Consistently named the greatest guitar player of all time by the rock 'n' roll bible Rolling Stone Magazine and pretty much every other publication that has ever compiled such a list, Jimi Hendrix combined untouchable virtuosity, an improvisational spirit, and poignant soul every time he picked up the instrument. But he was more than just a badass axeman; he combined undeniable songwriting talent, a great ear for melody and a love of music rooted in tradition but with a definite slant towards experimentation and desire to break new ground in the studio. With that in mind, on what would have been his 74th birthday, we present to you some of his best songs.
'Castles Made of Sand'
"Castles Made of Sand" is a sad commentary on the futility of life. The first verse is about a formerly loving couple reduced to a screaming, drunken mess. The second is about a brave Indian chief who gets slaughtered in his sleep the night before a battle. It ends with the slightly more uplifting tale of a handicapped little girl who rolls her wheelchair to a cliff and nearly rolls it off until the sight of a "golden winged ship" makes her reconsider. Many have argued that this song is Jimi reflecting on painful memories from his childhood, including his parents' separation and his mother's illness, though Hendrix himself never confirmed that.
"Hey Joe" is Jimi Hendrix's first single, though he didn't actually write it. It's a garage rock standard popularized by the California band the Leaves in 1966, though most rock fans completely forget their rendition when they heard Hendrix's take on it. It's a pretty sordid tale of a man who caught his wife cheating, shot her to death and then headed down to Mexico. Former Animals bassist Chas Chandler caught a largely unknown Hendrix playing the song at New York's Cafe "Wha?" in 1966 and brought him over to England to cut his debut album. The next three years were a blur of recording sessions, concerts and debauchery.
'The Wind Cries Mary'
Jimi Hendrix wrote "The Wind Cries Mary" after getting into a terrible fight with his girlfriend, Kathy Mary Etchingham. "I hit him with a frying pan," said Etchingham later. "We smashed the kitchen up. It was a horrific argument." She couldn't quite recall why they were fighting, but she thought it might have been because she cooked with a dirty pan. The band spent hours in the studio working on the song, though they eventually went with the very first take. It was the group's third single.
'All Along the Watchtower'
Jimi Hendrix cut "All Along the Watchtower" in January 1968, just weeks after Bob Dylan first released the track on John Wesley Harding. Hendrix tinkered with it for months, eventually releasing it in September. It found a much larger audience than the original, and even Dylan himself says that Hendrix took the song to a whole other place. Dylan didn't play the song in concert until four years after Hendrix died, and has since played it 2,101 times - more than any other song in his vast catalog. Each and every one of those live versions borrows a bit from the Hendrix cover.
"Machine Gun" was recorded at the height of the Vietnam War and is one of the most frenetic anti-war songs of the era. It's also one of the longest, clocking in at well over 12 minutes, occasionally going past 20 in concert. The version on the album "Band of Gypsys" was cut on New Year's Day in 1970 and contains some of the most haunting guitar work of Hendrix's career. By the end, it sounds almost like an actual machine gun, and drummer Buddy Miles' background vocals sound like the screams of a battlefield. If there were still any doubt about the song's message, it was dedicated most nights to the soldiers overseas.
‘Ladyland’s ‘Voodoo Chile’ is 15 minutes of laid-back, down-and-dirty psychedelic blues; the reprise, 'Voodoo Child (Slight Return),' is the last track on his final studio album and, with its relentless assault of feedback-laden guitar leads, definitely one of his signature songs. Released as a single at the end of 1970, it's also the final single to surface from one of the only three proper studio albums Jimi finished before his death.
Sound your favourites in the comments.
Title Image Source: PI