The Genius of Hendrix: Embellished Chords and “Little Wing”

Jimi Hendrix was a guitar genius.

How’s that for an obvious statement to start a guitar article?

Sometimes though, the most obvious points bear repeating, and this is definitely the case with Jimi.

When most people think of Hendrix’s guitar mastery, it’s the soaring lead lines in “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)” or the incendiary opening riff of a song like “Foxy Lady” that come to mind.

But focusing on those performances only gives you half the story. What made Hendrix so great, what made his legend live on long after his death, was his completeness as a guitar player.

Case in point, Hendrix’s rhythm playing, widely overlooked compared to his lead chops, is simply magisterial.

And, there’s perhaps no better example of that in the Hendrix back catalogue than the introduction to “Little Wing.”

On paper, the chord progression to “Little Wing” is pretty straightforward – Em, G, Am, Em, Bm–B,Am–C, G–Fadd9, C, D – and played straight, would probably make for a pretty generic sounding rock ballad.

In fact, when the Jimi Hendrix Experience first played it, that’s exactly what it was.

When Hendrix brought the song to producer Eddie Kramer during the sessions of “Axis: Bold As Love” in October 1967, it had a more standard rock feel.

But, listening back to their first few attempts at recording it, the guitarist and his band were underwhelmed, with the results. That’s when drummer Chas Chandler suggested a different approach.

The tempo was slowed down to somewhere between 70-72bpm (this, of course, was long before the days of click tracks) and the feel of the song was altered.

Crucially, the tempo change gave Hendrix’s guitar playing some breathing space.

And he used that space to utilize one of his signature guitar techniques: embellishing chords by sounding higher notes with his pinkie and creating melodic fills.

As Deciphering Guitar Theory notes, Hendrix embellished his chords using two approaches during the “Little Wing” intro.

In the first approach, he took notes diatonic to the key of the overall piece (which is E minor) to create the fills around the chords.  

In the second approach, he drew notes from the key of the chord he was playing – introducing C Sharp in the B Minor bar and F natural in the second A minor bar.

The effect on the song was transformative. The chords were still stock, but what Hendrix did between the chords was much more interesting, and really brought the “Little Wing” intro to life.

It became softer, more soulful as a result, adding depth to the song and giving it a real dynamic power, especially when contrasted with the incendiary lead part that follows the verse.

In the process, what started as a straightforward rock ballad became a stone cold classic: one of the standout tracks in Jimi Hendrix's back catalogue.

So what can we learn from the “Little Wing” story?

To my mind, there are three take homes:

  1. True guitar mastery is about more than ripping solos.
  2. When you’re stuck in a creative rut, a single change in outlook can make a big difference.
  3. Embellishing guitar chords can have a transformative effect on your rhythm playing.

Have you experimented with embellished chords in your guitar playing? What do you think they can bring to a performance? Share your thoughts in the comments.






10 Responses

Kyle T Sullivan
Kyle T Sullivan

June 12, 2018

A most informative article!
Thank you SO MUCH for sharing!

Thalia Capos
Thalia Capos

June 12, 2018

This is awesome, thanks for sharing your stories! Keep ’em coming!

Crystal
Crystal

June 11, 2018

What a great article! My guitar teacher was just explaining to my class how important good rhythm playing really is. Thank you for this article, it really reinforces my studies!

Michael Hickman
Michael Hickman

June 11, 2018

Unfortunately you slighted the fantastic jazz influenced drummer Mitch Mitchell referring to him as Chas Chandler, the bassist for the Animals and Jimi’s manager at the time. Mitch was not your run of the mill rock drummer by any means

Peter Roberts
Peter Roberts

June 11, 2018

You say in this article that Chas Chandler was a drummer. That is not the case, Chas Chandler was the original bass player in the English R & B band The Animals, before he went on afterwards to become the manager of Jimi Hendrix and later still the English pop-group Slade.

