James Marshall Hendrix was born in Seattle. After his discharge from the army he became a musician, spending years gigging with acts like Little Richard, Sam Cooke, and Ike & Tina Turner. Despite his immense talent, it wasn’t until he was spotted by Keith Richard’s girlfriend and signed by former Animal Chas Chandler that he was able to start a recording career. Moving to London, he formed The Jimi Hendrix Experience with drummer Mitch Mitchell and bassist Noel Redding. The trio were instantly successful – three terrific singles led into his 1967 debut album, Are You Experienced?.
Hendrix’s premature death in 1970 was a tragedy for music. His potential was limitless – he could have easily switched into funk or jazz fusion in the 1970s. He’s rightfully celebrated as a guitarist, but he was also a compelling showman, a talented producer, and an adept songwriter.
Hendrix only enjoyed a short recording career before his death. His core catalogue is a lot smaller than that of other classic rock legends, and I suspect that this best song list looks like a lot of other Hendrix lists. Despite the short timeframe, there’s a lot of great material and any of the top five would be a worthy number one.
10 Best Jimi Hendrix Songs
#10 Machine Gun
from Band of Gypsys, 1970
Hendrix dissolved the Jimi Hendrix Experience in mid-1969 – he’d continue to work with Mitch Mitchell, but preferred his former army buddy Billy Cox as bassist. He formed Band of Gypsys with Cox and drummer/vocalist Buddy Miles to fulfil a record contract he’d signed in 1965. The power trio recorded a live album with all new material. Band of Gypsys is weaker than the Experience’s studio records as Miles’ grandstanding is distracting, but the extended track times allow Hendrix the opportunity to stretch out on the guitar. ‘Machine Gun’ is the record’s most celebrated moment, an anti-war song that features Hendrix’s incendiary guitar.
from First Rays of the Rising Sun, planned for 1970
Hendrix planned to release his fourth studio album before Christmas 1970. His premature death left a mass of recordings in various states of completion. ‘Freedom’ was almost complete – according to his notes, Hendrix planned to replace 8 seconds of rhythm guitar. Working with a core band of Cox and Mitchell, it keeps the heavy blues guitar of the Experience, but the funkier rhythm indicates the direction Hendrix was taking his music.
#8 Hey Joe
non-album single, 1967
A tale of a man on the run after shooting his unfaithful wife, the origins of ‘Hey Joe’ are clouded. It’s often attributed to folk singer Billy Roberts, but it tells a similar tale to the 20th-century folk ballad ‘Little Sadie’. It was covered by a bunch of artists in the mid-1960s, like The Leaves, The Byrds, and Love. Hendrix’s slow and intense recording has become the song’s definitive version. ‘Hey Joe’ was Hendrix’s first single, and was immediately successful – it reached #6 on the UK singles chart. I couldn’t squeeze the track’s b-side, ‘51st Anniversary‘, onto this list, but it’s an overlooked gem from Hendrix.
#7 Red House
from Are You Experienced?, 1967
When Hendrix emerged in 1967, blues rock was at the height of its popularity in the UK. Bands like Cream, Fleetwood Mac, and Savoy Brown enjoyed success. While Hendrix’s music was often infused with a psychedelic edge, on ‘Red House’ he plays a straightforward electric blues. ‘Red House’ was reportedly inspired by Albert King’s ‘Traveling’ to California’, a song that Hendrix played when as a member of Curtis Knight & the Squires. It’s a great showcase for Hendrix’s guitar – he’s a terrific blues guitarist;
#6 The Wind Cries Mary
non-album single, 1967
Hendrix is normally associated with heavy psychedelic blues rock. But he had a softer side too, as demonstrated by ‘The Wind Cries Mary’. As his third single following the rockers ‘Hey Joe’ and ‘Purple Haze’, it allowed him to show his musical range. ‘The Wind Cries Mary’ was influenced by Curtis Mayfield; it was reportedly written after a fight that Hendrix had with his girlfriend Kathy Etchingham over lumpy mashed potatoes. She suggested that the line “a broom is drearily sweeping up the broken pieces of yesterday’s life” was inspired by the incident.
#5 All Along the Watchtower
written by Bob Dylan, from Electric Ladyland, 1968
Occasionally, a cover version transforms a song into its definitive version. Aretha Franklin transformed Otis Redding’s ‘Respect’ into an empowerment anthem in 1967. In 1968, Hendrix reinvented Dylan’s acoustic, Biblical fable into a searing rocker. In 1995, Dylan told the Fort Lauderdale Sentinel that “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.”
#4 Little Wing
from Axis: Bold as Love, 1967
‘Little Wing’ was never released as a single – it appeared as the b-side of some posthumous releases. But it’s become one of Hendrix’s most beloved songs anyway, a gentle and dreamy piece punctuated by dramatic drum fills from Mitchell. Like ‘The Wind Cries Mary’, ‘Little Wing’ was influenced by Curtis Mayfield. Mayfield was one of the many acts Hendrix played for during his musical apprenticeship; he was later quoted by Roby and Schreiber stating- “The best gig was with Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions. Curtis was a really good guitarist … I learned a lot in that short time. He probably influenced me more than anyone I’d ever played with up to that time, that sweet sound of his, you know”.
‘Little Wing’ has been famously covered by other notable guitars – Duane Allman and Eric Clapton played it with Derek and the Dominos, while Stevie Ray Vaughan received a posthumous Grammy for his version.
#3 Voodoo Child (Slight Return)
from Electric Ladyland, 1968
One of the great all-time guitar riffs opens ‘Voodoo Child (Slight Return)’, Hendrix using a wah-wah pedal to psychedelicize the Delta blues. It was derived from ‘Voodoo Chile’, a 15 minute jam that also appears on Electric Ladyland. The original jam featured Mitchell and Hendrix along with Jack Casady on bass and Steve Winwood on keyboards. The Experience recorded ‘Voodoo Child (Slight Return)’ the next morning – it became Hendrix’s only #1 UK single in late 1970.
#2 Purple Haze
non-album single, 1967
Producer Chas Chandler claimed that he heard Hendrix playing the riff that would become ‘Purple Haze’, encouraging him to write a song around it. According to Chandler, Hendrix wrote the rest of the song on Boxing Day 1966, in a dressing room before a gig. It features the E7#9 chord, often used in jazz and R&B, but known as the “Hendrix chord” as the guitarist introduced it to rock music. ‘Purple Haze’ is also notable for its famous misheard lyric (or mondegreen). The line “‘Scuse me while I kiss the sky” is often mistaken for “‘Scuse me while I kiss this guy”.
#1 Crosstown Traffic
from Electric Ladyland, 1968
Compared to most of the singles Hendrix released during his lifetime, ‘Crosstown Traffic’ is overlooked. It didn’t crack the Billboard top 50. But it’s terrific, packed with ideas – there’s a hard-hitting guitar riff, while the backing vocals from Redding and Traffic’s Dave Mason are great. It’s almost uncategorizable, taking elements from blues, funk, and psychedelia.
Did I miss your favourite Jimi Hendrix song?
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