Jimi Hendrix’s 20 greatest guitar moments, ranked

He was the most innovative and influential guitar player of all time, but what were his most incredible moments of guitar genius? Find out here.

Jimi Hendrix

Hendrix (1942-1970) performs live on stage playing a white Fender Stratocaster guitar with The Jimi Hendrix Experience at the Royal Albert Hall in London on 24 February 1969. Image: David Redfern / Redferns

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Jimi Hendrix – a guitar player so iconic that he’s even the most non-musical person’s reference point for six-string greatness. What’s more, for someone whose time in the spotlight effectively spanned just four years and three studio albums, there is – thankfully – a colossal amount of Hendrix material to consider.

His sudden passing led to a decades-long archaeological dig that disinterred every hotel-room recording, every studio take and every lost concert, almost all of which has been packaged up in varying states of undress and paraded in the public domain. It’s a testament to his unearthly talent that so much of it is great music in its own right – Jimi’s lost-and-found archive is a deep well of inspiration for any obsessed guitarist to dive headlong into.

So when it comes to narrowing down that huge portfolio of material to his greatest 20 moments, where do you start, and how do you define ‘greatest’?

Well, we haven’t included many obscurities in this list, for fear of displacing a better-known classic. Instead, we’ve attempted to pick out 20 special moments from a tragically short career that illustrate the extraordinary variety of Hendrix’s playing and will reward you every time you return to them.

Jimi Hendrix
Hendrix at his last concert on 9 September 1970 in Germany. Image: Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

20. Red House

Hard to believe, but there was once a time when you could doodle your way through a 20-minute cosmic blues jam, look up, and still see an audience. Live, Hendrix would often switch from his omnipresent Strat to a Gibson (usually a Flying V or SG) and promptly vanish into this welcome break from the pyrotechnic thrills expected of him to pay tribute to the elemental influences at the heart of his playing.

Virtually every surviving recording of Red House is a string- and mind-bending odyssey through the blues lexicon, unfurling like a fresh glimpse into Hendrix’s unconscious brain: the 3:50 version on the UK print of Are You Experienced, one of the first songs the Experience recorded, is just the tip of the iceberg.

Did you know?

Noel Redding played the ‘bass’ part on a “terrible, awful” borrowed hollowbody guitar on the original recording and would occasionally switch to guitar for this track on early tours.

19. Third Stone From The Sun

This extraordinary slice of psychedelia described by Charles Shaar Murray as “hazy cosmic jive straight out of the Sun Ra science-fiction textbook” is often cited as evidence for Hendrix’s connection to jazz on account of opening major 9th chords, Wes Montgomery-style octave doublestops, its improvisational shifts and Hendrix’s close interplay with Mitch Mitchell, whose primary influence was Coltrane drummer Elvin Jones.

In its final section, after a brief flirtation with the motifs of surf music (referenced in the lyric for comedy effect), Jimi pioneers the use of the Strat’s vibrato arm as an instrument in itself. The squalls of feedback he coaxes into a chimeric, wailing, far-out soundscape opened up virgin territory for generations of experimental musicians to explore.

Did you know?

The song’s riff was blatantly lifted by Right Said Fred’s I’m Too Sexy. Its writer, Fred Fairbrass, said: “The Hendrix estate were very cool about it and just asked for a writing credit and a charitable donation.”

18. Room Full Of Mirrors

Recorded in his final year and originally released on posthumous 1971 album Rainbow Bridge (a soundtrack album with a confusingly loose relationship to the film of the same name), Room Full Of Mirrors was among the strong contenders for inclusion on Jimi’s follow-up to Electric Ladyland.

The song had been in sets in various formats since 1968, with the Rainbow Bridge studio version featuring Band Of Gypsy cohorts Buddy Miles and Billy Cox. One of Jimi’s most enduring lyrics is backed up by: 1) an extraordinarily expressive, tonally diverse layering of delayed guitars, harmony lines, funky rhythm parts and virtually all of his fretboard trickery and 2) a tremendous amount of cowbell.

