During his short stay on earth, Jimi Hendrix challenged all previous perceptions of how the electric guitar could be played.
From 1968 to 1971, he developed a revolutionary sonic vocabulary by manipulating his guitar, amp and effects to produce extreme distortion, sustain and feedback. Building on his inside knowledge of the blues, he transformed country blues licks into visionary musical statements of cosmic proportions. Combined with his cross-cultural wardrobe and cathartic stage show, he left a legacy based on the hyper-intensification of the classic American music forms of blues, R&B, rock, funk and jazz.
An aspect of R&B that Hendrix employed in a more traditional manner is the melodic rhythm guitar style exemplified by players like Curtis Mayfield, Robert Ward, Ike Turner, Cornell Dupree and Steve Cropper. Jimi was as dedicated to playing rhythm guitar as he was to playing lead, and he enthusiastically pursued this refined art of accompaniment. The seamless combination of chords, bass lines and melodic figures is best displayed on “Little Wing,” “Castles Made of Sand,” The Wind Cries Mary,” “Message to Love” and “Hey Joe.”
The apparent complexity of this style can be daunting and seem mysterious. Though its mastery does require advanced chops and a sophisticated ear, the basic approach can be a seen as a system that relates common major and minor barre chords to scale fragments, as seen in FIGURE 1.
It is of paramount importance that the embellishments derived from the scale forms match the major or minor tonality of each chord. This is very different from most blues or basic rock formats, where one scale will harmonize with three or four chord changes. Play each barre chord and its appropriate scale to hear their relationships and to memorize the positions on the fingerboard. Naturally, all chords and scales are movable.
FIGURE 2 is an eight-measure progression in the manner of “Little Wing” that uses all four chord forms and scales.
Note that each measure is arranged the same way in order to get you started quickly. Beats 1 and 2 contain the bass root and the full chord, respectively. Beats 3 and 4 consist of a melodic fill phrased simply but similarly to the way Hendrix might play it. Note that the key finger in all of the fills is the index, which often barres two strings while the ring finger plays a note two frets above (measures 2, 4, 6, 7, and 8). Also, notice that the fill in measure 5 (Am) is more loosely derived from Am and Bm triads than from the scale fragment. Measure 3 (Gm) contains a related concept that likewise shows another way to add harmony.
Acquiring the necessary skills to play in this R&B style should be satisfying and fulfilling. Besides make your accompaniment richer, it can take you one big step closer to playing solo guitar arrangements. Indeed, Hendrix was so adept at this skill that many of his aforementioned tunes can be performed in that fashion.