At the 40th anniversary of the death of an American icon, WhoSampled takes a look at some of the influences that shaped Jimi Hendrix’s musical vision, as well as the lasting legacy of his unique sound.
It’s now four decades since the world lost arguably the greatest rock guitarist of all time. In his short but groundbreaking career, Jimi Hendrix turned the conventions of rock on their head with his unorthodox and virtuosic approach to playing the guitar. Whilst his music possesses a psychedelic, bluesy energy (and the improvisational freedom this brings with it), Hendrix was a lover of songs. Inspired by musicians and songwriters he respected and whose work he loved, such as Bob Dylan, B.B. King and Elvis Presley, he set about deconstructing their songs and arrangements and making them his own, charged with his raw, electrifying style. In fact, it is interesting to note that many of Hendrix’s most famous recordings were actually cover versions, executed with so much confidence and finesse that they are now musical landmarks which epitomise the Hendrix sound. The following are some of the most notable ones.
Perhaps a good place to start is with Hendrix’s first single with his band The Jimi Hendrix Experience from the album ‘Are You Experienced?’, tackling rock standard ‘Hey Joe’. The song, first recorded by garage band The Leaves, had already been covered by bands including The Byrds and Love, but it was Tim Rose’s slower, earthy rendition released early in ’66 which formed the basis for Hendrix’s version, recorded and released at the end of the same year. The popularity of Hendrix’s reworking inspired other bands to tackle the song in a similar style – Deep Purple’s epic, flamenco-infused blues version expands on many of Hendrix’s ideas.
The following year Hendrix recorded a version of ‘Wild Thing’ at a live concert at the Monterey Pop Festival, a track originally recorded by The Wild Ones in 1965. Hendrix reinterpreted a hit cover version by English group The Troggs in a stage performance which contained what is now among the most iconic images in rock history. At the song’s finale, he set his guitar alight and smashed it on stage, a flash of showmanship that earned him a much needed publicity breakthrough in the US (despite earlier success in the UK, it was this show which finally brought him to the attention of the American press). Other covers he performed on the Monterey recording include a heavy blues take on Bob Dylan’s ‘Like a Rolling Stone’, B.B. King’s ‘Rock Me Baby’ and a supercharged rendition of Howlin’ Wolf’s ‘Killing Floor’.
In 1968, The Jimi Hendrix experience released their third and final album, the epic ‘Electric Ladyland’. A self-proclaimed Dylan fan, Hendrix recorded a stellar version of ‘All Along the Watchtower’, a track which featured on Bob Dylan’s album ‘John Wesley Harding’ released in the same year. The song, as with many other landmark tracks on ‘Electric Ladyland’, showcases the powerful, big sound Hendrix along with bassist Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell were able to produce. In particular, ‘All Along the Watchtower’ further cements his incredible ability to produce extremely personal and confident covers – Bob Dylan himself has said that he was so impressed by Hendrix’s version that he reworked his own performance, incorporating many of the new developments Hendrix had brought to the recording.
On 18th September 1970, Jimi Hendrix’s career came to a tragic end. He was aged only 27. In a mere handful of years he had revolutionised the guitar and brought new and exciting sounds and ideas to rock music which were to influence musicians for decades to come. Often experimenting with recording techniques which were cutting-edge at the time, he created a signature sound as timeless as it is unique – it’s not surprising that beatmakers since the 80s have been digging into his back catalogue looking for interesting sounds to recycle. Cypress Hill fans will probably already be familiar with the wild guitar loop from ‘Are You Experienced?’ which drives the chorus of ‘How I Could Just Kill a Man’. J-Swift took a different part of the same song for his legendary beat for The Pharcyde on ‘Passin’ Me By’, this time from the intro where Hendrix had reversed a recording of guitar chops to create an eerie rhythm part. The Beastie Boys, alongside The Dust Brothers, their producers at the time, also used these sounds on the extended cut-up ‘B-Boy Bouillabaisse’ on the 1989 album ‘Paul’s Boutique’.
But the real Beasties Hendrix homage has to be ‘Jimmy James’ from their 1992 album ‘Check Your Head’ (group member MCA has described it as a Jimi Hendrix tribute song). Taking a dusty loop from ‘Happy Birthday’ recorded by Hendrix and Curtis Knight, the Beastie Boys, alongside producer Mario Caldato Jr., layered effects and sounds from other Hendrix tracks, scratched into the beat, such as a guitar lick from ‘Still Raining, Still Dreaming’ or the unmistakable amp feedback from the opening of ‘Foxy Lady’. Other noteworthy examples of Hendrix samples include ‘Justified and Ancient (Stand by the JAMs)’ by The KLF featuring Tammy Wynette, which loops the famous riff from ‘Voodoo Child (Slight Return)’, and Chi Ali featuring Dres, Phife Dawg and The Beatnuts‘ ‘Let The Horns Blow’ which uses the equally famous wah-wah guitar chops. Also worth checking is Lupe Fiasco’s ‘Fire’ from his 2009 mixtape ‘The Fake Shore Drive’, which completely rejiggs ‘Fire’ off the ‘Are You Experienced’ LP into a dynamite hip-hop beat.
Jimi Hendrix will undoubtedly forever remain among the most iconic musical personalities of the 20th century. His radical approach to cover versions and experimental attitude towards recording has inspired artists to the present day and beyond.