Jimi Hendrix was something like the definitive reinstatement of karma, at a time when rock was becoming independent of its black roots. In that period the biggest stars were white guys who had learned everything from B.B. King, Little Richard and Chuck Berry, and Hendrix arrived to become the most dazzling star of the genre and define its sound forever. When we talk about rock & roll, we talk about Chuck Berry, and when we talk about rock, we talk about the sound that Jimi Hendrix made from his guitar. Although he appeared, in commercial terms, after Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page and Pete Townshend, they all ended up being strongly influenced by him and his arrival to England in 1966 made many of them, with Clapton at the head, think about dedicating themselves to something else.
His appearance, however, was as dazzling as it was brief, only four years in the spotlight; three studio albums and one live album was the ‘small amount of baggage’ he left after his early death at the age of 27, on September 18, 1970. A year earlier Brian Jones had passed away and less than a month later they would be joined by Janis Joplin and, a few months later, Jim Morrison. All were 27 years old and all were rightly mourned, but none left a hole like the 'Wild Blue Angel'. If Dylan gave the poetry and the Beatles put the songs, Hendrix was the third pillar of the genre, giving it its definitive sound through the guitar.
Little Wing (1967)
If Little Wing only lasted the 32 seconds of its start, until Mitch Mitchell's drums came in, it would already be one of the best songs of all time. It's amazing what Hendrix accomplishes in that wonderful introduction. But the rest of the song itself doesn't detract at all from that moment, with lyrics in which the guitarist draws on his Indian roots to talk about the spirit that served him as a guardian angel; with a melody that fits the song like a glove. This marvel continues until the final solo that serves as the icing on the cake, in which Hendrix demonstrates that he is capable of rivaling B.B. King himself when it comes to the subtlety and feeling that can be extracted from a guitar. To achieve that sound, engineer Eddie Kramer ran the guitar through a Leslie amp, and Hendrix's magic fingers did the rest.
All Along The Watchtower (1968)
Bob Dylan was Hendrix's favorite composer, he had already covered several live versions of his songs, such as Like A Rolling Stone and Can You Please Crawl Out The Window, but when a copy of Dylan's latest album, John Wesley Harding, fell into his hands, one song caught his attention: it was All Along The Watchtower and Hendrix decided to record a cover that very night. He took several friends into the studio, such as Brian Jones from the Rolling Stones and Dave Mason from Traffic, and set out to record it. Mason was playing an acoustic 12-string guitar and Hendrix was shouting out the chords to him. Noel Redding got fed up and left, so it was Hendrix himself who took over the bass. Throughout a number of sessions the guitarist added new layers of guitar as there was something in the song that obsessed him and he gave his best, with a solo divided into four sections: a first in which he plays directly with almost no effects; a second with slide (for which he reportedly used a lighter); and a strong use of delay; a third with a psychedelic effect of his wah wah pedal; and a last part that could be considered a rhythmic solo, with Hendrix using different chord projections. The final result was spectacular and it became his biggest hit in the US, taking Electric Ladyland, the album on which it appeared, to the top of the charts. It was also ‘the biggest theft in history’, because Hendrix made the song belong to him instead of its original author, something that Dylan himself would admit: "I liked Jimi Hendrix's version and since he died I've been doing it like that. It's strange how when I sing it, I always feel that it's somehow a tribute to him.”
Bold As Love (1967)
When I was 14 years old I bought my first Hendrix album, it was a compilation called The Ultimate Experience, which I felt I listened to a million times. It contained nine of the 10 songs that I have selected in this list, all except this one. When I decided to move on to the artist's three mythical albums, the first three with the Experience, I decided on the least known, Axis: Bold As Love, because, despite having fewer songs on that compilation, it was the one with Little Wing, my favorite song. But when I got to the last song on that album, my head exploded. How could a song like that not be among the artist's best? Not only did it contain one of his best melodies, together with lyrics full of beautiful and surreal images in which he compared his moods to colours, but at the end of it there were two of the best solos in the history of rock. Two and a half minutes of guitar glory, in which with only his Strat, dubbed to be also rhythmic (and an innovative use of the 'flanger' and the Fuzz Face set to 11), he was able to sound like a complete orchestra, recreating Phil Spector’s 'wall of sound' without the need for an orchestra, nor four drums - just his six string split by the greatest magician that the electric guitar has ever known. It was 1967 - think of any song from that year or later and listen to how rock found its sound. The following year everyone sounded like Hendrix and groups like Herman's Hermits decided, with good reason, that there was no longer room for them...
