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:
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.
Cal Jam doesn’t get the same love as festivals like Monterey Pop or Woodstock. Maybe it’s because it doesn’t have the late ‘60s countercultural cred, happening a full five years after the summer of love reached its peak. Maybe it’s because it was staged to be filmed for television (as part of ABC’s legendary “In Concert” series). Why do I love California Jam so much? It is because it established the record for the largest concert sound system ever assembled? Was it because it featured the first ever appearance of the Good Year blimp at a music festival?
Guitar lessons eventually followed. But, classical guitar didn’t grab me in the same way that my own freeform compositions had. Firstly, I didn’t know any of the songs I was supposed to be learning. Secondly, it required the kind of co-ordination and finger dexterity that I was – at that time at least – far too impatient to master. “I read somewhere that there are these things you can use to hit the strings so you don’t have to use your fingers. I think they began with a P,” I once told my guitar teacher. “The thing that begins with a P is called practice,” he replied. He was right, of course, but that didn’t mean I wanted to hear it.
This week, to satisfy my yearning for live music, I’ve taken a deep dive into my record collection and rediscovered some live favourites. Given how much joy I’ve got out of these records, I thought I’d share them with you today. Putting together this list, I’ve tried to take the road less travelled. I didn’t want to put together a list of classic live albums that everyone already knows like the back of their hand. Instead, my three picks serve as alternatives to some of those classic albums, offering a new look at some legendary bands.