JIMI AT 80: It would have been Jimi Hendrix's 80th birthday this week and, to celebrate, over the next few days MusicRadar will be running stories about this legendary musician and his impact on the world of guitar playing. Let's go back to the source...
Considering he departed this plane at just 27, Jimi Hendrix’s catalogue is thankfully vast, probably due to him playing live or recording seemingly every day of his life.
Consequently, there is a surfeit of lesser-heard Hendrix out there and a treasure trove of insane guitar pyrotechnics on obscure live recordings (see the official Dagger Music label).
Also, thanks to the ceaseless trawl through his archive of studio material that’s now entering its sixth decade, you can now hear Hendrix in all manner of musical contexts.
Should you wish to doggedly sift through music its creators never intended for public consumption, you can spend hours and hours piecing together a detailed mosaic of his musicianship from intimate home recordings, such as Suddenly November Morning from the mythical Black Gold tapes, on West Coast Seattle Boy, to endless jams, demos and unfinished recording experiments such as Valleys Of Neptune, People, Hell And Angels, Both Sides Of The Sky and many, many more.
So out of this avalanche of music, can any of his tracks be classed as underrated and overlooked?
As ever, it depends which aspect of his genius you feel like prioritising. If a guitarist is only as good as their riffs, then Hendrix is surely never given enough kudos for the endless supply of premium-grade specimens in his catalogue.
Does Hendrix the blues-rocker ever get the songwriting praise he deserves for the sinuous reimagining of RnB chord progressions in Little Wing, Angel or Long Hot Summer Night? Is Hendrix the firework-detonating, in-your-face guitar slinger ever fully appreciated for the dynamic solo-acoustic Delta stylings of his 12-string version of Hear My Train A Comin’?
For that matter, Jimi the recording-studio polymath is underacknowledged for his constant willingness to explore newly emerging technologies and techniques to deliver avant-garde soundscapes.
Listen to the backwards guitars of Are You Experienced?, the atmospherics of Moon, Turn The Tides… Gently Gently Away and the mad harmonies of Night Bird Flying for just three varied examples.
Nor, perhaps, is the supposedly apolitical ex-paratrooper turned psychedelicist fully credited for the overt conscientious objection of Machine Gun, dedicated “to the soldiers fighting in Chicago, Milwaukee, New York… and Vietnam”.
In Starting At Zero: His Own Story, a 2014 book of his collected quotes and wisdom, the 27-year-old Hendrix riffed on the idea of his own funeral as a jam session featuring the likes of Miles Davis.
“It’s funny the way people love the dead. You have to die before they think you are worth anything. Once you are dead, you are made for life,” he mused, ending the thought with a simple plea. “When I die, just keep on playing the records.”
Well, guitarists surely will keep coming back to hear them – even the underrated ones, even when everyone else has forgotten.
1. One Rainy Wish, from Axis: Bold As Love (1967)
Hiding in plain sight behind a distractingly poetic lyric and a time-signature change from 3/4 in the verse to 4/4 in the chorus – this was one of the songs containing elements that came to its creator in a dream – we have not just one, but at least two of the many relatively overlooked guitar parts from the Hendrix canon.
The rhythm part that makes up the foundation of the song’s verse is a fine example of how Hendrix could embellish chords so creatively. The extra hammer-ons, pull-offs, legato notes and sliding doublestops he adds to familiar shapes come courtesy of the signature fluid rhythm style he based in part on what he learned while touring with Curtis Mayfield.
Providing the higher-pitched melodic flourishes is an extraordinary effect-washed Octavia part which metamorphoses throughout, its volume swelling while its EQ phases and swirls.
One Rainy Wish was recorded on the same day as our next selection… during the same Axis: Bold As Love session, the ultra-prolific Hendrix Experience also worked on recordings of EXP and Up From The Skies, as well as the title track for the album.
2. Castles Made Of Sand, from Axis: Bold As Love (1967)
The stark, exposed blending of rhythm and lead guitar in the song’s main part would be enough on its own to assure this of classic Hendrix status.
That’s before you even consider the beautifully understated delivery of the enigmatic autobiographical lyrics, the sensational backwards guitar – a mind-bendingly musical technique in Jimi’s hands that’s showcased more directly in this song than anywhere else in his catalogue – and finally, the sliding sus2 chord figure ascending to the heavens that ends the song in a ghostly shimmer of reverb.
All things considered, it seems a shame this understated masterpiece doesn’t enjoy quite the same universal reverence as fellow Hendrix ballads Angel and Little Wing. There’s an instrumental take on West Coast Seattle Boy with a slightly more urgent rhythm part and no reverse guitar stuff that’s worth a listen to compare and contrast.