Voodoo Child (Slight Return) (1968)
This track is the Sistine Chapel of the electric guitar. It is a song that came out of a much longer 'jam', simply called Voodoo Chile, and became the perfect storm of rock, the ultimate proof of how Hendrix took the blues and carried it into outer space to turn it into rock. In the lyrics Hendrix makes it clear, he is not an upstart but a member of the African American music line, a voodoo man with magical powers, someone who had taken over from Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy... and now was leaving his own mark. The equipment used was probably his 1967 white Stratocaster, a Fender Showman and a Wah pedal, but don't try to duplicate it, the magic of this symphony of distortion and fury cannot be replicated. It's as if Hendrix himself was aware that his fire could not last long: "If I don't meet you no more in this world, I'll meet you in the next one, don't be late.”
Purple Haze (1967)
By December 1966 Hendrix was already the talk of the town among the Swingin’ London circle of musicians. Everyone, from the Beatles on down, was talking about that left-handed guitarist whose performances were nothing less than an event. But Hendrix hardly had any material of his own at the time, so when on December 26th, at the Upper Cut Club, Hendrix started playing the incredible Purple Haze riff, Chas Chandler asked him to write a song immediately with it. The guitarist did so and Chandler sent the band to the studio that same afternoon so they wouldn't forget it. Between January and February 1967 the recording was completed with Hendrix taking the electric guitar to new heights of expression and sound. His collaboration with electronics enthusiast Roger Mayer resulted in the creation of the Octavia, a pedal that reproduced the guitar signal an octave higher, as well as adding 'fuzz' distortion. Hendrix puts it to good use in Purple Haze in a solo in which, adding a Fuzz Face, he manages to sound as if Ravi Shankar were playing the blues on Mars. When the single finally appeared in March 1967, the other guitarists on the planet thought about doing something else.
The Wind Cries Mary (1967)
Hendrix's creativity in 1967 was truly explosive: as Mitch Mitchell said, suddenly Hendrix began to write an infinite number of songs that seemed to magically emerge from a top hat. When he showed up at the studio with this beauty, everyone was impressed. In less than 20 minutes they had finished this beautiful song dedicated to his girlfriend at that time, and once it was finished everyone knew that the band had their third single, after Hey Joe and Purple Haze. After the electric storm of Purple Haze came the calm: The Wind Cries Mary was the first of Hendrix’s great ballads, a genre that would produce many of his best songs.
Hey Joe (1966)
The story of how Chas Chandler met Jimi Hendrix at the Cafe Wha in New York is well known. The guitarist arrived in London on September 24th and on October 6th the Experience, the trio that formed around him, with Noel Redding on bass and Mitch Mitchell on drums, had their first rehearsal. In a few days they left to France to accompany the most famous singer of that country on several dates - Johnny Halliday, including at the Parisian Olympia. There, it was clear that the chemistry between the three was good and that Hendrix was unrivaled on stage, even by the ‘French Elvis’ himself. A few days later they returned to London and on October 23rd they recorded Hey Joe, the song chosen to introduce them. This was a Billy Roberts song that had had several versions done by folk rock and garage groups from the West Coast of the United States, such as the Leaves, the Byrds and Love. But the version by the Experience was slow, taking as a model the cover version of the folk singer Tim Rose. But Hendrix showed, right from the beginning, that when he did a cover he made it his own forever and this version of Hey Joe has remained totally related to him. It was the song with which he made himself known to the world and became his first success, and was one of the songs that would remain in his live repertoire throughout his career, playing it at the three major festivals - Monterrey, Isle of Wight and Woodstock - where it was the song that definitively closed the mythical event.
Castles Made Of Sand (1967)
Castles Made Of Sand has another one of those introductions to the guitar that prove that Hendrix was able to build a song on the six strings like no one else. It's a sad and beautiful song, about dreams that collapse like sand castles, with three stories that end badly: a couple that fights and separates, a young Indian warrior who is killed just before taking part in his first battle and an abused girl who ends up committing suicide. All this carried in a dreamy state by his melancholic guitar that seems to tell us that dreams, like castles, are made of sand and dissolve in the sea...
Foxy Lady (1967)
Foxy Lady is pure Hendrix; it has a captivating beginning, with the famous 'Hendrix chord' and those vibrant notes that go on their way with an exaggerated vibrato. This is followed by a riff full of distortion and, as the cherry on the cake, a spectacular solo with his 1964 Stratocaster in which, with the language of the blues, Hendrix finds melodies never before explored, in an explosion of short but absolutely captivating notes. Part of its strength may be due to the fact that Jimi composed it shortly after seeing his former boss, Little Richard, live in December 1966 in London. It was the song that served as the introduction to the artist's legendary first album, Are You Experienced?
And I close the list with one of the last songs of the artist's career, first released on The Cry Of Love, after Hendrix’s passing. The song, however, had been around much longer, Hendrix had composed it shortly after finishing recording Axis: Bold As Love and recorded a first demo in late 1967. But it wasn't until 1970, in his newly opened Electric Lady studio, that he made this definitive version, and transformed it into the spiritual, and lyrical, heir to the song which opened this selection, Little Wing.