The 20 best Jimi Hendrix songs

Jimi Hendrix in 1967
(Image credit: nitor Picture Library/Popperfoto via Getty Images)

Jimi Hendrix’s recording career lasted just four years, but during that time he revolutionised the guitar and rock’n’roll itself. The songs he recorded with The Experience – and later, Band Of Gypsys – have long part of the DNA of rock music itself, while his incendiary performances on record and onstage have never been matched. But what’s the best Hendrix song of all time? We threw it open to a public vote – and here are the winners.

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20. Star Spangled Banner 

On the morning of August 18, 1969, Hendrix played Woodstock with his short-lived ensemble Gypsy Sun And Rainbows. Towards the end of his set, he dropped in a overdriven, distorted and generally fucked-up version of hallowed US national anthem The Star-Spangled Banner. Conservatives and patroits instantly claimed it was wholly inappropriate and offensive, and caused them to wretch into their own hands, while others believed it to be a noisy statement against the Vietnam War. So what’s the answer? Well, it’s said that by the time Hendrix took to the stage that morning, he’d been awake for three consecutive days. So the answer is anyone’s guess, really.

19. Hey Baby (New Rising Sun) 

Hendrix chipped away at Hey Baby for more than two years – christening and retitling it at various intervals along the way – and you can hear the guitarist’s ever-changing moods in the shapeshifting song that finally appeared on his second posthumous set, 1971’s Rainbow Bridge. The intro underwhelms slightly with its dour, non-committal churn. But Hey Baby finds its groove with the reggae-ish chop that enters after the first minute, before Jimi finds his voice (“Is this microphone on?”) and the song joins the canon with the propulsive lift-off of the“Hey girl, I’d like to come along”refrain. That fourth album would have really been something…

18. If Six Was Nine

Later included on the Easy Rider soundtrack, this psychedelic blues was the 60s counterculture in excelsis, from Hendrix’s pot shots at “white collar conservatives flashing down the street” to the likely influence of LSD (“I didn’t find out until after we finished that he’d been taking acid,” confessed producer-manager Chas Chandler). A cameo from Graham Nash stomping his feet on the track bled into a free-form outro, with Hendrix tooting on a borrowed recorder. “So here’s Jimi freaking out,” engineer Eddie Kramer recalled, “and of course I stick a lot of echo on. And the guys are stomping away like mad. It sounds like galloping horses!”

The elaborate production was almost in vain, after Hendrix left the Axis: Bold As Love master tape in a taxi. Redding saved the day by supplying an early mix on an arse-rough open-reel tape, and the bassist also took credit for the outro: “When we all go into three separate time signatures, that’s basically an idea of mine, because we didn’t know what to do at that one point in the song.”

17. Manic Depression 

After Chandler criticised Hendrix’s interview manner as “manic depressive”, the guitarist had his title, even if the lyric seemed more to do with thwarted love than mental health – “I wish I could caress and kiss, kiss…”. With Mitchell’s muscular jazz rolls high in the mix, Hendrix’s riff climbing upward through the verses, and his vocal flowing across the 3/4 metre, Manic Depression seemed to have no centre of gravity – and was all the better for it. That seasick vibe probably stopped its promotion to a single from Are You Experienced, but Hollywood Vampires’ 2015 cover was a reminder that the hardcore were listening.

16. Angel 

Six months after his death, Hendrix lived again in March 1971, as Angel led out the first posthumous album, The Cry Of Love, and announced that the late guitarist’s catalogue would be a going concern. As you’d expect of Little Wing’s sister song (for a time the two tracks even shared a title), Angel was a peerless moment of glisten and shimmer, with a valedictory chorus that seemed purpose-made for the star’s passing (although Hendrix had actually written it about a dream that foresaw his mother’s death). With a chorus that punctured the mainstream consciousness, for many, it’s his greatest ballad. 

15. Crosstown Traffic 

Three tracks into Electric Ladyland, Hendrix dropped the album’s first jukebox moment and most accessible cut. For once including all three Experience members – plus Dave Mason on backing vocals – Crosstown Traffic’s rocket-heeled R&B would have thrilled under any circumstances, with Hendrix splicing chords and single-note runs within the same guitar part. But the pièce de résistance was Hendrix’s joyous doubling of the hook, tooting on a comb wrapped in cellophane for a kazoo effect. Electric Ladyland had more ambitious moments, but nothing so immediate. 

14. Are You Experienced? 

The Experience’s debut album might have opened up with Foxy Lady’s chart-tooled swagger, but the final straight had a bolder trick up its sleeve, with a title track that signposted the epic studio productions to come. Mitchell’s military drum tattoo was the anchor of a freeform sonic tapestry that bent to Hendrix’s will, sweeping up backwards guitars that were more raga than rock, a solo seemingly beamed in from another track, and a woozy call to arms that urged listener to ditch the denizens of their “measly little world”– far better, Jimi suggests, to “hold hands and watch the sunrise from the bottom of the sea”.

13. 1983... (A Merman I Should Turn to Be) 

By spring 1968, Electric Ladyland had suffered its first casualty, with Chas Chandler quitting over Hendrix’s obsessive attention to detail and habit of inviting the flotsam of the New York club scene back to the studio. With the brakes off, 1983... (A Merman I Should Turn To Be) saw Hendrix dive deeper on a 13-minute psychedelic epict hat sprawls between the backwards flute of Traffic’s Chris Wood, seagull squawks created with microphone feedback and amphibious lyrics that spoke of escaping the “fighting nest” and “screaming pain” of dry land. It was hard to disagree with Kramer’s assessment that “when Chas left, we were off to the races”. 

12. Foxy Lady 

Few recorded sounds in ’67 held more anticipation than the shiver of vibrato and feedback that ignited Foxy Lady. The song, when it crashed in, caught the guitarist at his hardest, hookiest and most primal, the riff’s shrill payoff demanding attention every few seconds. But Hendrix rejected interpretations that the lyric was a brash ode to womanising, and it’s more likely the title referred to his times with on/off girlfriend Lithofayne Pridgon. “He used to call every pet we had Foxy,” Pridgon told The Guardian. “Or if I put on certain things, he’d say, ‘Wow, you look foxy in that.’”

11. Castles Made of Sand 

Eddie Kramer saw this late addition to Axis: Bold As Love as “Jimi’s imagination run wild”. Certainly, that’s true of the production – the burbling backwards guitar still sounds revolutionary – but the lyric is perhaps his most grounded in reality, Hendrix tracking a disintegrating family unit that younger brother Leon claimed was their own: “That is the story of our life, about my mother and father arguing, in the first verse. I’m the little Indian boy who before he was ten played war games in the woods: that’s my verse. And then the last verse is about our mother. Jimi came home and said, ‘This is our family song’.”

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