Jimi Hendrix is nearly universally hailed as the greatest guitarist ever to grace rock music. His talent was a gift, his dedication to the religion of guitar a legend, an inspiration. Considering the complete body of work, counting down the five greatest best Jimi Hendrix songs is no easy task, and I would fully expect everyone’s list to look a little bit different. The five songs selected here are, in my opinion, some of the greatest rock works ever conceived, and a testament to how well they have stood the test of time and how often they’ve been covered and honored. If there was one artist who captured the soul of late 60’s unity and strife completely, absorbing the hippie culture and the battle over the Vietnam War most completely, to me it is the sound of Jimi Hendrix’s guitar. Each song is a unique work of art, but together they form a canon of unfathomable beauty, power, and timelessness. I give you, the top five best Jimi Hendrix songs:
5. Little Wing – Little Wing is a jewel, a treasure of a riff and a song. Jimi Hendrix’s playing can be volcanic and explosive, but here he has the soft touch of a delicate fairy. His ability to change over from aggressive snarling to the pianissimo caressing of his instrument shows the true range and versatility that Jimi Hendrix brought to his instrument. According to a quote from Rolling Stone, the piece is inspired by an Indian form and was developed out of his thrilling, electric star-making performance at Monterey Pop. The production shimmers with flourishes of glockenspiel and the fact that Jimi Hendrix cares so much about his arrangement should be no shock. He loved to fiddle around with the controls in the studio to achieve the overarching sounds that he was looking for. This cherubic and wistfully melancholic piece reflects Jimi Hendrix’s whole aesthetic breadth and depth.
4. Fire – “Fire” is a smoldering, blues-soaked rocker that reveals Jimi Hendrix’s deep playfulness while simultaneously displaying the carnal sexuality that permeates many of his best tunes. While axs.com argues that Jimi’s guitar says more than the lyrics do, I find the two forms of expression to be quite evenly matched. Which is what great songwriting is all about. Matthew Greenwald describes the song as, ” an exercise in soul, psychedelic rock, and polyrhythmic jazz-inspired drumming.” It’s true that Mitch Mitchell delivers a knockout, heavyweight performance on drums here, but Noel Redding’s clever, inventive bass lines both mimic and play a crucial counterpoint to Jimi’s riffing. Tribut’s blog listed the bass riff as one of classic rock’s best here. All three of these elements combine so seamlessly with Jimi Hendrix’s passionate vocal turns to make this a classic of the Jimi Hendrix repertoire.
3. All Along the Watchtower – The legend of All Along the Watchtower is in some ways as grand and inspiring as the legend of Jimi Hendrix. The Bob Dylan song has been seemingly covered by everyone including The Grateful Dead, Neil Young, Pearl Jam, Dave Matthews Band, Eric Clapton, Van Morrison, and more. But it’s Jimi Hendrix’s cover that towers above all of the rest. Dylan has said he wrote the song with Jimi Hendrix in mind, and the song is about as suited to Hendrix and his guitar as a wooden baseball bat was suited to Babe Ruth. Dylan has even said the Dylan version has overwhelmed him and that when he performs the song its in tribute to Jimi Hendrix. But what really elevates this track to another level is Hendrix’s guitar-playing, full of pain and rage and carnage and ecstasy. His guitar is like a sword in hand of a Macbeth, cutting down Norwegian armies like they were made of Papier-mâché. This cover shows how effortlessly Hendrix can take someone else’s song and transform it into a thing of fierceness and beauty.
2. Voodoo Child (Slight Return) – “Voodoo Child (Slight Return),” born out of the jam “Voodoo Chile,” opens with a sweet wah-wah riff before fully launching its sonic assault of hard rock madness. Voodoo Child might not be Jimi Hendrix’s very best song, but it could very well be his best studio recording. The volatile and unchained nature of the guitar on this one is undoubtedly one of the studio tracks that best captures the live Jimi Hendrix sound, of displaying the full range of his capabilities as a master guitarist. Lyrically the song plays with the themes of mysticism, science fictionism, and transcendentalism, all with a psychedelic glaze that holds the whole piece together as a coherent unity. The guitar effects are unrelenting and crushing, as if Jimi Hendrix has just blown a hole through space and time. Voodoo Child takes the blues form and thoroughly explodes it into its hard rock descendent. For pure rocking out, this is my go to Jimi Hendrix jam every time.
1. Purple Haze – Look, we all have our favorite guitar riffs, but I submit my nomination for most bad-ass riff ever written right here. For one thing, it gave birth to the chord that bears his name, the Jimi Hendrix chord. The chord is an E7#9 voicing, and it sounds so freaking good that sometimes I literally stand there and play it over and over just for fun. Granted, it’s one of the only chords I know how to play, but still. Yet “Purple Haze” is so much more than just a chord. It’s rock songwriting of the finest calibre. What the song is about is not quite certain. There’s different stories. It’s a love song. It’s a drug song. It’s a dream song. Heck, maybe it’s all three, who knows? But the lyrics are psychedelic poetry, and it’s evident that Jimi Hendrix was a dedicated student of Bob Dylan’s lyrical prowess just as he was a scholar of all things guitar. The guitar playing in the song captures everything that made 60s rock great: swagger and grit, primal sexuality and dreamy intoxication. It bears within itself the contradiction of perfect form and ecstatic frenzy. It’s a beautiful rock freak out. It’s one of the best songs ever written. It’s pure Jimi Hendrix.
– Brian R.
What do you think is Jimi Hendrix’s best song? I want to know! Let me know in the comments below.