Did you know?

In 1990, early drafts of Hendrix’s lyrics for Room Full Of Mirrors sold at auction for $35,200.

17. Hey Joe/Sunshine Of Your Love

As well as blazing a trail at Woodstock and Monterey, Hendrix proved he could also create rock history in the most unusual settings. In January 1969, the BBC invited The Jimi Hendrix Experience to play live on awkward teatime show Happening For Lulu, starchily stipulating that the band play Voodoo Chile (Slight Return), followed by oldie Hey Joe, with the host joining in on the latter.

Apparently not keen on the duet idea and having had a cheeky smoke backstage, the Experience were in mischievous mood. Halfway through a half-hearted Hey Joe, they broke off to dedicate a cover of Sunshine Of Your Love to Cream, who had just disbanded.

Did you know?

The famous clip only survived being erased thanks to BBC librarian Nick Maingay ‘happening’ upon it.

16. The Stars That Play With Laughing Sam’s Dice

The B-side to Burning Of The Midnight Lamp was an altogether different animal. Both songs together marked the first time Jimi had recorded using the wah pedal that was to become his signature effect; but there, all similarity ended.

On …Lamp, Jimi embellished his fragile, lonely lament with filtered squalls of guitar and the heavenly bvs of the Sweet Inspirations, whereas …Dice showed just how much fun its creator could have when properly unleashed. The song admirably manages to cling on for roughly 50 seconds as a poppy confection before embarking on a guided tour of the solar system, accompanied by gloriously unhinged bends and spontaneous, scuzzy whammy-feedback insanity.

15. If 6 Was 9

This acid-blues workout which featured in the soundtracks of both Easy Rider and Point Break finds the Experience, producer Chas Chandler and engineer Eddie Kramer pushing against the restrictions of 4-track recording to deliver Hendrix’s assertion of individualism in the lyrics.

Across five minutes, the song ventures back and forth from its brooding, sparse proto-metal verses into spoken-word blues, psychedelic jazzy jam excursions and an atmospheric whispered section punctuated by freeform drums, always rising and falling in dynamic intensity. Jimi embellishes the looser sections with unusual angelic major-key glissandos of delayed guitar, and (as you do) a randomised freakout on a recorder he found lying around the studio, which Kramer bathed in echo. Hendrix was proud of the song, saying: “I adore If 6 Was 9… [it’s] what you call a great feeling of blues.”

Did you know?

When the studio master was lost, the final version of the song was created from an earlier mix which Noel Redding had taken home. Wrinkles in the tape had to be smoothed out with a clothes iron.

14. Are You Experienced

The Experience’s debut album would have been lauded for any one of its unique ingredients of experimental songwriting, ensemble playing, Strat pyrotechnics, pioneering effects and daring studio invention.

But the serene drift of its title track – one of Eddie Kramer’s favourites – is the perfect synergy of all of these factors coming together at once. Backwards guitar had been heard before, but Hendrix took it to a new level here: “He knew from the downbeat precisely what the guitar was going to sound like and what the melody was going to be,” Kramer said. “He was playing the melody in real-time, but he’d figured out how it was going to sound backwards.”

Did you know?

The whistling, whooping mob on the track is credited as ‘The Milky Way Express’ and is thought to have included Frank Zappa.

13. Crosstown Traffic

Placing a respectable 13 here, but always a controversial contender for the top spot in the All-Time Greatest Kazoo Songs lists, Crosstown Traffic is a masterclass in building layers of guitar. Hendrix calls on everything he learnt from standing in the shadows as a sideman to pack lightning bolts of energy into its rhythm track. His strutting R&B riff is decorated with layered chord stabs, unison bends, wildly vibrato’d doublestops and strummed build-ups – all of this before the makeshift kazoo/comb even makes an appearance to harmonise with the voice and lead-guitar line.

