Song 302: The Jimi Hendrix Experience, “Little Wing” (1967)

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“Little Wing” is my favorite Jimi Hendrix song for a variety of reasons. First of all, it shows how delicate a guitar player Hendrix was. He isn’t often remembered that way, but it’s true. He could be fast, but even then, he was precise. Despite his theatrics, Hendrix had an enormous amount of control over his playing, and that’s on perfect display on “Little Wing,” a song that sounds almost fragile because of the way Hendrix handles the guitar.

I also love how short the song is, which may be a strange thing to say about a song you love. But not enough musicians and songwriters–hell, artists in general–subscribe to the “leave ’em wanting more philosophy,” and Hendrix was never afraid to stop whenever the song needed to stop. “Little Wing” is only 2 minutes and 25 seconds long, which is just long enough for you to get attached to it. As writer Harry Shapiro wrote, “he said what he wanted to say and stop.”

Shapiro also wrote that Hendrix played the song using his thumb on the bass notes. This is a fairly common thing for guitarists to do, but it’s frankly amazing that Hendrix could do that while using the rest of his hand to play so beautifully.

And let’s talk about what he’s playing. All those moving parts, in the intro especially, remind me of something a symphony would do. It takes a great musical mind to condense that feel to a single instrument, especially without the song sounded overcrowded. At the same time, the solo (which he plays twice) is comparatively simple. It mainly features one note at a time, played relatively slowly. It’s one of my all-time favorite guitar solos, not only because it’s just a gorgeous melody, but because it fits the song so well. “Little Wing” is about a woman signifying, well, everything Jimi Hendrix can think of. That idea perfectly fits the note-heavy verses. Then comes that solo, under which Hendrix sings “fly on, Little Wing,” an encouragement to soar while his guitar seems to do the same.

Hendrix said he got the idea from playing the Monterey Pop Festival and simply looking around, seeing everybody looking happy: “Everybody really flying and they’s really in a nice mood, like the police and everybody was really great out there. So I just took all these things and put them in one very small little matchbox, you know, into a girl.” He added, “That’s one of the very few ones I like.” What a relief that last part was to read. If Jimi Hendrix hadn’t liked “Little Wing,” what hope would the rest of us have at liking anything?

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