As I see it, there are three distinct aspects to Jimi Hendrix as a musician. I place them in this order of importance.
1 – Hendrix, the singer/songwriter
Hendrix famously hated the sound of his own voice, but I have never met anyone who had a real problem with it. Sure, he didn’t have the range of singers like Robert Plant, Ian Gillan, or Paul Rogers, but his laconic drawl is the perfect match for his fabulously idiosyncratic song-writing style.
And that is the really important point: unlike most lead guitarists, Hendrix also wrote and sang his own tunes and lyrics, and embellished his vocal melodies with some truly staggering guitar work. As an obsessive student of Hendrix for more than 25 years, I can say with authority that the really difficult bits of his music to learn are what Hendrix plays while he is singing: he hits open strings, drags chords shapes around, hammers on and pulls off, lets strings drone, plays arpeggios that meld into lead lines – and he often does it all within 20 seconds of music.
2 – Hendrix, the lead guitarist
Most people would put this first, but I disagree. Hendrix was – and remains – one of the greatest lead guitarists of all time. But his bag of tricks has been so mercilessly plundered over the years that his solos no longer have quite the same earth-shattering sense of novelty that they did when he burst onto the London scene in late 1966.
That said, no other electric guitarist in history has raised the bar of lead guitar so high in so short a space of time. If you know which records to listen to, you can detect a very clear pre/post Hendrix divide in other band’s music – basically, once his records hit the airwaves, EVERY lead guitarist in the world knew the school bus had parked outside, and he or she had to seriously up their game.
3 – Hendrix, the showman
The most famous image of Hendrix is probably the one of him kneeling over his flaming Stratocaster at the Monterey Pop Festival, wearing a cocksure grin on his face as he coaxes the flames upwards with his fingers. The grin is well deserved, as he had just comprehensively blown off stage every other band at the festival in what is acknowledged as one of the greatest rock performances of all time.
This concert also saw him use every crowd-pleasing piece of showmanship he had learnt while playing America’s miserable Chitlin’ Circuit: playing guitar with his teeth, playing behind his head, putting the guitar between his legs, waggling his tongue at the women in the crowd.
(It is worth noting that Hendrix quickly tired of using these, as he realised they detracted from the fact he was a serious musician and lyricist with something to say about the world.)
One factor ties all three of these diverse aspects together: the way Hendrix often vocally introduces his guitar solos. Here, we have singer, lead guitarist, and showman rolled into one as he deliberately draws attention to the musical fireworks he is about to unleash.
Here are some of my favourites.
1 – Foxey Lady [sic]
Given the salacious nature of the lyrics, Hendrix’s cry of ‘Here I come!’ just before the solo could have a couple of meanings. But it serves as the perfect intro to a short, tight solo which demonstrates Hendrix’s mastery of string bending and vibrato, while introducing one his most copied tricks (listen for the start of it at the 02:00 mark).
2 – Fire
The most famous, and extended of Hendrix’s solo intros – ‘I’d move over, rover, and let Jimi take over . . . yeah! you know what I’m talking about. Yeah! get on with it, baby’ – was apparently inspired by an actual incident. Hendrix, chilled to the bone by the English winter, found bass-player, Noel Redding’s dog lazing before a crackling open fire and asked him to shift.
3 – Stone Free
This is one of Hendrix’s most exciting solos, and his cry of ‘Turn me loose, baby’ precedes an explosion of euphoric fretwork that manages to sound both ragged and precise at the same – Hendrix did indeed turn himself loose.
4 – Red House
As Hendrix laments his romantic woes in the lyrics, he intersperses each line of the verse with guitar fills lifted from every great Blues guitarist that had come before him. So, when he says, ‘That’s all right, I’ve still got my guitar. Look out, baby’, you know he’s got to pull something special out of the bag for the solo.
Which he does – all those different licks and styles suddenly merge into something that is purely Hendrix.
After this, he rarely returned to the 12-Bar blues format in his career; basically, because he’d done everything he needed to do to establish himself as a premier Blues guitarist in the three-and-a-half minutes of this song.
So, there are four of my favourites. What are yours?