Song: Machine Gun
Solo performed by: Jimi Hendrix
Album: Band of Gypsys
Recorded live at the Fillmore East, December 31, 1969 and January 1, 1970
It’s THE NOTE.
Thousands of words have been written about Jimi Hendrix and his guitar playing. We can talk about the man, the guitars, the amps, the effects, the tone, the style. But it all comes back to THE NOTE. Those of you who know the Machine Gun solo know exactly what I’m talking about. It is the very first note of the solo, the single greatest rock guitar note ever played. THE NOTE comes at about the 3:59 mark, a huge, sustaining scream that lasts for the first 10 seconds or so of the solo (the note is picked only twice in that time). Hendrix probably could have ended the solo after that note, and the emotions behind the music would have been fully conveyed, but thankfully he didn’t stop there.
There is a kind of mythology surrounding the recording of the Band of Gypsys album, and this song in particular. The details vary and are a little vague, but the gist of the story is this: at the time, numerous sources had been giving Hendrix a hard about the nature of his live shows. The argument was that he jumped and writhed around so much in concert that his actual guitar playing suffered in the process. Some versions of the story attribute the criticism to Bill Graham, famed promoter and proprietor of the Fillmore. So Hendrix decided to show them what he was truly capable of, and when he went out on stage that night he stood in one spot the entire show and did not move, and gave us the best playing of his life.
The song itself is deceptively simple. Like Voodoo Child (and many other Hendrix tunes), it’s basically a jam in E that provides a framework for Hendrix to hang some brilliant solo work on. It starts off slow, with a short intro solo leading up to some sparse guitar licks interspersed between vocal verses. The first thing you really notice in these sections is the guitar tone. Full, round, glassy and shimmering, the tone is classic Hendrix tone even at the low volume of the intro. To get the tone Hendrix employed his usual cadre of effects like the UniVibe, Fuzzface, Vox wah wah, and Octavia.
The solo itself is basically a jam, and for the most part Hendrix remains above the 12th fret on the guitar throughout. He stays in the familiar “blues box” for the first minute or so (after THE NOTE, that is), and then at around 5:18 he embarks on some extended whammy bar manipulations. While doing a slow trill between two notes (hammer-ons and pull-offs to you guitar geeks), he raises and lowers the pitch with the whammy bar, creating an otherworldly fluid sound. This may sound tame compared to more modern whammy bar craziness from the likes of Brad Gillis, Adrian Belew, Steve Vai , and Joe Satriani, but at the time this was innovative stuff. Consider that most whammy bar usage at the time was limited to simple dive bombs and noises, but Hendrix incorporates the bar into the solo, creating and weaving new melodies that at the time were never heard before.
Hendrix caps off the whammy bar section with some wrenching double stop screams and howls, enhanced by a wide vibrato courtesy of more whammy bar usage. He returns to the main theme, only this time an octave higher, then continues with the wails. This is the emotional high point of the solo for me, a catharsis of screaming anguish.
Just when you think the solo must be winding down, at around 7:20 Hendrix launches into a manic legato flurry of notes. At the same time he flips the pickup selector on his Strat to the neck pickup, resulting in a warmer, slightly fuller, slightly fuzzier sound, which blends perfectly with the more legato playing. The effect is exhilarating. He sticks with the neck sound until the solo finally does wind down, ending in a plaintive feedback cry.
As with any great blues-based solo, it’s never so much about what specific notes are played, but more about the feeling conveyed. This is a fascinating solo to me because it starts on such a high emotional level (THE NOTE), and then stays there, even going higher, throughout the entire solo.
After the solo, but before continuing the vocals, Hendrix plays a short little interlude pentatonic riff. I have always been fascinated with this section. The main riff played by the guitar and bass is the exact same as the end of the main riff played by Jimmy Page in Led Zeppelin’s “No Quarter”. I have always wondered if Page was “inspired by” (i.e. stole) this lick, but I’ve never seen it mentioned in any interviews or official story. If anyone out there knows please don’t keep it to yourself.