From Pink Floyd’s wine glass harp to Bob Dylan’s police whistle to Jackyl’s chainsaw, musicians have gone out of their way to add that special ingredient to make their songs more flavourful. While a trained ear might be able to pick out these nuances easily, the common listeners, oblivious of these small additions, relish its presence all the same. Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Crosstown Traffic’ is one such song that makes the listener pause for a moment and think: “Hey! What’s that sound?”
As it is, Hendrix was the poster boy for unconventionality. He earned the title of the best guitarist of all time by manipulating the instrument in ways people never imagined before. People were already in awe of his thumb voicings, double stops and chord partials when he pulled out the bigger stunts of playing the guitar upside down or playing it with teeth. Like a magician pulling out a continuous string of vibrant silks from their sleeves or jacket pocket, Hendrix too supplied an endless list of impromptu, colourful ideas.
The song featured in Electric Ladyland, the third album of the Jimi Hendrix Experience, and was unexpectedly released as a single after the famous Dylan cover ‘All Along The Watchtower’. “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,” complained Hendrix on the sudden change of plans. The song is about a girl who refuses to let go of her partner.
Though classical songwriting wasn’t exactly Hendrix’s strength, the way he used oblique sexual references to address the topic deserves praise. Using witty metaphors Hendrix explains how getting through the message that she is not wanted is like getting through heavy crosstown traffic. One of the song’s many sexual innuendos is in the line “I’m not the only soul, who’s accused of hit and run, tire tracks all across your back, I can see you’ve had your fun.”
To create the effect of a congested road, Hendrix did some quick thinking and came up with the idea of a kazoo. Originally of American origin, it is one of the easiest instruments to play. Although belonging to the woodwind family, the instrument operates on vibration rather than wind, which means the player has to hum the song into the kazoo for it to work.
However, Hendrix being the king of atypical renditions, didn’t use a traditional kazoo in the track. Instead, he made one up, assembling a comb and a piece of cellophane. Not only is the homemade kazoo resourceful but also a brilliant stimulator of the buzzing traffic, when doubled with the guitar line.
Train your ears to listen to this amazing kazoo riff in Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Crosstown Traffic.’