Jimi Hendrix is a man who has dominated the music scene he left some 50 years ago. The wild guitarist and counterculture poster boy made his name as the free spirit of rock ‘n’ roll and, perhaps due to his untimely death, he has never given up that post. Still, in 2020, we’re left marvelling at the sincere and searing talent that Hendrix possessed. While many will point to his blistering performances with a guitar as his most potent, they often forget that underneath it all, Hendrix was also an incredible songwriter.
To trawl through the comparatively small back catalogue of Hendrix may seem a little bit trivial, after all, such was the length of his time in the spotlight that one could easily give up time to listen to the entirety of it. But, for those of us who are supremely time-poor, we’ve narrowed it down to 20 of the singer’s finest songs. It makes for not only an impressive display of musical technique and soulful performance but just how poignant Hendrix was.
As well as being the poster boy for a new generation of thinkers, undisturbed by the Second World War and determined to not fall into the same potholes, Hendrix should rightly be revered as a maestro of his instrument too. That said, it wasn’t just his technical skill that both impressed and emboldened people, it was his aura, his spirit, his vibe, that eventually turned people on to him. While it might feel hacky to remember the sixties in such a patchouli-filled haze, it’s hard to not see Hendrix as such.
Taken from the world following a tragic overdose in 1970, the music scene never truly got to see the singer’s potential. While he and Chas Chandler of The Animals were worthy partners, before Hendrix’s death, the guitarists had begun to enact his own vision away from the cut and roll recording style of Chandler. It meant his songs were becoming more expressive and more purposeful. Sadly, we’ll never know how it would have eventually played out.
What we do know, however, is just how many barnstorming hits he had in such a short space of time. Below, we’ve got 20 of our favourites, which, when you consider he released only 46 songs in his career, shows the potency of the man.
Jimi Hendrix’s greatest songs of all time:
20. ‘If Six Was Nine’
Taking on Hendrix’s swagger, delivering bluesy vocals over an awe-inspiring guitar, the song is often referred to as “acid-blues” and its pretty easy to see the connection. Not only does Hendrix say he’s going “to wave my freak flag” but musically the song continues to “wave on” as the group break into a jazz-inspired jam session that feels like it could have been recorded in somebody’s garage.
Annoyingly, the song, unlike many other tracks on the band’s second album, suffers greatly from tape noise, dropouts and overall “rough” quality sound. It doesn’t do anything to dampen the spirits on this call for personal freedom though. The song is simply summed up by the lines: “I’m the one that’s gonna have to die when it’s time for me to die/so let me live my life/the way I want to.”
19. ‘Up from the Skies’
Featuring on the band’s second album, Axis: Bold as Love, Hendrix’s vision is enacted on ‘Up In The Skies’ as his love of science-fiction comes to the fore. An avid reader of classic sci-fi novels, Hendrix’s work often painted motifs of an infinite universe.
The song was released as the only single from the band’s album and sees Hendrix depicted the landing of a visiting alien who is “concerned about what has happened to [Earth] since the last time he passed through.” Naturally, the song is full of licks and riffs that are truly out there.
18. ‘Voodoo Chile’
Not to be confused with another song which we will get to later, this track ‘Voodoo Chile’ was compiled with Hendrix, Mitchell and the help of Steve Winwood and Jack Casady, the track worked as the basis for the more famous version of the song.
This one still has plenty of chops though, restrained and guarded, it actually feels a little more menacing than the more polished return to the song. A little know fact: ‘Chile’ is a phonetic spelling of ‘Child’ so feel free to smugly correct anyone who has been inventing a new kind of chilli.
17. ‘Come On (Part 1)’
The beginning of the group’s third album Electric Ladyland‘s side two may start slow but it soon kicks into gear with ‘Come On’, a song which is about as close to straight rock ‘n’ roll as Hendrix ever comes, usually preferring to skirt outside that comparative mainstream.
Of course, it has some serious guitar chops running through but the playing is smooth and flourished, that is until it kicks into overdrive.
Mitchell’s quick beat provides him ample room to riff and create one of the album’s most vibrant solos and certainly one of its finest moments. Ending somewhere close to a jazz trumpeter blowing his way into the smokey night, Hendrix’s version of the Earl King song eventual settles back to type and sees the icon reprise his role as rock schmoozer.
16. ‘Little Wing’
Found on the band’s second album Axis: Bold as Love, ‘Little Wing’ is a ballad which captures everything that was impressive about Hendrix. He managed to traverse the line between physical, imposing and yet somehow ethereal.