Crosstown Traffic is a real oddity in the Hendrix canon: it’s the most irrepressibly rhythmic thing he ever produced and surely the catchiest.

Did you know?

Appropriately enough, Traffic’s Dave Mason joins in with backing vocals.

12. Castles Made Of Sand

The poetic imagery of Castles Made Of Sand, packed with tantalisingly oblique parallels to his own life story, has fascinated Hendrix scholars. But this fragile 2:47 song is also a tale of two remarkable guitar parts. The first showcases the clean, fluid chord-melody rhythm style Jimi honed after watching Curtis Mayfield first hand (when his band had toured with the Impressions in 1963), transforming a straightforward chord progression into an urgent, emotionally charged rhythmic backdrop.

The second is the reverse guitar part, more exposed and off-the-cuff here than elsewhere in his catalogue and somehow more dreamlike as a result. All rounded off by the ending, where you hear Hendrix turn his volume control up to full and launch into the intro’s sliding add9 figure that fades into ghostly reverb.

Did you know?

The instrumental run-through take on West Coast Seattle Boy (called Anthology Version) offers further insight into Hendrix’s chordal style

11. Gypsy Eyes

The early Experience recordings were by all accounts hurried and economical affairs, with recording time and tape at a premium – which makes the resulting improvisation and experimentation all the more remarkable. But by 1968, Hendrix’s circumstances had changed and he was more inclined to pursue his musical vision through endless takes, leading to friction with producer Chas Chandler and bassist Noel Redding.

Gypsy Eyes is one such example – one marathon Record Plant session yielded 41 takes, none of which were used. The end version justifies the means, however, as Jimi and Mitch Mitchell were given free rein to perfect one of Electric Ladyland’s funky highlights, with guitars slathered in effects, including Leslie right at the end.

Did you know?

Eddie Kramer’s photo of Hendrix putting the final draft of Gypsy Eyes together in the Record Plant shows that despite playing guitar left-handed, Hendrix wrote with his right hand.

10. Angel

Hendrix would take his time with certain compositions, and Angel was something he kept around throughout his career. Various demos and even hotel recordings track how it evolved into the version he recorded a couple of months before his death.

An anthemic counterpart to the introspective balladry of Little Wing and Castles Made Of Sand, the song’s inclusion on The Cry Of Love (the first posthumous album of Hendrix material) and its unguarded sentimentality made it an even more poignant listen. The Doppler effect from the Uni-Vibe on the guitar shrouds its picking in otherworldliness, but aside from the galloping ascent of the ending, this is as close to writing a straightforward, universal ballad as Jimi ever came.

Did you know?

The song came to Jimi in a vivid dream about his mother, Lucille, being carried away on a camel.

9. Killing Floor

Howlin’ Wolf’s 1964 Chicago blues classic had been in Hendrix’s repertoire for a few years before he formed the Experience. Its fiendishly intricate warp-speed blend of rhythm and lead rolled into one had prompted no less a light than Eric Clapton to simply put his guitar down and walk away when Hendrix jammed with Cream on his first week in London.

He also chose this song to begin his set at the 1967 Monterey International Pop Festival, the perfect gateway to an audiovisual assault of feedback, blues, psychedelia and shamanistic showmanship that culminated in the iconic sacrifice of his Strat to the flames. Yet if anything, it’s the version on BBC Sessions that’s definitive – it’s one of the greatest pieces of showing off ever committed to tape.

Did you know?

Jeff Beck felt equally blown away when he first encountered Hendrix play: “It wasn’t just his amazing blues playing I noticed, but his physical assault on the guitar… He hit me like an earthquake. I had to think long and hard about what I should do next.”

8. Hear My Train A Comin’

Hear My Train A Comin’ was a throwback to the Delta blues that Jimi recorded and played live throughout his career, most often through his trademark filter of psychedelia. However, a version filmed for the 1968 Experience (aka See My Music Talking) documentary reveals him in a markedly different context.

