Jimi at 80: Born in Seattle on November 27, 1942, Jimi Hendrix would have celebrated his 80th birthday this week. Throughout this week on Guitar World, we’ll celebrate his genius and game-changing impact on the world of guitar playing.
When someone is widely hailed as the greatest guitar player ever, how do you step up and cover one of his songs?
Have you ever noticed that the ratio of Metallica tribute albums to Hendrix tribute albums is something like 20 to 1? When’s the last time you heard someone say, “Yeah, he played it better than Hendrix,” without a clearly present sarcastic tone?
With the handful of Hendrix covers that have been done – or attempted, we should say in most cases – artists seem to take one of two routes: the highly-ill-advised-if-your-initials-aren’t-SRV route of taking on the song head-on and trying to one-up the master, or simply deconstructing the song to an almost unrecognizable form.
Whatever the case, a good Hendrix cover is a rarity, and that’s why we’ve taken it upon ourselves to compile for you the 10 best covers of Jimi Hendrix songs.
10. Living Colour – Crosstown Traffic
Recorded for the 1993 tribute album, Stone Free: A Tribute to Jimi Hendrix, this take on Crosstown Traffic by Living Colour stays more or less faithful to the original.
Certainly among lead players in 1993, Vernon Reid was among the most qualified of a batch of young, up-and-coming guitarists to put his spin on this Electric Ladyland cut.
9. Emmylou Harris – May This Be Love
May This Be Love is one of the best things about Emmylou Harris’s super-atmospheric 1995 album, Wrecking Ball. Harris, who had built her rep as a country star, enlisted producer Daniel Lanois (U2) and took some chances in terms of direction and eclectic song choices.
Thus the presence of a Hendrix track sandwiched between songs composed by Lucinda Williams and Gillian Welch. Harris and Lanois (who plays guitar on the track) devised their own highly satisfying arrangement – and it works.
8. Derek and the Dominos – Little Wing
There was a strong mutual admiration between Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix, so it’s not surprising that after Hendrix started covering Sunshine of Your Love in concerts within weeks of its release, Clapton would one day return the favor by putting his own spin on one of Jimi’s most touching guitar moments, Little Wing. Sadly, this cover wasn’t released until shortly after Hendrix passed away, but it remains a fitting tribute to a lost peer.
7. The Pretenders – Room Full of Mirrors
Kudos to the Pretenders for choosing an offbeat Hendrix song to cover – Room Full of Mirrors, from Hendrix’s posthumously released Rainbow Bridge album (1971). Their approach was brilliant: they pulled it out of the mists of relative obscurity, brushed it off, made it sound perfectly current for 1986, yet made sure it still sounded like a Hendrix song, injecting it with several nods to the original version, particularly in terms of guitar technique and sound.
Maybe Chrissie Hynde and guitarist Robbie McIntosh felt Stevie Ray Vaughan was claiming the Hendrix catalog as his own private playground…
6. Devo – R U Experienced
Hendrix purists might not have been too pleased with Devo’s deconstruction – or devolution, rather – of this Hendrix classic, but Akron, Ohio’s strangest sons certainly get points for originality.
While Hendrix was all about feel and feedback, Devo were (and are) a band that thrived on metronomic precision and instrumental clarity, traits that heavily informed their re-arrangement of Are You Experienced?, which was done for no other reason than to tip a “sacred cow” in the back catalog of their record label, Warner Bros.
If you listen closely, you may notice Devo also appropriated the chorus melody from Third Stone from the Sun as a guitar solo.
5. Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble – Little Wing / Third Stone from the Sun
As a teenager, Vaughan must have heard the brief guitar solo at the fadeout of Little Wing, the Axis: Bold As Love classic, and thought, “I want more!” So he took matters into his own hands, stripping away the lyrics and arranging the tune as a dynamic instrumental piece.
Its variation of voicings, attack and effects already make it one of the highlights of his catalog. He went a step further, however, latching it on to his spin on Hendrix’s Third Stone From the Sun, a study in feedback control and – when performed live – how to swing your poor Strat around by its vibrato bar.
4. Red Hot Chili Peppers – Fire
Perhaps more so than guitar chops, energy is essential to a good Hendrix cover, and energy is something the Chili Peppers had in spades back in the mid-’80s.
While the Chilis’ cover of Fire appeared on their 1989 album Mother’s Milk – their first album to feature John Frusciante – the guitar playing on Fire is unmistakably that of Hilel Slovak. While it took until the end of the Eighties for their version of Fire to be released, the band were playing the song live as early as 1983.
3. Jeff Beck and Seal – Manic Depression
It’s hard to believe Jeff Beck is only a few degrees separated from Project Runway, but it’s true: in the early ’90s, Beck recorded a few tunes with Project Runway host Heidi Klum’s ex-husband, Seal. The best of the batch is this manic version of Manic Depression from Stone Free, the aforementioned 1993 Hendrix tribute album.
Perhaps feeling the version they’d originally concocted was a little too close to the original, they added a powerful breakdown section that allowed Beck and his Strat to throw everything but the kitchen sink into the mix. It’s a fitting tribute from one over-the-top ’60s guitar god to another. Well designed, indeed.
2. The Cure – Purple Haze
If you heard this cover of Purple Haze with no context, it would be well over a minute into the song before you would have any clue this was a Jimi Hendrix cover. Of course, anyone who thought Robert Smith & Co. would launch right into a fiery, tritone-laced rendition of arguably Hendrix’s most famous song clearly had never heard Disingegration – which, according to Kyle from South Park, is the best album ever.
This synth-laden cut takes the No. 2 spot for being bold enough to push Hendrix’s catalog into new territory, instead of trying to outdo the man. A nearly impossible feat, unless you’re our choice for No. 1…
1. Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble – Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)
Stevie Ray Vaughan was to Jimi Hendrix in the ’80s what the Byrds were to Bob Dylan in the ’60s: he was the artist most associated with interpreting and updating Hendrix’s songs, adding a fair share of his own personality and flavor.
In his epic rendering of Voodoo Chile (Slight Return), that flavor came in the form of a little Texas BBQ rub: lightning-fast, open-position runs in E, rhythmic changes and different Strat pickup settings as the song rolled on.
Besides being the centerpiece of his 1984 album, Couldn’t Stand the Weather, it was a highlight of his live shows throughout that decade. Rarely has anyone kept an audience so riveted without ever straying too far from a simple – albeit Texas-sized – E chord.