Of course, Hendrix kicks things up a notch when lets his guitar say the words he can’t. It brings the ballad back down to earth. It is one of the song’s he developed before encountering Chas Chandler.
15. ‘Manic Depression’
Appearing on the band’s debut album Are You Experienced?, ‘Manic Depression’ is one song on the album that really sticks out—largely, because it has a strong message. But while the notions of clinical depression are here for all to see, the real point of note is that Hendrix is clearly lovesick.
The fast-paced triple metre gives the song chops and Hendrix’s playing on the track is, of course, astronomical. Mitchell’s jazz drums are captivating and when the bassline and guitar lick marry up, it makes for something truly impressive.
14. ‘Burning of the Midnight Lamp’
With music and lyrics from the mind of Jimi Hendrix its probably fair to say that this track from the band’s Electric Ladyland album probably would never have landed so heavily without the R&B band Sweet Inspirations who provide the perfect refrain for Hendrix’s swirling sounds.
Produced by Chas Chandler, the track was released as the group’s fourth single and also appeared as the B-side to their cover of Bob Dylan’s ‘All Along The Watchtower’. About the song, Hendrix said, “There are some very personal things in there. But I think everyone can understand the feeling when you’re travelling that no matter what your address there is no place you can call home.
“The feeling of a man in a little old house in the middle of a desert where he is burning the midnight lamp… you don’t mean for things to be personal all the time, but it is.”
13. ‘1983… (A Merman I Should Turn to Be)’
The track began life as Jimi Hendrix strumming alone on his guitar. Soon enough though, the song provided a taste of what the future may have held for Hendrix. The song was the first time he really used the Record Plant studio to full effect. With a full orchestration behind him, suddenly his guitar didn’t sound revolutionary or explosive but vital.
Despite a more classical setting for his songs, it didn’t stop Hendrix from creating a series of apocalyptic vignettes as he so loved to do. It once again also sees the icon play with the metaphors of sand and water, a common thread in his later work. At over thirteen minutes long it is one of his most encompassing pieces. When asked to describe the track in 1969 he said it was “something to keep your mind off what’s happening… but not necessarily completely hiding away from it like some people do.”
“Let me stand next to you fire,” sings Hendrix over a pounding rhythm and his now-iconic guitar sounds which feel akin to a licking flame. Following one of the quietest moments on the band’s first album Are You Experienced?, ‘Fire’ has a habit of kicking the heat up to 100 and as Hendrix sings “move over, Rover/ Let Jimi take over” before unleashing a sizzling solo, you know you’re already cooked.
The track continues to power through the entire two minutes and thirty seconds, making sure that while the track is comparatively short and sweet, the afterburn on this one will stay with you for a very long time.
This live performance is nothing short of fantastic, taken from Toronto in 1969, it sees Hendrix at his peak.
11. ‘Stone Free’
The second song ever recorded by the Jimi Hendrix Experience, the track was eventually released as part of the CD edition of their 1967 debut album. The track quickly became an integral anthem for the counter-culture movement. Looking back, it’s all there, isn’t it?
The ambiguous title, the unfathomable guitar sound, the creative energy and enthusiasm all underpinned by the choral refrain. The track often became an extended arrangement when performed live which shows how highly Hendrix valued the song.
The song’s lyrics explore Hendrix’s restless life, “I stay one or two months in a place and then I must have a change… I just get so restless, man—I might leave right away”. He continues, “I used to go to the [Harlem] clubs, and my hair was really long then. Sometimes I’d tie it up or do something with it and the cats would say, ‘Ah, look at that: Black Jesus.’ Even in your own section [of town]. I had friends with me in Harlem, 125th Street, and all of a sudden, cats, old ladies, girls, anybody would say, ‘Ooh, look at that. What is this, a circus or something?”
10. ‘Red House’
One of the first songs Jimi Hendrix ever recorded, back in 1966, and is largely held together by a simple 12-bar blues structure which, as ever, allows Hendrix to gild the cutting edges of the song with a touch of gold. The track changes the pace of the album and often provided a calmer moment in Hendrix’s shows.
The audience may have all taken a collective sigh when the first notes of ‘Red House’ landed on the air but it wouldn’t calm Hendrix down. Over the simple beat, he unleashes a host of rangy riffs that do all the talking his vocal doesn’t ever really get to. It’s one of the most notable themes of Hendrix’s music, he lets his guitar do most of the talking.
The song is said to have been about Hendrix’s high school girlfriend Betty Jean Morgan and is one of his more conventional songs. It shows that he was more than capable of bringing it back to basics when he needed to.
