In my life as a music lover, a great many artists have had a deep impact on me: The Beatles, The Stones, Dylan, Zeppelin, Zevon, Marley, Neil Young, 2Pac, Elliott Smith, Ryan Adams, Gillian Welch … the list goes on and on, and I’m adding to it all the time. But for me, all of these talented musicians are overshadowed by one man.
Jimi Hendrix isn’t just a guitar god—he is the guitar god. Ask any guitarist, and he or she will tell you that Hendrix is the best ever. He was so good that no one else out there can even adequately imitate him. The only guy who ever even got close was Stevie Ray Vaughan, and while SRV does commendable versions of Little Wing and Voodoo Child (Slight Return), there’s just … something that’s missing. Some ethereal level of touch, or tone, or maybe it’s just some innate piece of soul that not even the great Stevie Ray can achieve.
But my love of Jimi transcends guitar nerdism. It goes beyond the mastery of technique, the sonic pioneering, the sheer aggression of volume. Discovering Hendrix was a watershed moment for me, an event that honestly—I’m not kidding here—changed my life.
As I’ve mentioned before, I went through a pretty extended hip-hop phase when I was a teenager. The mid-’90s were a great time for it: 2Pac, Biggie, Wu-Tang, Nas—so many of the best rappers who ever lived were at their peak at the time. There are a lot of reasons for my hip hop fandom—rebellion against my hippie parents, anger about some circumstances in my life, an attraction to wordplay—but the result was that at the time I listened to basically zero music that had a guitar in it. The only song I can remember liking when I was 15 or 16 that you’d call a “rock” song was Hendrix’s version of All Along the Watchtower. The guitar on that song was so dark, so moody, so fierce, that even my willful teenage self couldn’t deny its awesomeness.
As I got later into high school, my anti-rock stance started to mellow, and in college I ended up rooming with a guy who was a pretty big music geek—though not particularly a Hendrix fan. However, the guy who lived across the hall from us (to this day, both of these guys are in the group of five or so people who I refer to interchangeably as my “best friend”) LOVED Jimi. We all started kicking it and drinking together, and invariably Josh would put on his Hendrix Ultimate Experience album. One night, I stumbled into the room after getting stoned with another friend down the hall, and Watchtower came on … and I felt like someone was taking a jackhammer to my pleasure receptors. I wasn’t sure if this was why god created music, or why god created weed, but nothing had ever gone together so perfectly.
Needless to say, I spent a whole lot of time over the next few months getting blazed and working my way, over and over, through the Hendrix catalog. That endeavour inspired me to learn to play the guitar, which, 15 years later, I can say resulted in a tectonic shift in my life. If I don’t learn to play guitar, I never start going to jams when I move to Brooklyn, I never start going to Sunny’s, I never move back to Brooklyn a second time, I never meet the guys in my band … honestly, I really don’t know where I’d be—but I’m guessing wherever that is, I wouldn’t be having nearly as much fun.
All of that traces back to my discovery of Hendrix. So it’s a bit surprising to me that I haven’t written much at all about Jimi on this blog—really, just a single Desert Island Album post. And I think it surprised my good friend and fellow blogsmith Juan Alvarado as well, because last week, he proposed we come up with dueling “Top 10 Hendrix Songs” lists. I found the prospect truly terrifying, but it was a challenge I had no choice but to accept. You can read Juanito’s list here. My picks are below.
First of all, the honorable mentions and most difficult omissions: This will probably get me skewered, but Purple Haze doesn’t make my list. It’s a great song and a Hendrix anthem—but it’s just never quite been my favorite Jimi tune … If you want to feel your feet melt into your socks, get high and listen to the 15-minute duel between Hendrix’s guitar and Steve Winwood’s organ on Electric Ladyland‘s Voodoo Chile … One of my favorite sitting-by-the-window-on-a-cold-wet-dreary-day songs is Rainy Day, Dream Away … One of Jimi’s most lyrically poetic songs, full of rich, complex guitar work, and one I can’t believe I’m cutting, is Castles Made of Sand … Foxy Lady, maybe the sexiest song ever written (just for the way Jimi snarls, here I come baby, comin’ to get ya.) … And there’s the rare chance to see Jimi on acoustic (12-string no less!) playing Hear My Train a Comin’ for a documentary that was released two years after his death.
