Time and time again, Hendrix proved that reinvention is as important as originality. With his various cover tracks, the guitarist demonstrated that the musician’s role wasn’t to sit in an ivory tower throwing down songs to the adoring public but to participate in a conversation. By taking on the biggest hits of the day, Hendrix established himself as more than an innovator; he revealed himself to be an adept commentator on the state of popular music.
In this selection of Hendrix’s ten best cover songs, we’d like to paint a portrait of the guitarist as one of rock ‘n’ roll’s great mockingbirds. Although that doesn’t really do him justice because the brilliance of Hendrix’s covers lies not in their faithfulness to the original but in their novelty.
Nobody bent songs out of shape as artfully as Hendrix. Whether he was taking on Bob Dylan, The Beatles, or The Animals, Jimi always managed to do the original track justice while bringing something anarchic to the fore, the ferocity of his guitar lines always threatening to burn a hole in the fabric of the song.
So, without further ado, here are the ten best Jimi Hendrix covers of all time. Oh, and, make sure you watch out for your ears.
Jimi Hendrix’s 10 greatest covers:
‘Sunshine Of Your Love’ – Cream
In 1968, a year after its release, Hendrix decided to take on Cream’s mind-melting single ‘Sunshine of Your Love’. Jimi had a knack for taking the biggest songs of the day and making them entirely his own, and this is no exception.
The fuzz-laden precision of Hendrix’s playing is a wonder to behold and makes Eric Clapton’s original fretwork seem like the twiddlings of some street-side banjo player. This rendition only bears a resemblance to the original for the first four minutes, after which Hendrix and co engage in another four minutes of rumbling, textural exploration. It’s a real freak out.
‘Wild Thing’ – The Troggs
Few realise that the song Jimi Hendrix burned along with his Fender Stratocaster at The Monterey Pop Festival, 1967, was ‘Wild Thing’. The three-chord wonder was originally composed by Chip Taylor but was made famous by The Troggs, a then-little-known group from the English suburbs.
The group were hardly virtuosos, but the single – which perfectly evoked the carnality of rock ‘n’ roll – shot them into the Top Ten for two full months in 1966. Hendrix was one of the many young guitarists who felt a wave of empowerment come over them when they first heard the track. Its impact didn’t wear off over time either. The story goes that when Hendrix heard the song playing on the radio during Monterey, he leapt out of the shower, picked up his guitar and ran out onto the stage to give an impromptu performance.
‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band’ – The Beatles
On June 4th, 1967, Jimi Hendrix stepped out on stage for his headline show at the Saville Theatre in London, knowing that The Beatles were in attendance. Never one to give out under pressure, he decided to put on a special show for the ‘Fab Four’ and performed the title track from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band just three days (or a week depending on who you talk you) after its release.
Recalling the performance, McCartney said: “Jimi was a sweetie, a very nice guy. I remember him opening at the Saville on a Sunday night, June 4th 1967. Brian Epstein used to rent it when it was usually dark on the Sunday. Jimi opened, the curtains flew back and he came walking forward, playing ‘Sgt. Pepper’, and it had only been released on the Thursday so that was like the ultimate compliment.”
‘Get Out of My Life Woman’ – Lee Dorsey
This cover of Lee Dorsey’s 1965 single is just one of the many old recordings issued by Hendrix’s former bandmate Curtis Knight. Knight was a singer in the Harlem R&B scene and fronted his own band, The Squires. In 1965, he and Hendrix recorded some singles for record producer Ed Chaplin, many of which Knight would later reissue in an attempt to bank on Jimi’s success.
With Knight providing a concrete backbeat, Hendrix delivers a stunning vocal laden with expansive reverb, giving this traditional blues track a distinctly psychedelic feel. It’s a real gem.
‘House of The Rising Sun’ – The Animals
We owe a lot to The Animals’ version of ‘House of The Rising Sun’. Not only did it encourage Bob Dylan to go electric but it also led to a definitive moment in psychedelic rock, when Jimi Hendrix reworked the American folk tune in 1967.
