, he immersed himself in guitar, taking lessons, and performing at open jam sessions at the city’s downtown bars and clubs (“That’s really where I learned how to play the blues”). In 2015, Barksdale signed with the Chargers, and he soon commenced a 16-week residency at Humphreys, a club in San Diego. He modeled those shows after the jam sessions he had loved in St. Louis, and he also teamed up with the Fender Music Foundation, auctioning Fender products to raise money for the organization’s various endeavors.
Given Barksdale’s close association with Fender—and also his love for Hendrix—it’s hardly surprising that his favorite guitar is the Stratocaster.
“It’s so versatile,” he says. “You can play an entire show—all different types of music—with one guitar. Everything works with a Strat.”
His “pride and joys” are a pair of ’69-reissue Stratocasters custom-made by Fender master builder John Cruz. He also has a ’65 reissue, as well as a blue Custom Shop Jazzmaster with “the sweetest paint job I’ve ever seen”—a takeoff on Jimi’s custom-finished white Monterey Strat. (The Jazzmaster also served as the template for Barksdale’s custom cleats.) His collection is rounded out by a Martin HD-28, a pair of Suhr electrics, and a tattoo of a Stratocaster that runs across the inner side of his upper right arm.
“I mean, it is my favorite guitar,” he says. “When I’m home, I always have my guitar, and if I’m having a bad day, I pick it up. If I hear a cool song on the radio, I pick up my guitar. If I’m watching TV, I pick up my guitar. This translates into about three or four hours of playing a day. During the season, I either bring a guitar on the road with me, or I have a specific set of albums that I’m going to listen to in order to hear some licks and melodies that will get me inspired. I’m constantly working on music in some way, shape, or form. Right now, I’ve gotten really deep into jazz and jazz theory, and I’m trying to write a song every couple of days.”
He says he’s currently putting plans together for a follow-up to Butterflies, Rainbows & Moonbeams.
“The guitar is like the voice of my heart,” he says. “I just love playing. And that’s why I dropped an album. It wasn’t to prove anything to anybody. It was to show people that I can be a professional athlete and a professional musician.”
And while Barksdale finds playing guitar to be a challenge, he also says it’s not nearly as hard as his day job.
“In football, if you have a bad play, people want to murder you—literally murder you,” he laughs. “But if you get up onstage and hit a bad note, you’ve just got to go and hit a good one. Just make sure to always resolve on a good note, and, at the end of the day, you’ll be fine.”