Now, on to the top 10:
10. May This Be Love
We’ll start with a deep cut. I can’t explain exactly why I love this song so much: some of it is the tone of the guitar, which with delay and reverb and legato notes and volume turned down a bit creates a sensation like you’re listening to it underwater—say, in the calm water just after a waterfall, an image Jimi of course refers to in the lyrics: “Waterfall, nothing can harm me at all/My worries seem so very small/With my waterfall.” Drummer Mitch Mitchell abets the falling water sensation with his rolling, insistent toms, in perfect sync with Jimi’s guitar work. A bonus: This song is in a random scene in Cameron Crowe’s 1992 flick Singles.
I love this scene, because the moment when Kyra Sedgwick stops and says, “Oh, I love this song”—that’s something I do all the time. Usually whoever I’m with just thinks I’m weird. It’s nice to know other people out there get it, and that this particular song does that for someone else.
9. Wait Until Tomorrow
Another relatively minor entry in Hendrix’s catalog that makes my list. It’s a short, fun, playful tune—there’s no extended guitar solo, rare for a Jimi song—just that distinctive riff and those soft fills during the verses. Here’s the thing about that riff and those fills though: They are fucking hard to play so lightly and softly as Jimi does. The “touch” that guitarists mention when they talk about Jimi? You can hear it on Wait Until Tomorrow.
The other thing I love about this song is anecdotal. If you listen to the lyrics, it’s the story of a guy who’s trying to get a girl to run away with him, only at the last minute she waffles, leaving him stranded waiting in the tree outside her window—where he gets shot by her father. One time during my aforementioned collegiate deep-Jimi-dive period, Josh and I were sitting around, stoned I’m sure, listening to this song, and at the end, when Jimi says, almost offhandedly, “It must not have been right, so forever goodnight,” Josh sputtered “THAT FUCKING BITCH.” It was unexpected, and hilarious, and remains one of my fondest memories of one of my best friends.
8. Hey Joe
I didn’t really want to include this song on the list. It’s not that hard to play (I mean I can play it pretty much note for note). Everyone covers it all the time—hell, Jimi covered it (it was written by Billy Roberts and recorded by The Leaves). And it’s mostly famous because it was the song that made Jimi a star when he first left the U.S. for London. But I found that I had to include it as an illustration of Jimi’s emotiveness as a guitar player. He could express things through those strings that no other guitar player could. Just listen to the first few bars of that solo: Those notes are the gunshots! That’s the sound of him fucking shooting her!
So unbelievably awesome.
7. Machine Gun
Hendrix wrote this song for the soldiers serving in Vietnam (Jimi himself had been a member of the 101st Airborne but was discharged when he broke his leg during training), and he played the most famous version of it at the Fillmore East on New Year’s Eve 1969, just as the hopeful late ’60s were shifting into what would become the disheartening ’70s. Jimi’s howling guitar not only seems to sum up the chaos of war in the jungle, it also seems to capture the way American culture teetered on the precipice at the very moment he was playing it. And even if you cut out all the English major bullshit I just gave you (hey, I am what I am…), from a guitar player’s perspective, the song is ridiculous: Metallica lead guitarist Kirk Hammett has said that he never figured out how to recreate Hendrix’s famous machine gun riff.
6. Bold as Love
Another innovation that Hendrix is known for is playing lead and rhythm at the same time. What that means, essentially, is that he would play melodic lead licks throughout a song, but typically basing them in the rhythm chords, so he was neither entirely picking lead nor strumming rhythm. It’s a tough trick to pull off, but one that became associated intimately with Jimi’s style—in particular with Little Wing and Bold as Love. These tracks were both hugely influential to the guitarists that came after Hendrix. Just as an example, here’s a demo version of Bold as Love:
And here’s Steve Ray Vaughan playing Life Without You, a beautiful track that SRV said was inspired by Bold as Love.
Even the solo bears a distinct similarity. What’s the old expression? “Talent imitates, genius steals”?
