The 20 best Jimi Hendrix songs

10. Bold as Love

Axis: Bold As Love’s semi-title track was redolent of Little Wing in the opening measures, but the revelation came at 2:50, when Kramer unveiled the stereo phasing that he and tape operator George Chkiantz had used to treat the drums. “When Jimi first heard that,” Kramer recalled, “he fell off the couch, yelling at me: ‘Oh my god, this was in my dream!’” Rising to the occasion, for the outro Jimi played a soulful, album-best solo that climaxes with frantic tremolo picking and, according to Redding, was created on the fly: “The ending and the build-up was all spontaneous between the whole band.” 

9. Red House 

At first glance, Red House hardly squared with Hendrix’s iconoclast reputation. Three tracks into Are You Experienced, it set out its stall as a no-frills slow blues, following twelve-bar dogma at trudging pace, skirting plagiarism of Albert King’s Travelin’ To California. But at the two-minute mark – “That’s alright, I still got my guitar, look out now!”– Hendrix elevated the song with a solo of such unadorned beauty that it equalled anything in his bag of tricks. It was so good, noted John Lee Hooker, that it would make you “grab your mother and choke her.” 

8. Voodoo Chile 

It would never be as celebrated as its (almost) identically named offshoot, but amidst the rampant experimentation of Electric Ladyland, Voodoo Chile was a reminder that few could touch Hendrix on a route-one blues. Nodding hard to Muddy WatersRollin’ Blues and Hoochie Coochie Man – with a stir of sci-fi to boot – the structure was secondary to the vibe, with Hendrix corralling Steve Winwood and Jack Casady at the Record Plant for a freeform 15-minute take that remains one of the quintessential wee-small-hours ’60s studio jams. “There were no chord sheets, no nothing,” recalled Winwood. “He just started playing.”

7. Machine Gun

Historically an opaque lyricist, Hendrix left no doubt of the inspiration behind the Band Of Gypsys high-water mark, dedicating it onstage at the mighty 1970 Fillmore East show to the soldiers in Vietnam (and those braving riots on home soil). Scuttling on muted strings and squalling over Buddy Miles’ rat-a-tat drumming, Machine Gun was the most visceral of protest songs, catching the dread of war. “It’s so atmospheric, it’s so moody, it’s so stoner-rock – even before stoner-rock – and virtuostic at the same time,” Metallica’s Kirk Hammett told Classic Rock. “He really brings you there, to the killing fields.”

6. The Wind Cries Mary

The gossamer lilt of the Experience’s third single, according to Hendrix’s then-girlfriend Kathy Etchingham (middle name Mary), was at odds with its volatile inspiration, the repentant guitarist writing it by way of apology after a blow-up over mashed potatoes: “He tastes them with a fork and says they’re all lumpy. That’s how the argument started.”

The January ’67 session at London’s De Lane Lea Studios moved fast, remembered Chandler (just 20 minutes to play through with Mitchell and Redding, plus overdubs), but you’d never guess it: while London shook with blues scales, Hendrix’s jazzy three-chord shift at the end of the chorus sounded impossibly sophisticated. 

5. Hey Joe

Hendrix’s arrival in London in September 1966 sent shockwaves through the capital’s musical community. Like some left-handed guitar-playing James Bond, women wanted to be with him, and men – especially Eric Clapton – wanted to be him.

The culmination of this summer of madness was Hendrix’s debut single. Hey Joe was a murder ballad, previously recorded by US folkie Tim Rose. The story of a man who shoots his ‘cheatin’ ol’ lady’ and flees to Mexico was blunter than anything by supposed bad boys The Who or the Rolling Stones. But initially Hey Joe, with its gospel-style backing vocals, pottered along like a regular pop song. Then, around the 1:27 mark, Hendrix’s increasingly fervent vocals and stun-gun guitar took it somewhere new. The result was as exercise in menace and understatement; every slow-burn hard rock song of the late ’60s and beyond squeezed into three-and-a-half peerless minutes. 

4. Purple Haze

With the Experience’s debut single Hey Joe, Hendrix had complained, “wasn’t us” (literally: it was a cover). Follow-up Purple Haze corrected that, with a brain-dump of Hendrix’s myriad interests, from sci-fi to sex, and possibly psychedelics (he variously explained the inspiration as a dream of walking on the sea bed, and the “daze” of chasing an unattainable woman). 

That first draft, the guitarist reflected, had sprawled to “a thousand words… I had it all written out”, but Chandler, eyeing radio, helped prune Purple Haze back to a more palatable three minutes – without sacrificing a lick of what (arguably) nudges Voodoo Child as Jimi’s signature guitar moment. The opening two-note jolt (an unsettling tritone interval rightly nicknamed ‘the devil in music’) and three-chord verse might have been a basic canvas, but with his frighteningly adept lead – taken to the stars by revolutionary use of Roger Mayer’s Octavia pedal – Hendrix announced himself beyond question as the virtuoso and sonic adventurer to beat.

3. Voodoo Child (Slight Return) 

The wah-wah guitar pedal was a relatively new invention when Hendrix used it to devastating effect on the unforgettable introduction of Voodoo Child (Slight Return), and while that intro is the song’s most memorable feature, Hendrix treats the entire composition as a vehicle for expression. He alternates between rhythm and lead playing at the blink of an eye, and both riffs and solos frequently pan from left to right to add to the swaying, hypnotic nature of the performance. His guitar parts are backed up by the solid, unwavering playing of bassist Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell, who allow him the breathing space he needs to take the dynamics down and up.

Released in format somewhere between a single and an EP, Voodoo Child (Slight Return) was backed with Hey Joe and Hendrix’s immortal cover of Bob Dylan’s All Along The Watchtower – the song remains another reason for Hendrix’s reputation as a man for whom a guitar was not simply an instrument. As his devotees believe, his iconic Fender Strarocaster was a vehicle for the expression of his essential soul. 

2. Little Wing 

If the languid guitar flourish that opens Little Wing sounded like it was rolling impulsively off Hendrix’s fingers, the musical roots were, in truth, a little more tangled. In ’66, channelling the rhythm playing of one-time tour-mate Curtis Mayfield, the journeyman guitarist had thrown similar shapes on(My Girl) She’s A Fox, during a run with R&B duo The Icemen. That same year, after-hours loiterers on New York’s Greenwich Village circuit might have heard those glistening trills resurface as Hendrix tinkered with the guitar part, honing the piano-style voicings that were only possible because his long thumb was able to reach over the neck to fret the low bass notes. 

Post-fame, the lyric came faster, in a flash of inspiration at Monterey, as Hendrix imagined the festival’s love-your-brother vibe personified into an“angel came down from heaven”(“I figured that I take everything around,” he reflected, “and put it maybe in the form of a girl”). 

Even then, Little Wing could have turned out very differently. In an October 1967 session at Olympic, following on the heels of the hot-headed Wait Until Tomorrow, early passes were more rocking, but patently not the right treatment. Hendrix reconsidered, slowed the pace, and Little Wing became an ethereal masterpiece, decorated with a glockenspiel and a DIY Leslie speaker whose tremulous tone he compared to “jelly bread”. “The Leslie was a tiny, handmade thing,” said Eddie Kramer, ”with a little Meccano set to support it and a rubber band driving a motor.”

The production was perfect – but the track is defined by the cascading guitar work that later covers by Stevie Ray Vaughan and Eric Clapton valiantly chased but never quite caught. Of the Experience’s three original albums, Axis: Bold As Love might be home to Hendrix’s deeper cuts, but Little Wing remains a calling card.

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