During the session recorded during a publicity shoot at a London photography studio, Hendrix kind-of plays along with the setup (its ‘impromptu’ nature somewhat undermined by the presence of a downtuned lefty-strung Zemaitis 12-string). After a false start where he sounds out the 12-string with a plectrum then his thumb, however, he settles into a heartfelt performance that authentically channels the spirit of the ancient country blues of the likes of Blind Blake and Lead Belly, seemingly filmed from a guitarist’s perspective with deliberate attention to the details of his playing style.

Did you know?

Hendrix rarely recorded acoustic, and a series of 1970 recordings known as the ‘Black Gold’ tapes that he gave to Mitch Mitchell, featuring him playing song ideas on a Martin acoustic, are considered the Holy Grail among collectors.

7. The Wind Cries Mary

20 minutes. From a standing start, according to Chas Chandler, that’s how long it took Hendrix, Mitchell and Redding to record The Wind Cries Mary – a song written the night before, which the rhythm section were hearing for the very first time. And that 20 minutes incorporated five guitar overdubs, including a breathtakingly lyrical solo that’s among his best.

While listening to the isolated tracks from behind the mixing desk years later, Eddie Kramer summed it up: “It’s really a tribute to Jimi and his ability as a great musician… You’re dealing with a genius, for crying out loud, it’s just so obvious. He was just so able to get into the moment.”

Did you know?

If Jimi’s girlfriend Kathy Mary Etchingham could mash a potato properly, the song may never have existed. “We’d had a row over food. Jimi didn’t like lumpy mashed potato,” she told Q. “There were thrown plates and I ran off. When I came back the next day, he’d written that song about me. It’s incredibly flattering.”

6.1983… (A Merman I Should Turn To Be)

Running to 13:39, this ambitious centrepiece of Electric Ladyland is in every respect a world away from the previous song in this list, despite being recorded just over a year later. A vision of a couple escaping from a ruined society oppressed by “Giant pencil and lipstick-tube-shaped things” [Danelectro pickups? – Ed] to return to the sea, where “Starfish and giant foams” greet its protagonists with a smile, 1983… is a poetic expression of Hendrix’s enduring fixation with sci-fi imagery.

Eddie Kramer helped provide a suitably epic, futuristic sonic landscape – he describes it as a “huge sonic painting”. In amongst its flutes, drum and bass solos, ragas, sculpted feedback, tape experiments and general psychedelic surrealism, there’s something new to discover on every listen.

Did you know?

Jimi played bass and percussion on the track, which also features Chris Wood on flute.

5. The Star-Spangled Banner

“It’s not unorthodox! I thought it was beautiful,” a sleep-deprived Hendrix averred to US TV talkshow host Dick Cavett when asked about his performance of the US national anthem at Woodstock in 1969. Yet despite headlining the festival at 8am on the Monday morning, to a thinning crowd strewn across a misty field, the guitarist summoned a fierce and richly onomatopoeic orchestration of the anthem from his 1968 Strat that Greil Marcus later described as “significant in American discourse, whether cultural or political”.

When the soundtrack of the festival came out, the world projected its opinion onto the performance.

Was it intended to be anti-American? Was it a protest against the Vietnam war? Was it a ‘cry of despair and love’, to paraphrase Dylan’s reaction to it? Whatever was truly intended, Jimi wasn’t saying. “I’m an American, so I played it,” he shrugged to Cavett in the same interview. One thing’s for sure, it’s definitely history’s most politically charged guitar solo.

Did you know?

Hendrix and his new band only had time for two rehearsals before headlining Woodstock.

4. Machine Gun

It turned out Hendrix wasn’t quite done with his guitar-as-warfare soundscaping. Post-Experience, his new trio, completed by Billy Cox (bass) and Buddy Miles (drums), proved to be a shortlived experiment fusing R&B, funk and rock and their debut shows at the Fillmore East in New York on 31 December 1969 and 1 January 1970 were edited into their only release.

