Six definitive songs: The ultimate beginner’s guide to Jimi Hendrix
There are few players of an instrument who are as widely celebrated as Jimi Hendrix and his guitar. The iconic figure of music, so widely (and rightly) held as the greatest guitarist to have ever lived, is often overlooked for his stunning songwriting skills. Though Hendrix is still regarded as a pop culture icon, his music, the very thing that made him so damn iconic, is being forgotten far too easily. It’s something that is happening far too regularly.
As the calls for rock ‘n’ roll’s funeral seem evermore deafening, we are doing our bit to help educate our readers on some of the genre’s greatest ever artists and, perhaps most importantly, the scene’s foundational figures by revisiting their music. While some of these acts are rightly known as icons, we’re a little concerned that they will remain just that—icons. For us, the real pleasure of such stars is the art they created so we are handing out a brief lesson in some of music’s finest, this time we’re bringing you the six definitive songs of the late, great Jimi Hendrix.
As we aim to offer up a little insight into the icons of the 20th century, we’re distilling their back catalogues into just six of their most defining songs. The tracks that offer up the first steps in getting to know the music and the person behind the legend, not just the most famous songs we all know and love.
Despite his comparatively small canon, something painfully affected by Hendrix’s untimely death in 1970, turning his rich collection of songs into just six which need extra special attention is no small feat. Hendrix had the archetypal ‘whirlwind career’ and his time in the limelight, though only stretching over a few years, has been rightly lauded as some of the most pivotal years of rock music.
Many artists can call on a plethora of albums for us to select from but with Hendrix, the pickings are dense but slim. The result means that his three albums don’t offer many songs but the tracks they do provide are simply breathtaking. Below, we’re listening to Jimi Hendrix’s six definitive songs and getting a taste for the guitarist who would define not only a generation but every generation since too.
It may seem a bit trivial to paw through an icon like Jimi Hendrix’s work so diligently. After all, what more can we learn from the greatest guitarist the world has ever known? Well, we think it is because of this very iconography that we must take on our own learning. So, we’re looking beyond the classics, we’re searching beyond the sky and looking at how Jimi Hendrix became an icon.
Six definitive songs of Jimi Hendrix:
‘Red House’ (1966)
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.
The track 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.
‘Foxy Lady’ (1966)
Sometimes songs are inescapable. Whether you heard it first via Hendrix or via Wayne’s World, chances are the opening track of Are You Experienced? has hit you at some point in your life. And 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 soup 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.
‘Stone Free’ (1967)
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. It provided every point needed to make Hendrix a cultural touchstone and the new poster boy of the free-love movement.
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?”
‘Bold as Love’ (1967)
Much of Axis: Bold as Love, Jimi’s sophomore record with The Experience can be seen as an extension of the band’s debut record. 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 great licks) he was a gifted lyricist. Poetically sound and sonically far ahead of his peers, Hendrix was proving to be everything people had hoped.
‘Voodoo Child (Slight Return)’ (1968)
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 pantheon of Hendrix’s esteemed work. Powerful and potent it is a reminder of the searing talent Hendrix possessed from the beginning to the end of his time with The Experience.
‘Crosstown Traffic’ (1968)
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.