5. Voodoo Child (Slight Return)
As far as sheer guitar pyrotechnics go, I don’t think anyone’s ever going to top this one. And trust me, basically every time I’ve gone to see a self-proclaimed guitar god in concert, they’ve taken a crack at this one. The sheer ferocity, the sheer strangeness of Hendrix’s tone—it’s hard to describe. I think about it like this: If Jimi were an alien sent from outer space to invade earth, Voodoo Child (Slight Return) is his Ride of the Valkyries.
Like the airstrike in Apocalypse Now, Jimi takes no prisoners with this song. He uses the wah pedal, the trem bar, and all sorts of studio tricks (if you listen to the studio recording on headphones, he sends the lead guitar signal alternating through the two channels, giving you the sensation that you’re being circled by a buzzing alien ship). And the lyrics add a sense of mystery, or perhaps mythology, or at least otherworldliness: “If I don’t see you no more in this world/I’ll meet you in the next one/And don’t be late.”
4. Red House
Against Jimi’s wishes, Red House was cut from the original release of Are You Experienced because the record company deemed it too bluesy. Of course, as always, record execs are fools. Jimi may have sometimes seemed like he was from outer space, but at heart, he was a bluesman who grew up listening to Muddy Waters and Albert King, who cut his teeth playing for Little Richard and the Isley Brothers on the Chitlin’ Circuit. All the rock guitar players of the ’60s and ’70s idolized the bluesmen, but as none other than Eric Clapton said, Jimi “actually lived it.” Red House is Jimi at his most stripped down, a basic slow blues in B, but he transcends the form by throwing down a few minutes of the most insane, face-melting guitar licks you’ll hear anywhere. This song is in every blues guitar player’s back pocket. But what’s more than that, like so many other Jimi tunes, this one illustrates his sense of humor, with that famous final line: “If my baby don’t love me no more/I know her … sister will!”
3. The Wind Cries Mary
I admit that I’m a sucker for ballads and what I like to call “miserable suffering bastard” songs, so my top 10 lists end up being slightly top heavy with minor-key tunes. Hey, write what you know, right? Anyway, while it’s not known as his most difficult guitar piece (this is another song I can play pretty much note for note), The Wind Cries Mary is almost certainly Jimi’s most beautiful lyric, and a testament to his skill not just a guitarist, but as a songwriter. Written after a fight with his girlfriend (allegedly after a row over her cooking with dirty pans), it’s a soft, mournful song, an expression of the crushing depth of loneliness. This song plays on repeat every time I go through a break up. “Will the wind ever remember/The names it has blown in the past?/And with its crutch, its old age and its wisdom/It whispers no, this will be the last.”
2. All Along the Watchtower
Really, you’re probably asking, after what I wrote in the Justin-needed-an-editor-for-this-post intro, Watchtower isn’t No. 1? Well, no, not quite, although it is the first Hendrix song I loved, and it has a lot going for it, not least the insistent 12-string acoustic rhythm played by Traffic’s Dave Mason (this recording was born out of the all-night Electric Ladyland sessions Jimi played with members of Traffic at his new Electric Lady studio in New York in 1968) and the apocalyptic lyrics written, of course, by Bob Dylan. Many, many artists have covered this song, but no one brings the power to it that Jimi does. He really is at his peak here: There’s his confident vocal, especially on the final verse, when he almost howls, “All along the watchtower”; the aggressive, rapid-fire attack of his initial solo; the sheer ballsiness of his slide solo (he played it with a fucking Zippo!); and the high pitched, well, howl of the outro solo, as he evokes an oncoming apocalypse with just a few endlessly ringing notes.
So why isn’t Watchtower No. 1?
1. Little Wing
Because everyone who knows me well knew that this was No. 1 all along. I may seem like a cynic, sometimes, but the truth is that I am kind of a romantic at heart, and whenever I meet a girl I really like, I can imagine her walking through the clouds, with a circus mind that’s running round. And I want to believe that when I’m sad she’ll come to me, with a thousand smiles she’ll give to me for free.
And aside from that hopelessly romantic stuff, it’s got maybe the best guitar intro ever written—stand in any electric guitar shop in America for an hour, and I guarantee you will hear someone play the Little Wing intro—and a soaring solo, both of which perfectly paint those clouds.
Ah, why am I wasting my words trying to describe the song? Just play it, Jimi.