3. Crosstown Traffic, from Electric Ladyland (1968)
Hendrix hated his own voice and always wanted it lower in the mix; producer Chas Chandler recognised the incredible musicality of its phrasing and, after arguing the toss, put it up front and centre anyway… a good job he did, when it comes to tracks like this.
Listen to the attention to detail in the overlapping rhythms in this song, the push and pull, the simultaneous landing of the instruments, the rhythmic conversation between the disparate parts – this is the indefinable magic that separates the great from the merely good. It’s drawing from the same well you hear on its earlier prototype, Spanish Castle Magic.
Recorded at London’s Olympic Studios, Jimi was in experimental mood, famously improvising with a cellophane and comb instrument to create the kazoo-like effect on the main riff and also playing the driving piano bassline for good measure. Unified layers of guitars build up the excitement, tension and release, but until you hear them in isolation, you can barely pick out their individual details – even though they’re made up of chord stabs, unison bends, doublestops, dual-string builds, the repertoire of accompanist’s tricks Hendrix learned from his time as an RnB sideman.
4. Peace In Mississippi, from The Jimi Hendrix Experience (purple box set, 2013)
Hendrix is often proclaimed as a godfather of hard rock and metal, with connecting lines drawn automatically between him and Zeppelin, Sabbath and Purple. The notion of a direct lineage is an oversimplification, yet it’s on sledgehammer jams such as Peace In Mississippi where the idea finds most credibility.
Recorded in October 1968 in TTG Studios in California with the original Experience line-up and released in various edits, there’s an infamous version on 1975’s Crash Landing which saw Alan Douglas wipe Noel and Mitch altogether in favour of overdubs from four different musicians.
The official, original seven-minute version, though, is a greasy bucket of fuzz and cascading feedback, alternating chunky low-slung riffs with redlining distorted bluesey lead breaks, before ending in a proto-Van Halen whammy-bar freakout. It’s that winning formula heard on countless Jimi jams, including Voodoo Child (Slight Return), Machine Gun and others – just angrier, less considered, more anarchic.
Sometimes, you just have to make some noise, and Hendrix shows here just how inventive he could be while employing route one tactics.
Odd trivia: Crash Landing was the first album bought by The Flaming Lips’ frontman Wayne Coyne. He told Uncut: “I bought this as nobody I knew owned it. So I was filled with glee, but that soon faded after putting it on. There’s one great, crazy, distorted song, Peace In Mississippi, but I’m not sure if Hendrix is even playing on it!”
5. 1983 (A Merman I Should Turn To Be), from Electric Ladyland (1968)
Hendrix devoured science-fiction novels, both as a child and when he came to London with Chas Chandler in 1966. Songs such as Third Stone From The Sun and Up From The Skies contextualised his futuristic-sounding guitar experiments, and sci-fi was a subtle source of inspiration elsewhere in his early catalogue: the term ‘purple haze’ came from a 1966 Philip José Farmer novel called Night Of Light, for example. Jimi called these sonic experiments of his “science-fiction rock and roll”.
Fortunately for us, when he came to record Electric Ladyland at New York’s state of the art Record Plant Studio in 1968, with its 12-track recording technology and trusted engineer Eddie Kramer along for the ride, he finally had the time and technology at his disposal to begin bringing the magic of his interior soundscapes properly to life.
Understandably, 1983… is often noted for its spectacular lyric – a poetic apocalyptic vision of a couple escaping a war-ravaged dystopia and beginning a new life under the sea. Yet perhaps because the song is so freeform and mutates through so many different moods and musical phases across its 13:39 runtime, the details of what Kramer described as a “huge sonic painting” are usually lost in an appreciation of the whole.
Yet even if you leave aside the pioneering atmospheric sound effects, created in the studio through various techniques including tape-speed changes, backwards instruments, VFOs, tape-delayed vocals and feedback, there are still innovations galore.
There are several astonishing guitar solos and riffs (cocked-wah at 4:00, gentle underwater legato Strat sounds at 5:54, Killing Floor-esque riffing at 10:43, all-out-fuzz war at 12:20, funky rapid wah at 13:16, among many, many more) which show the tremendous diversity of his style but are rarely acknowledged.
So that’s our final selection for underrated Jimi songs… Hendrix’s evergreen sci-fi symphony, the clearest, most-fully realised glimpse we have into the mind of a true sonic innovator.
- Watch Christone "Kingfish" Ingram play Jimi's Red House... on the roof of Hendrix's last-known house
The new live album, 'Jimi Hendrix Experience Los Angeles Forum: April 26, 1969' is out now on 2LP vinyl, CD and all digital platforms via Legacy Recordings (streaming links are here: https://hendrix.lnk.to/ForumPR). The new book, JIMI by Janie Hendrix and John McDermott is out 24th November.