The Animals’ Chas Chandler became Hendrix’s manager after his girlfriend, Linda Keith, spotted the guitarist performing in Cafe Wha: “It was so clear to me,” Keith told The Guardian about her first experience of Jimi Hendrix. “I couldn’t believe nobody had picked up on him before because he’d obviously been around,” Keith said. “He was astonishing – the moods he could bring to music, his charisma, his skill and stage presence.”
‘Like A Rolling Stone’ – Bob Dylan
The 1967 Monterey Pop Festival saw Hendrix deliver some of the finest covers of his career, including Bob Dylan’s ‘Like A Rolling Stone’, one of many Dylan songs Jimi transformed into something astonishingly new.
This song was one of the songs that convinced Chas Chandler to take Hendrix over to the UK, where he established himself as a true giant of the rock ‘n’ roll scene. “The first time I saw Hendrix, at the Cafe Wha? in Greenwich Village, the first thing he did was ‘Hey Joe,'” Chandler recalls in Hendrix: Setting the Record Straight (1992). “And the second was ‘Like a Rolling Stone.'”
‘Johnny B. Goode’ – Chuck Berry
Hendrix was raised on the blues, so it falls that he would dedicate covers to some of his heroes. He named Elmore James, Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson the three biggest influences on his artistry, but Chuck Berry was also an essential artist in Hendrix’s musical development.
Hendrix performed this cover on May 5th, 1970, during his first show at Berkeley Community Theatre. The recording was released posthumously in 1986. The performance saw the guitarist give an uncharacteristically faithful rendition of Berry’s original, sticking to the same tempo, rhythm and vocal melody. That is until about two minutes in, at which point he starts conjuring up fiery solos as though they’re going out of fashion. This is surely one of the most ferocious recordings of Hendrix’s career.
‘Star-Spangled Banner’ – John Stafford Smith
It doesn’t get more iconic than Hendrix’s rock ‘n’ roll performance of ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ at the inaugural Woodstock Festival in 1969. To middle America, it was an offensive statment of disobedience. To America’s youth, it was a masterpiece of subversion.
When Hendrix appeared on The Dick Cavett Show shortly after the performance, he was asked to explain himself: “I don’t know, man,” Hendrix said of his decision to play the track. “I’m an American, so I played it. They made me sing it in school, so it was a flashback. It’s not unorthodox, I thought it was beautiful.”
‘Hey Joe’ – Billy Roberts
Originally written by Greenwich village folk singer Billy Roberts, ‘Hey Joe’ was floating around for a long time before somebody made it a hit. That someone was Jimi Hendrix. It was the slower Tim Rose version that Hendrix introduced to his pre-fame band Jimmy James and the Blue Flames in 1966. The track blew Chas Chandler away, igniting Hendrix’s career.
In an early version of this historic cover, Hendrix can be heard shouting “Oh Goddamn” at Chas Chandler on the other side of the vocal booth. He’s responding to hearing his own voice in his headphones. Hendrix was always self-conscious of his voice but decided that if Dylan could sing ‘Hey Joe’, so could he.
‘All Along The Watchtower’ – Bob Dylan
Undoubtedly one of the best covers in the history of rock ‘n’ roll, ‘All Along The Watchtower’ is proof that some songs were destined for other artists. Speaking about Dylan’s work, Hendrix once echoed this sentiment: “I am as Dylan. None of us can sing normally. Sometimes, I play Dylan’s songs and they are so much like me that it seems to me that I wrote them. I have the feeling that ‘Watchtower’ is a song I could have come up with, but I’m sure I would never have finished it.”
Dylan recorded the song in 1967, but Hendrix was the one to immortalise it. It seems mad, but this was the guitarist’s only Top 40 hit in the US. It even made a sizeable impact on Dylan himself, who adapted his version after hearing what Hendrix had bought to it. “I liked Jimi Hendrix’s record of this and ever since he died I’ve been doing it that way,” he said. “Strange how when I sing it, I always feel it’s a tribute to him in some kind of way.”