Songwriting Analysis: Why We Don’t Get Tired of Jimi Hendrix “Little Wing”

Jimi Hendrix: Axis Bold as Love

If you study jazz, you start with the standards.  But in my opinion standards also exist in the rock guitar lexicon as well — and this Jimi Hendrix gem is definitely one of them.  It’s a seemingly simple tune which repeats just one verse progression over and over.  Where does its enduring appeal come from?

So here’s the basic chord progression.

Em | G | Am | Em |
Bm (Bbm) | Am C | G F C | D

What can we observe about those un-exotic looking chords?

First of all, notice that each chord change is unique.  There are some common chords in the key of Em (G, A, C) but each time they go somewhere other than where it went before.  The first G goes to Am, second G goes to F.  The first Am goes down to Em, the second Am goes to up to C.  You get the picture.

Repeated chord changes aren’t evil. It creates a sense of familiarity and also it anchors a section of a song with a particular tonality.  But in this case, since the song has just one progression, having no repeated changes give the song a sense of adventure and freshness that it needs every time you go through the sequence.

The second noteworthy trait is the presence of F.  The song is in the key of Em so the F chord is definitely a foreign object there, though it doesn’t sound too foreign here because it’s sandwiched between G and C — you can interpret that the song transposed to the key of C in that second half of the verse before setting the Em back up again with the final D.  You’ll feel that tonality shift if you’re learning to improvise solo over this progression, because Em pentatonic scale will go over awkwardly on that F.

The point is that the song strays from the key of Em.  A budding songwriter may get stuck staying in a single key or wander around in multiple keys because s/he doesn’t understand the concept of tonal center.  But if you know a little bit of music theory and know what chords belong in a particular key, then by all means break the “rule” and experiment with chords that don’t belong in that key.  You may stumble on interesting twists and pleasant surprises.

Finally, notice where I put the dividers between the chords.  There was a reason why I wrote earlier that the progression is 8+ bars long — because actually it doesn’t fit neatly into 8 bars of 4/4.  The G-F-C sequence stays on each chord two beats, making that one bar 6/4.  It’s really easy to miss this rhythmic deviation and it’s not something that really stands out and calls attention to itself.  But this kind of subtle twist can go a long way toward making a song stand up to repeated listening.  Average listener will probably not notice such a detail but if the length was more traditional 8 bars proper, it would also feel more predictable.  And predictable music gets tiring faster.

All these traits add to make a succinct but sublimely mysterious and evocative song that guitarists of all calibers enjoy to playing over it.   What’s memorable about this song is the chord progression, as Jimi Hendrix himself didn’t develop any memorable melody on top of it.  Even when he sings, it comes across as an embellishment or accompaniment to the beautiful set of chords.

A song whose foundation is interesting stand up to repeated listening.  And rhythm, chords and melody make up that foundation.  In this case, Jimi triumphed by focusing on the chords with a very artfully slight stretching applied to the overall length of the sequence.  You can explore these approaches with your song, too, and increase your creation’s chance to exude timeless charm.