Johnny
Johnny

June 11, 2018

Great story! Having lived in the 60’s, totally believable. I remember such a communal, include everyone attitude. And, I also have been learning Little Wing, and am mostly impressed with his technique. I never learned to read or write music, so his style is what astonished me, his use of his thumbs (still hard for me lol) There are many things that I do not want to remember about that time the 60s but Jimmy Hendrix is not one of them as an adult I have peeled away the layers of what the media continually shows about him and focused on the riffs and I now understand the genius of the man there are many things that I do not want to remember about that time the 60s for Jimmy Hendrix is not one of them as an adult I have peeled away the layers of what the media continually shows about him and focused on the riffs and I now understand the genius of the man. The originality. And also his gentle spirit, which has been spoken about too many times to be a myth. I have never met the man but he seem to be a truly gentle person. Yes I have read all the bad stories and I know about his flaws but I also know about putting things in context of the 60s and also that as humans we all have flaws I now focusing on learning these rifffs that are very old but just continue to astonish. I would’ve loved to meet him but in a way I am meeting him through his legacy which are was these great riffs…as I continue to get better and Liittle Wing starts to flow … I get a sense of the genius of the man…miss you Jimi.

pete forbes
pete forbes

June 11, 2018

You just sent me your Jimi Hendrix email, and by complete chance I was sending this Jimi Hendrix story off to a writer / publisher yesterday :

Hi Richard ( http://richardmhoughton.com/ )

You published my Blackburn Stones story and pic in the “Stones – I was there” book, and I promised you -

My Jimi Hendrix Story :

Having played as warm up band to the Stones in March 1964 at Blackburn, my next public performance was in early September 1970 , when I managed to top the bill after Jimi’s last performance, as it turned out.

I’d just turned 19, and started on my first hitching trip in Europe.
A friend dropped me off in Hamburg, and within hours I’d made a new pal of Henrik, a saxophone player from Bavaria, and fellow hitcher.
He told me about the first ever German rock concert to be held on the island of Fehmarn in the Baltic sea, sponsored by Beate Uhse, an infamous sex shop moguless of the 60s.
We bought tickets and then spent an extraordinary time tag hitching together round Denmark and north Germany for 3 weeks, until we got to Fehmarn and the festival next to the Baltic beach…
Having found a convivial corner of an enormous ex army communal bell tent, courtesy of Beate, in came the first of many wild German Heads, with lush Teutonic hair down below his waist, and a timely offer of “ anyone need marijuana, speed, cocaine, heroin, chocolate … ” – the chocolate was popular – especially second time around : )
My subsequent blur of festival virgin experience, took in all the bands and more : “ I’m on the road again” roared Bear from Canned Heat at some point, and so was I.
Saturday night, and Jimi was about to play, but then a wind storm blew in from the Baltic, with torrential rain streaming horizontal into the stage.
Jimi cried off went the rumour, as he didn’t want to get electrocuted…but luckily for us Sly and the Family Stone did – they blasted out “Dance to the music” and strutted their stuff for over 2 hours, as we churned up and danced in the first and finest festival foot deep ground gloop you could imagine, and we all saved our lives for another day.
Which was Sunday – a gloriously warm and sunny morning.
Then the rumour went round that Jimi had stayed over and was going to do his set at 11 am, so we all charged down to the stage, and sure enough he was there, at last, he was the man, and we all had a sublime peak experience.
Could it get better ?
Some time after Jimi had signed off, for good as it turned out, and bad, of course, smoke began to emerge from behind the stage, and soon the rumour went round that the management had run out of cash when the Hell’s angels festival security posse failed to get paid, and the organisers had fled the festival site with their management caravan ablaze behind them.
So, with a few thousand others, we were left to our own devices with a fully equipped festival stage, which I’d wandered right up to.
“ Hey man, you play guitar ? gestured an impromptu impresario, calling me on stage when I shouted yes.
“ This is the peoples’ festival now, lets have a peoples’ band “
Just a few hours after Jimi had finished his last ever performance, I had joined the peoples’ jam band to headline the Fehmarn after party .. and we played on !

or so it now seems to have been for me, accessing my no doubt truncated memory bank from 48 years ago, ha!

I thought it then in 1970, and I’ll say it now in 2018 :
To have heard and seen one of the world’s greatest black and mixed ”race”(sic) musicians and performers, blowing away the cream of Germany’s post war hip youth, with me in the middle of them all – a white English boy – only getting love and peace from everyone, – was a profoundly liberating, revolutionary, and transcendent experience.

My dad had been fighting their dads less than 30 years before, surviving, if they did, by the skin of their teeth, and back when black people were still “savages” to all the racist European and American slavers and their generations of progeny, who’d been feeding off the black backs of their victims’ appalling toil for the past 300 years.