Yet Band Of Gypsys reveals how Hendrix had evolved into a formidably freeform live improviser, effortlessly channelling his unconscious impulses into music. On the harrowing 12-minute Machine Gun, he unleashes a metaphorical payload of Cry Baby, Arbiter Fuzz-Face, Octavia, Uni-Vibe, vibrato arm and stacks to marshall a dynamic, fluid and expressive assault on the senses that to this day is unrivalled in its intensity.

Did you know?

On New Year’s Eve 1969, Hendrix dedicated Machine Gun to “all the soldiers that are fighting in Chicago, Milwaukee and New York… oh yes, and all the soldiers fighting in Vietnam”.

3. Little Wing

The venerable Stratocaster may be feeling a little left out of players’ affections of late, but anyone who’s ever found themselves dismissing the instrument should listen to the intro to this song and beg forgiveness – it’s a thing of beauty, maybe even the archetypal ‘in-between’ Strat sound.

While the band were working on initial takes of Little Wing in the studio, Chas Chandler suggested that Jimi shorten the song and tone down the more gung-ho elements of its execution; Hendrix took note, shortening it (perhaps too much) but doubling its impact in the process, allowing the glockenspiel countermelody and the telling use of Leslie speaker room to breathe.

Eddie Kramer says this is his favourite Jimi track. “It shows the increasing range of Hendrix’s ability to compose a beautiful ballad that will probably last for generations to come. In the year 3000, we’ll probably be listening to Little Wing.”

Did you know?

Little Wing was one of only two songs from Axis: Bold As Love that the Experience regularly played live. The other was Spanish Castle Magic.

2. Voodoo Child (Slight Return)

The final track on Jimi’s final studio album, Voodoo Child (Slight Return) was the first posthumous Hendrix single and his only UK No 1. Recorded the day after a late-night jam with Steve Winwood and Jack Casady had yielded the simmering 15-minute slow-blues masterpiece Voodoo Chile, Slight Return was created spontaneously while the Experience were being filmed for an ABC-TV documentary.

“Somebody was filming us as we were doing that. It was basically for the filming, we thought,” Hendrix told Rolling Stone. “We weren’t thinking about what we were playing. We did it like three times.” Somehow, the footage was lost, but without the presence of the film crew, the song – in all its diabolical, feral, wah-soaked glory – may never have been created at all.

Did you know?

Joe Satriani said of the song: “It’s just the greatest piece of electric-guitar work ever recorded. In fact, the whole song could be considered the Holy Grail of guitar expression and technique.”

1. All Along The Watchtower

A few covers improve on the original, but very few transcend the song they were based on to anything like the extent this does. And Jimi’s version remains a perfect expression of his musical vision, even though it sees him venturing out of his comfort zone.

It features acoustic guitars; it has another guitarist (Dave Mason) on 12-string; it has an upside-down bassline recorded on the absent Noel Redding’s right-handed P-Bass; it has a slide part in regular tuning using a cigarette lighter; it took 27 takes and was completed in a second studio; he even had to deal with a drunken Rolling Stone who had strayed into the studio to offer unwanted piano services.

Whatever the obstacles to the alchemy, though, it’s ultimately the song’s five interlinked guitar interludes that elevate it to another plane entirely. Each is progressively more urgent than the last: the swooping, soaring bends of the first set the scene for the octaves and unison bends of the second, which give way to the haunting delayed Hawaiian slide section.

Then the manic wah-blues of the third culminates in a scratchy, funky release, before the final solo builds to frantic tremolo-picked high notes that perfectly encapsulate the song’s apocalyptic theme. Musically varied, emotionally charged, technically mind-blowing and stunningly individual, All Along The Watchtower is the crowning achievement of the greatest electric guitar player ever.

Did you know?

The brilliance of Hendrix’s interpretation was famously acknowledged by Dylan himself, who has always played it closer to Jimi’s arrangement than his own (it’s also the song he’s performed the most in concert).

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