The 12 Best Jimi Hendrix Guitar Solos

The original Guitar Hero, Jimi Hendrix invented the solo as we know it. On the 41st anniversary of Hendrix's death, Black Rock Coalition co-founder Greg Tate breaks down Jimi's most beloved licks.

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Complex Original

Image via Complex Original

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The electric guitar is an instrument whose history can be divided up into two eras: Before and after Jimi Hendrix. Before Hendrix it was a musical device that politely accompanied swing bands, blues, and R&B singers as well as early country & western rockers. After Hendrix, amplified guitar became more akin to Godzilla. It breathed radioactive fire and made whole cities quake whenever it put the stomp down.

Born in Seattle, Hendrix was a serious student of everybody who ever plucked a six-stringer. He loved the blues masters most of all—Muddy Waters, Elmore James, T-Bone Walker, Guitar Slim, B.B. King, Freddie King, and especially Albert King—but he knew his jazz and country cats too—Charlie Christian, Wes Montgomery, Barney Kessel, Glen Campbell, Scotty Moore, Chet Atkins—and the R&B kings Ike Turner, Jimmy Nolen, Curtis Mayfield, and Steve Cropper. He sponged all their styles and stole liberally, but he had sounds in his head nobody had ever thought possible on guitar—jet engines, oceans, exploding suns, and planets, wounded wildebeests, weeping seagulls.

He learned his craft and earned his bones playing in R&B bands on the legendary chitterling circuit with the likes of Wilson Pickett, Little Richard, and The Isely Brothers. This left him barely fed and nearly homeless in Harlem after only a couple years of active touring. He got even broker doing his own thing in the same East Village dives that had launched the career of his songwriting and singing inspiration Bob Dylan. A former girlfriend of Rolling Stone Keith Richards introduced him to his first manager, Chas Chandler, who took him to England in 1966... and the rest is rock & roll history.

Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Pete Townsend had been mucking around with feedback, distortion, and high volume but Jimi pushed everything to extremes. The world tuned in and got turned out by how Jimi shaked, rattled, rolled, and psychedelicized those strings. Guitar wanking as we know it begins with Jimi, sad to say—but his legacy isn’t built on just freestyle handjobs.

On the occasion of the 41st anniversary of his earthly transition (he died on September 18th, 1970, at the age of 27), we offer twelve exemplary reasons why Jimi Hendrix was a master composer and improviser of late 20th century American classical music.

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12. The Jimi Hendrix Experience “1983... (A Merman I Should Turn To Be)” (1968)

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Album: Electric Ladyland

Complex says: Yet another Hendrix elegy for the end of Western civilization when folk will mutate into eroticized water breathers. This was as close as he came to writing his own symphony, in a form he described as a “sound-painting.” Anyone else could only have made this in the studio, but as guitarist Mike Bloomfield once intimated, there's no sonic effect Hendrix got in the studio or with pedals that he wasn't capable of getting right before your eyes with just an overdriven amp, those humongus mitts he called hands, and his weapon of choice, any old upside down Fender Stratocaster that happened to be lounging about.

11. The Jimi Hendrix Experience “Still Raining, Stil Dreaming” (1968)

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Album: Electric Ladyland

Complex says: Behold the mother of all wah-wah guitar solos. I don't know why more strippers don't use it to bare their souls before the world. That boompa-pop beat, dropped like it was hotter than July by Buddy Miles, was old before Gypsy Rose Lee was plying her trade. Hendrix performed with a jazz trio of sax, conga and keyboard that Jimi pulled in off the street, probably Times Square. They haven't been heard from much since, but were more than ready to get down and greasy with master blaster.

10. The Jimi Hendrix Experience “Are You Experienced?” (1967)

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Album: Are You Experienced

Complex says: When The Beatles played voices backwards on records, folk thought they were trying to summon Satan. When Jimi does it you feel like you're watching reverse footage of a black hole swallowing a star gone supernova. The freakiest sound in his trickbag is made even freakier when you’re told that he figured the telemetry out while listening to a backwards take of the song. If you don't know how freaky that is, imagine driving blindfolded in reverse on a three-lane highway at night and only using your ears to navigate and evade oncoming traffic.

9. Jimi Hendrix “Villanova Junction” (1969)

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8. Jimi Hendrix “Midnight” (1972)

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Album: War Heroes

Complex says: A one-off instrumental that finds Henrix pile-driving riff after incendiary riff over a steam-driven industrial-strength mid-tempo bass groove that would send Black Sabbath back to their mommies. When it's over you have little doubt it was recorded at “the witching hour” in an utterly dank abyss of a studio where the the only visible light leaked from a blood-red Recording sign.