9. ‘Voodoo Child (Slight Return)’
The final song in Hendrix’s time with The Experience is certainly one of his most iconic. The song he and the group had sketched out earlier on in their final LP Electric Ladyland comes back with full force as ‘Voodoo Child’.
Mitch Mitchell and Noel Redding liked the track and went about learning it right away as Redding explained, “We learned that song in the studio… They had the cameras rolling on us as we played it”. The cameras were that of ABC’s and they were intent on capturing the band in their magical flow, Hendrix added: “Someone was filming when we started doing [Voodoo Child]. We did that about three times because they wanted to film us in the studio, to make us—’Make it look like you’re recording, boys’—one of them scenes, you know, so, ‘OK, let’s play this in E, a-one, a-two, a-three’, and then we went into ‘Voodoo Child’.”
It’s a furious song that deserves its spot in the top 10 of Hendrix’s esteemed work. Powerful and potent it is a reminder of the talent Hendrix possessed from the beginning to the end of his time with The Experience.
8. ‘Crosstown Traffic’
There are few songs which can evoke a series of “ooh, what’s that smell?” faces across the party then when a mere sample of this song comes. So ubiquitous is the filthy nature of Hendrix’s lick on ‘Crosstown Traffic’ that the choral refrain is almost missed. It’s one of the few moments in the dazzling career of Hendrix that the duality of his soulful turmoil came to fruition. This track, embroiled in the sexual explosion of the sixties, quickly became an underbelly anthem.
“You have the whole planned-out LP, and all of a sudden they’ll make ‘Crosstown Traffic,’ for instance, a single, and that’s coming out of a whole other set,” Hendrix complained of the decision to use ‘Crosstown Traffic’ as a single. Unusually for the songs on Electric Ladyland, it features all the members of the band and even has Hendrix using a kazoo-like instrument he constructed with some tissue paper and a comb. But, in honesty, the Jimi Hendrix Experience was never destined to be a great album band.
Speaking as part of a ‘Behind The Scenes’ video on the group’s output, Chas Chandler remembers: “We didn’t actually start out to do an album at any time. We’d just kept on rolling and as soon as we had enough songs for an album — bop! We’d put one out.” The song ‘Crosstown Traffic’ is one of the final moment of Chandler’s extensive professional relationship with Hendrix. Producer Eddie Kramer said of the single: “It was one of the last tracks that Chas had a tight hand on.” Eventually, Hendrix would break away from the shield of Chandler and venture out on his own.
7. ‘Castles Made of Sand’
Certainly one of Hendrix’s best songs came on his second album and the smirking track ‘Castles Made of Sand’. The track acts as a sonic essay on life’s bitter ironies as he, verse by verse, dissects the sheer ridiculousness of life. As well as some backward guitars, Hendrix continues to lay down his signature sound.
The laid back groove allows Hendrix to do his finest work. Smooth and arriving backwards means his guitar sounds like a dream, the kind of dream where you put the entire world in order and figure out the meaning of life only to wake up in the morning and not remember any of it. As a piece of pure sonic poetry, it’s delightful, as a song it’s a point of Hendrix’s devotion to that poetry.
6. ‘Foxy Lady’
Sometimes songs are utterly inescapable. Whether you heard it first via Hendrix or via that ’90s stalwart Wayne’s World, chances are the opening track of the band’s debut Are You Experienced? has hit you at some point in your life. As we all know, when that searing riff explodes on to the airwaves, it smacks you like ten tonnes of bricks.
If there’s one track in which you can distil the talent of Hendrix, encapsulate his vision and his sonic exploration, then the sultry, sensual and sensational ‘Foxy Lady’ has to be it. With lyrics apparently connected to Heather Taylor, who went on to marry The Who’s Roger Daltrey, the music is all straight out of Hendrix’s soul.
Not the kind of soul that warms soups or tucks you in at night with a whisky-breath kiss, but the lustful, primal soul that emanates from every note of this track. It’s hard to not fall in love with this song and, if it is not love, then it’s intoxicating enough to pretend to be it and demanding enough to let you know you’re on the right track.
5. ‘The Wind Cries Mary’
Added as part of the expanded CD edition of Are You Experienced?, ‘The Wind Cries Mary’ comes from a lucrative session. “That was recorded at the tail end of the session for ‘Fire’,” remembered Chas Chandler. “We had about twenty minutes or so left. I suggested we cut a demo of ‘The Wind Cries Mary’.
“Mitch Mitchell and Noel Redding hadn’t heard it, so they were going about it without a rehearsal. They played it once through [and Hendrix then suggested overdubs]. In all, he put on four or five more overdubs, but the whole thing was done in twenty minutes. That was our third single.” It’s a searing piece of music from the band.
