How did Jimi Hendrix develop the Hendrix chord?
Written by [email protected] on November 23, 2020
Although this question is based on a faulty premise, it’s a very interesting query indeed. If we explore it, we can learn some actual music theory.
First off, we must dispose of the premise in the question.
Hendrix didn’t invent the chord, which is technically a dom7#9. It’s actually the chord in the opening measures of ‘Feuilles Mortes’, from Claude Debussy’s second book of Préludes, from 1913:
Hendrix always, or almost always, played the dom7#9 in the same voicing. This is in E:
This is the ‘Hendrix chord’ as we know it, although footage shows that when playing in E he was more likely to play it with the root on the A string. It’s named after him not because he was the first person to do it—as we have seen, Debussy was there fifty-four years earlier—but because he foregrounded its use in songs such as ‘Stone Free’, ‘Purple Haze’, ‘Foxy Lady’ and ‘Voodoo Child (Slight Return)’, so it’s come to be associated with him.
There’s a very interesting feature of the Hendrix chord, which goes some way towards explaining its peculiarly tonal flavour of being not quite major, not quite minor, sort of bluesy, sort of…weird.
It’s derived from the fact that chords in jazz and popular music tend to use stacks of similar kinds of intervals.
(Note: For the sake of convenience, in this answer, I’m going to use Roman numeral analysis to refer to degrees of the musical scale, not to chords, which is how they’re sometimes used.
My reason is that if I start using terms like ‘mediant’ and ‘leading tone’, people are going to have to keep looking up Wikipedia. So, in the following, ‘I’ refers to the tonic, ‘III’ to the mediant, ‘V’ to the dominant, ‘VII’ to the leading tone, and so on.
Or, if you want to think in terms of an actual scale, if I is E, then III is A flat, V is B and VII is E flat.
Got that? Good. Now we can start.)
The basic diatonic major triad is I-III-V, which is in intervallic terms a major third with a minor third on top of it: the interval between the major third and the perfect fifth is a minor third. With me so far?
The major 7th chord, the fundamental building block of jazz harmony, is also a stack of different kinds of thirds: I-III-V-VII, major third / minor third / major third.
The interval from I to VII is very dissonant, but our sense of this dissonance is almost completely smoothed out by the presence of the intervening intervals within the chord, and also the fact that the interval between III and VII is a perfect fifth. The maj7 chord is used in jazz because it’s not perfectly stable; the presence of the VII gives it a slight sense of movement, and mainstream jazz tends to be all about harmonic movement.
The major 9th chord inserts a ninth after the VII in the maj7, so that’s yet another minor third on top of the existing stack: major third / minor third / major third / minor third. This chord doesn’t get used in jazz and popular music very often, because it tends to sound very bland.
The dominant 7th chord, much used in blues and blues-flavoured jazz, is a little different: I-III-V-VIIb. Here, the interval between the tonic and the flattened seventh is a bit different, but also the interval between III and VIIb is a tritone, notoriously one of the most dissonant of all combinations of tones.
However, the tritone is magically made less dissonant by the presence of the V, which gives you a different stack of intervals from the maj7: major third / minor third / minor third.
Even if you voice this chord the way guitarists tend to do:
—it still sounds pretty, if bluesy. The intervals here are perfect fifth / minor third / tritone / minor third. The minor thirds are still in the chord, they’re just distributed differently within it.
By the way, non-reading guitar players who are impatient with me for using notation? You know this one. It’s this:
You could leave out that top note, as many guitarists do, and the presence of the highly consonant perfect fifth and the imperfectly consonant minor third would still make this chord feel very stable.
The dominant 9th is nothing but the dominant 7th with a 9 on top: yet another third stirred into the mixture, although the interval between the flattened seventh and the ninth is a major third, this time.
However, the Hendrix chord, in the particular voicing that he used, does two things which have the effect of removing the emollient intervallic mayonnaise from this already perilously wobbly harmonic sandwich.
First, he takes out the V. This has the effect of removing two of the thirds from the voicing.
Next, he plays a #9 instead of a natural 9.
The result, I-III-VIIb-IX#, consists of a stack of three different kinds of interval in a single chord: major third / tritone / perfect fourth. In addition to which, the interval between the III and the sharpened 9 is a stark major seventh.
This combination of different kinds of interval is what gives the Hendrix chord its peculiar sense of instability. And I think that’s what Hendrix liked about it. It’s why Hendrix’s music makes you feel like you’re on drugs, even when you aren’t.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this little mini-lesson in basic harmonic theory and its application to the music of Jimi Hendrix.
By the way, anyone who feels like commenting that Hendrix couldn’t read music, please don’t bother. As this translation of his musical practice into theoretical terms has tried to demonstrate, he was still more musically literate than most of the rest of us.