Jimi just tore up history, and we all joined in.

It was never going to be the same again, so I thought, … in 1970

When Jimi died, 2 weeks after the Fehmarn concert, he was 27
When I die, I’ll also be 27, as I have been most of my life
It is, and was, a good time to peak

pete forbes

ps just like Jimi, that was my last public performance, ever.
but I’ve made up a 1000 songs since, and sung them all at imaginary festivals down the years..
and what festivals and songs they have been !

jimi’s last stage .. and mine too !

Fehmarn September 6th 1970
( image of Jimi on stage facing audience )
http://www.fehmarnfestival1970.com/daythree/daythree.html

RON COUNTRY JESUS LANSDELL
RON COUNTRY JESUS LANSDELL

June 11, 2018

LONG LIVE ROCK N ROLL. A TOAST TO JIMI HENDRIX AND THE BLUES. IF YOU ARE A GUITAR PLAYER DON’T LET YOUR HANDS GET COLD. PRACTICE A LITTLE EVERY DAY EVEN IF IT’S ONLY 10 MIN. A LITTLE IS BETTER THAN NOTHING. LEARN A NEW SCALE OR A NEW CORD LEARN ONE FROM ONE OF YOUR FAVORITE SONGS THAT YOU WANT TO LEARN. PEACE OUT HAVE A HAPPY ROCKING DAY.

RON COUNTRY JESUS LANSDELL
RON COUNTRY JESUS LANSDELL

June 11, 2018

JIMI HENDRIX WAS ONE OF THE GREATEST GUITAR MASTER PLAYERS OF ALL TIME. HE MASTERED THE BLUES. THE BLUES WAS HIS ROOTS AND HE WAS ABLE TO BREAK OUT OF THE PENTATONIC BOX. MIXED WITH POWER CORDS. HE CREATED HIS OWN CORDS SUCH AS THE E7 chord. That’s “E Seven Sharp 9”. Or it’s also known as the Jimi Hendrix chord. He played it in the song “Purple Haze”.HE ALSO WOULD USE THUMB ON THE LOWER E STRING. SINCE JIMIS’ DEATH I BELIEVE THERE WAS ONLY ONE GUITAR PLAYER TO PLAY BLUES GUITAR LIKE JIMI AND THAT WAS STEVIE RAY VAUGHN. DON’T GET ME WRONG I LOVE ALL OF THE OLD BLUES GUITARIST LIKE LIGHTN HOPKINS, HOWLIN WOLF, BB. KING, MUDDY WATERS. JIMI TOOK IT FROM WHERE HE FOUND IT. JIMI TOOK IT FROM ALL OF THE OLD BLUES PLAYERS AND TOOK THE BLUES INTO SPACE AND BACK. AND STEVIE RAY VAUGHN TOOK IT FROM JIMI AND THE OLD BLUES PLAYERS WHEN I LIVED IN SEATTLE I WOULD GO TO JIMIS GRAVE AND I LEFT A BOQUE OF ROSES AND ONE OF MY GUITAR PICKS. I DIDN’T HAVE A VASE SO I LEFT THE ROSES IN A RANIER BEER BOTTLE. I HAD A DREAM IT TOOK PLACE AT JIMI’S GRAVE IT WAS THUNDERING AND LIGHTING AND JIMIS ARM SHOT UP OUT OF THE GRAVE. HE WAS HOLDING IN HIS HAND A WHITE STRATOCASTER AND THERE WAS THUNDER AND A LIGHTING BOLT HIT THE GUITAR. I LOVE JIMI. HENDRIX. I JUST WISH I COULD MASTER THE BLUES GUITAR LIKE HE DID.I’M 64 AND YOUR NEVER TO OLD TO ROCK. PEACE AND LOVE FROM THIS HIPPIE GYPSY.

kristopher weidman
kristopher weidman

June 11, 2018

Not gonna lie i clicked on the email about the article thinking you guys were doing a hendrix inspired capo and was ready to throw my money at you haha. But the article was great I’ve been self teaching myself very slowly for a few years now but I’m nowhere near the level of playing invovled to sort of sound like Hendrix but this has given me some insight in what to look forward to in regards to his playing which is something i hope to reach one day. Until then Ill keep butchering his songs in private until I get there but itll be a little easier now knowing this info.

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