SOUNDS LIKE... Part 1


Music can be broadly be classified into two main categories: absolute music and programme music. When writing absolute music the composer is generally concerned with expressing emotion with no external associations whereas in programme music the composer is concerned with expressing an idea or story through the music.

In its most extreme forms an excerpt may of programme music may not be "musical" in the usual sense of the term, such as the "Critics" section of Richard Strauss's Heldenleben - "remarks" on muted trombones seem nonsensical to the listener unless they realize that these represent the hero's crude reply to his critics. Programme music need not be this extreme and may even be unrecognised by the listener in a piece of music that uses absolute music and programme music.

The success of the programme music depends on how well it evokes the story or idea in the mind of the listener and it frequently helps if the listener is aware of any story beforehand. Programme music can be subtle or blatant, intentional or even unintentional and spontaneous. Some of the musical techniques used in programme music have become part of a widely used musical vocabulary such as the use of a diminished seventh chord to signify terror or horror (the diminished seventh chord on the guitar can be fingered as "E" on the fourth string, second fret, first finger; "Bb" on the third string, third fret, third finger; "Db" on the second string, second fret, second finger; "G" on the top string, third fret, fourth finger).

Although the foremost exponents of programme music include Richard Strauss, Wagner, Liszt, Dvorak and Berlioz, programme music is by no means restricted to the classical music world. Notable examples of programme music which have been heard by millions of listeners are Carl Stalling's scores for Bugs Bunny and many other Warner Bros. cartoons [as can be heard on The Carl Stalling Project's Music From Warner Bros. Cartoons 1936 -1958 (1990)]. Stalling's scores are full of so-called "Mickey Mousing" - sonic descriptions of visual events.

One of the best known pieces of programme music is Berlioz's Symphony Fantastique (aka The Fantastic Symphony ). Noted theorist and music educator Dr William Fowler as quoted in Bill Milkowski's article "Jimi The Composer": "His major work, The Fantastic Symphony is pictorial in that it shows the succession of drug dreams. It's a five-movement work. He's in love with a girl and she rejects him, so he takes opium. Next to the last movement is called "March To The Gallows", and in it he marches and stumbles. It's all onomatopoeic. The orchestra tells everything that's happening to this guy. They march him up to the scaffold, they put his head down, and all of a sudden there's this guillotine down on his head...it's just a slashing chord. And then his head bounces three times... So Berlioz is getting this pictorial thing and his subject is death. And the last movement is his funeral. The instruments are totally distorted here - muted trumpets, strange, strange sounds. This guy was exploring sound for the sake of exploring sound pictorially. He took the romanticism out of romanticism and made it real through sound."

Fowler continues: "Now didn't Hendrix do exactly the same thing on pieces like "The Star Spangled Banner" and "Machine Gun" and a few others? The bombs bursting in air don't burst in air in Jimi's rendition, they come down and hit the earth...whining guitar glissandos. The rockets red glare...well, with Jimi it's blood. And when he plays that melody of "Taps", he is saying something about pseudo-patriotism. He's saying that the genuine face of war is not the glory of bombs bursting in air and the rocket's red glare. The genuine face of war is blood.

"Jimi's tremendous expansion of tonal possibilities and new timbre possibilities through distortion and feedback and Wah-wah was his way of portraying something pictorially." Referring to Berlioz and Hendrix, Fowler comments: "These people are creative people. They're not technical geniuses. Berlioz is not a skilled composer like Mozart or Mendelssohn. But he had a wonderful imagination. And Hendrix was, technically speaking, an ear composer. It all comes right out of his feelings. His is a natural compositional process. There was a man who felt everything and expressed it directly through his music."

There are perhaps only two Jimi Hendrix tracks which could be described as programme music from beginning to end - "EXP" and "...And The Gods Made Love". However, there are numerous examples of Jimi using music to illustrate ideas or lyrics within songs.

The solo in "Hey Joe" contains two bends on the second string of "D" at the fifteenth fret bent up to "E" at the seventeenth fret from 1:50 to 1:52 which sound like gunshots and illustrate the line "Shoot her one more time again, baby", sung at the same time.

The intro of "Foxy Lady" symbolises Jimi's "rising passion" according to Dave Whitehill in the Performance Notes for "Foxy Lady" in the Are You Experienced? transcription book. With the guitar volume control turned off, Jimi frets an "F" note on the third string, tenth fret. Jimi plucks this note then gives it a wide vibrato, in effect sounding an "F#" note. Jimi gradually turns up the volume control and, with his amp presumably cranked up, the note begins to feedback as he increases the volume control on the guitar.

Again according to Dave Whitehill in the Performance Notes for "Manic Depression" in the Are You Experienced? transcription book, the JHE make the 3/4 time signature "swing like the pendulum moods of a manic depressive".

The beginning of the solo seems to reflect the "frustrating mess" of the lyrics with some particularly frantic and agitated lead work, Jimi "cramming" in the notes in the first half of the solo, particularly from 1:36 to 1:40 and 1:44 to 1:48. Towards the end of the solo at 1:51 Jimi plays a common 1st position blues scale lick of a "D" note on the third string, nineteenth fret bent up two frets to "E" followed by a "G" note on the second string, twentieth fret. Jimi plays this lick three times followed by the bend on the third string only which he holds on to. This phrase sounds like "crying", particularly in this high register and at 1:53 Jimi sings "Cry on, guitar" then rounds off the solo with variations on this "crying" lick. Commenting on the guitar solo, Dave Whitehill says: "...with the use of large interval bends, notes on the verge of feedback, and wide vibrato from the whammy bar, Jimi creates an aural metaphor of a mind's journey into psychosis."