The track remains one of Hendrix’s cleanest moments. It is a sincere and authentic moment on the album and provides some classic blues-rock for any lover of the genre. To not hear Hendrix’s searing solos can often be disappointed but actually, the work he does on this track is far more imposing. It’s a ballad delivered in the only way Hendrix knows how, with heart, mind and soul all kicked up to eleven.
4. ‘Bold as Love’
Much of Axis: Bold as Love can be seen as an extension of the band’s debut record and, thanks to Chandler’s recording methods, it likely was. Part of the initial eruption of Hendrix’s creative sparks when he was given room to truly express himself by Chas Chandler. But on ‘Bold as Love’, Hendrix does that mercurial thing that only a few artists can do—he connects with something timeless.
At the centre of the song is Hendrix’s kaleidoscopic view of life and love. As he works his way through the many hues love can take he concludes that each one is as powerful and potent as the last. It adds a universal tone of acceptance and peace which makes this a Hendrix song for all ages, even looking back in 2020, this message rings true. It sees Hendrix perhaps become the iconic we know and love him to be today.
This was the song that proved that as well as being a wonderfully gifted guitarist (and the song has a hefty dose of simply great licks) he was a gifted lyricist too. Poetically sound and sonically far ahead of his peers, Hendrix was proving to be everything people had hoped.
3. ‘Hey Joe’
One thing that Hendrix did perhaps better than anyone else at the time was to take other people’s songs and turn them into something unique and singular to his sound and vision. He did so with his cover of the rock standard ‘Hey Joe’ creating, without doubt, the essential version of the song. Included as the additional songs added to the Are You Experienced? CD, it is easily one of his best tracks.
Released as a single with ’51st Anniversary’ on the B-side, Hendrix was proving that he wasn’t only the present and future of rock but he had a great grip on the past too. In fact, it would build the foundations of his awe-inspiring sound. The song is certainly slowed down in Hendrix’s version of the track and it allows his virtuoso playing to be given ample room to breathe.
What becomes quickly apparent with the song is that if any other artist was to have guitar playing on their song as fantastic as this, they would have made it the focal point of the track. As it is, his playing just melts into the background and creates the setting for the song’s story.
2. ‘All Along the Watchtower’
Of course, one of Hendrix’s career-defining moments comes as a cover of one of Bob Dylan’s then-lesser known tracks. Dylan once said of Hendrix’s version: “It overwhelmed me, really. He had such talent, he could find things inside a song and vigorously develop them. He found things that other people wouldn’t think of finding in there. He probably improved upon it by the spaces he was using. I took license with the song from his version, actually, and continue to do it to this day.” High praise considering the man in question.
Written in 1967, the song has had a fair few renditions from famous faces over the years. Whether it’s from Eddie Vedder’s Pearl Jam, the smoother than smooth tones of Bryan Ferry, the salt of the earth Neil Young, or even the Irish pop-rock poster boys U2, but none hold a candle to Jimi’s. None come anywhere close, in fact.
While those bands all tried to match Dylan’s effort from ’67, Jimi ingested the track, digested it, and threw it up and walked away only a true stoner can. It’s quite literally perfect. If you think otherwise then we suggest you take it up with Bob. Hendrix takes this song to a whole new stratosphere and us as the audience along with him for the ride. It is incendiary music at its hottest.
1. ‘Purple Haze’
Just by the very nature of Hendrix’s mercurial appeal, the chances are that very few people will entirely agree with the entirety of our list. In fact, we would hope they didn’t. But we think it’s pretty set in stone that the archetypal Hendrix tune simply has to be ‘Purple Haze’ if not just for the iconic lyrics “excuse me, miss, while I kiss the sky,” which are ingrained on to the brain of all who hear them.
It has all the finer threads of what makes Hendrix a guitar genius, the shining silk of Eastern modalities, the sturdy and colourful blues mix, and rendered beauty of the sound processing. What comes out is a suit worthy of Saville Row.
While the lyrics may leave you misunderstanding the intent of Hendrix—having often been seen as a psychedelic experience—while Hendrix would reiterate it’s intended as a love song. What is in no doubt is that on this track, Hendrix’s guitar playing is the most honest and authentic moment of the song, somehow managing to encapsulate the entire human spirit within a few powerful notes.
One of the best-known songs of Hendrix’s extraordinary yet short catalogue, ‘Purple Haze’ is a shining light of not only the illustrious creativity that flourished in the sixties. But the poster boy of that unbridled and untethered push of pulsating artistry.