7. Jimi Hendrix “Star Spangled Banner” (1969)

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6. The Jimi Hendrix Experience “All Along The Watchtower” (1968)

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Album: Electric Ladyland

Complex says: Bob Dylan wrote it, but Jimi made it The FM Rock Radio Classic it is today. So much so that Dylan does Jimi's arrangement in concert as an homage to the man. Dylan also wondered why Jimi didn't do more of his songs because “They were all his anyway.”

The guitar solo here is restrained, sublime and aerodynamic and contains a rare example of Hendrix using a sllide. In total the solo and the delivery of the song are a work of exploded architecture with wings—ascending from the roof of the battlements right off the jump and somersaultsing through the air with the greatest of unease. The verbal poetics make you feel like Dylan is the real Nostradamus of 9/11. Like so much Hendrix, a perfect marriage of guitar and the captured vapours of Armageddon.

5. Jimi Hendrix “Machine Gun” (1970)

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Album: Band of Gypsys

Complex says: My grandfather made a rare trip up into my attic temple of boom when I was about 17 and asked me "Gregory, who’s that playing?'' When I said Jimi he said, ''Huh, sounds like John Lee Hooker to me.” And he ain’t never lied. Jimi knew the deal: If you want to get deep and lament from the depths of human suffering, you need to be conjuring up some of those devil blues Hooker style.

This performance, a 12-minute phantasmagoria of man's inhumanity to man, is the war movie Coppola wished he'd made with Apocalypse Now—except Jimi's cinematography of slaughter on the battlefield is even more infernal and hellbent. You come out on the other side feeling like you have personally survived all manner of evisceration via modern warfare—mortars and grenades, full metal jackets, napalm infernos, My Lai massacres, even Hiroshima. This is also the cut that made Miles Davis realize Jimi was truly on some other shiznit.

4. The Jimi Hendrix Experience “Bold As Love” (1967)

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Album: Axis: Bold As Love

Complex says: Like all the gods of creation, Hendrix knew the destruction of the earth could be likened to the most heartbreaking break-up known to man. The lyrics give you the seven stages of grief the way Apollo or Oshun might romanticize them. Musically we find another ornate example of Hendrix chordal technique and imagination, and further proof that you can’t divide his rhythm guitar from his solos—the flow between them is inimitable and ineluctable.

Still the solo that leaps out of the triads on “Axis” is Coltrane-worthy, sailing across the heavens in sheer transcendence of this bitter earth. When Hendrix finally achieves escape velocity after the flanged drum break and then goes soaring down a black hole, you'll wish you had something stronger than a warm Guiness to swoop your ass on up-up-up and away from here too.

3. Jimi Hendrix “Red House” (1972)

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Album: Hendrix In The West

Complex says: Many amazingly graceful and gritty versions of Hendrix’s best known original blues appear on various albums and YouTube clips. There's something special about the way he moves forth and back between his spidery guitar obbligatoes and his sardonic vocal narrative on this one. The song offers a split-screen view of Jimi the wounded animal and Jimi the comedian.

He ends the thing after an acrobatic accapella wah-wah midsection that crescendos into one of the best fuck-you-and-the-ho-you-rode-in-on lines in all of blues literature: “I know if my baby don't love me no more, I know good and well that her sister will." The fact that his baby lives in a whorehouse makes it all the more poignant.

2. Jimi Hendrix “Have You Ever Been (To Electric Ladyland)” (1968)

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Album: Loose Ends

Complex says: The full band vocal version of this on the EL album is breathtaking and the best R&B song for falsetto voices The Delfonics never cut. But this fragmentary acapella version offers a peek behind the curtain at how melodic and sublime Hendrix could be with just bare naked chords. His debts to Curtis Mayfield are presented with extreme transparency here, but Curtis never made a whammy bar weep so gently, like the breeze that brushes your cheeks after a hurricane blows itself out.

1. The Jimi Hendrix Experience “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)” (1968)

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Album: Electric Ladyland

Complex says: Inarguably the most well-covered song in the Hendrix catalogue. It’s the easiest to learn and impossible for any guitarist not to feel like a god when he or she rips it loud and proud in public. The lyrical boasts alone fill you in on what kind of god Hendrix envisioned himself as, and what kind of MC he would've been as well:. “Well I stand up next to a mountain / Chop it down with edge of my hand / I pick up all the pieces and make an island / Might even raise a little sand." Watch the throne indeed—Poseidon wuz here.

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