In "Love Or Confusion" when Jimi sings "My heart burns with feeling" he plays a phrase which echos this sentiment - at 1:11 Jimi plays a "C" note on the third string, seventeenth fret then bends it up two frets to "D" and holds it, embellishing the note with a wide vibrato from the vibrato arm, creating the aural illusion of burning. Jimi plays a similar lick at 2:20 when this vocal line is repeated.

In concert Jimi often dedicated "I Don't Live Today" to "the American Indian" and, appropriately, the song begins with a native American drum pattern. The frustration and anguish expressed in the lyrics is vividly expressed in the guitar and voice section from 2:10 to 2:23 and the tortured guitar solo section from 2:31 to the end of the song. Though a passage like this was sometimes known in the sixties as a "freak out", Jimi himself didn't like the expression. In the Performance Notes for "I Don't Live Today" Dave Whitehill comments: "the despair [of the lyrics] is reflected musically as the song progresses especially by the incessant droning of the second guitar in a fashion similar to "Love Or Confusion"."

Jimi begins "May This Be Love" (aka "Waterfall") with a slide up and down the fretboard presumably with a solid metallic object such as a bottleneck, the microphone stand or a cigarette lighter (he used Dave Mason's lighter for the "slide" guitar part in "All Along The Watchtower") evoking the waterfall referred to in the lyrics and the song's alternative title. A similar effect can be heard at the beginning of "Night Bird Flying" from The Cry Of Love - Jimi uses a smooth glissando up and down the fretboard from 0:00 to 0:11, presumably to represent a night bird flying.

In the Performance Notes for "May This Be Love" Dave Whitehill notes that "the breaks between verses feature a judicious use of tape echo for simulating various aquatic phenomena such as ripples on a pond as well as slide effects in other sections for the waterfall he sings of." The use of echo can be heard during the intro figure from 0:03 to 0:15 and in the first two breaks at 0:35 and 0:55.

In "Third Stone From The Sun" Jimi slows down the tape speed on his vocals to make them sound otherworldly. Jimi also employs feedback and extreme vibrato bar manipulation to illustrate a space craft moving through space. Jimi: ""Third Stone From The Sun" is Earth, you know, Mercury, Venus, and the Earth. It's about these cats coming down and taking over, but they don't really see anything here that's worth taking [laughs]. They observe Earth for a while and they think that the smartest animal on the whole Earth is chickens, you know, hens. There's nothing else here to offer, they don't like the people too much, so they just blow it up at the end."

Axis: Bold As Love opens with the first of Jimi's pure programme music tracks, "EXP", the mock interview setting the scene for Jimi's voyage into space. [Noel Redding: "I remember recording "EXP"; myself and Hendrix put the guitars on the ground and started kicking them and they recorded it [laughs]! We turned up the amps full, got my bass and he got his guitar, and smashed them against the amps. And we got this amazing feedback."] Jimi uses both harmonic and microphonic feedback in this track helped by the use of a Fuzz Face. An ambitious attempt to transcribe the studio version of "EXP" can be found in the Axis: Bold As Love transcription book, and an even more ambitious attempt by the JHE to recreate this track live can be heard on Exp Over Sweden .

The perception of more subtle uses of programme music can be very subjective. Author David Henderson poses an interesting one in his book The Life Of Jimi Hendrix: 'Scuse Me While I Kiss The Sky - describing "Spanish Castle Magic", Henderson says "On a one-chord jag the bass comes up, it's three note drone syncopating into five. Rocking out. The guitar tracks in the background move up too, their chant creating a whirlwind."

Whilst one does not wish to be accused of being a joyless pedant, there is only one guitar track all the way through "Spanish Castle Magic" (listen for yourself, if possible with the "SCM" music for reference from the Axis: Bold As Love transcription book or Guitar For The Practicing Musician , December 1992) - the eight string bass and piano provide a full sound with no need for additional guitar parts. "Their chant creating a whirlwind?" Perhaps Henderson is employing a touch of writer's licence in pursuit of a "lively" writing style...

Dave Whitehill comments on a rather subtle programme music effect in his Performance Notes for "Wait Until Tomorrow" in the Axis: Bold As Love transcription book. He says: "On the basis of his singular style of storytelling, both in lyric content and accompanying guitar parts, Hendrix could have been the Mark Twain of rock. For instance, note in measure three of the third verse that as he queries, 'Do I see a silhouette...' the guitar seemingly says, 'Uh-oh' on beat three with the introduction of a "G" major chord against "A" in the bass." This actually occurs in measure five of the third verse from 1:43 to 1:44.

In "Little Wing" Jimi plays a suitably poignant lick at 1:11 during the beginning of the second verse after singing "When I'm sad, she comes to me." Jimi plays a "G" on the bottom string, third fret followed by a sliding fourth interval on strings three and two - Jimi plays an "A" note on the third string, second fret with a "D" note on the second string, third fret.

Commenting on "Bold As Love" in his book, David Henderson says "Jimi's chords are tense on envy." At 0:08 when he sings "envy" Jimi plays two consecutive ornamented diads based on the conventional "A" major barré chord (although Jimi would normally use his thumb for the note on the sixth string rather than a barré) in the fifth position based on the basic "E" chord. Although these two diads are both played with accents, there's nothing particularly "tense" about them. Another case of writer's licence, perhaps?

Forward to part 2


This article was originally published in UniVibes issue 20, November 1995.

Copyright UniVibes 1995 - reprinted by permission of UniVibes, International Jimi Hendrix Magazine, Enniskeane, County Cork, Republic Of Ireland

Back to home page