Little Wing Analysis
Analysis coursework on ‘Little Wing’ From the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s 1967 album “Axis: Bold as Love”, Little Wing has arguably become one of their most celebrated songs, and can perhaps be said to be Hendrix’s most endearing ‘ballad’. This essay will attempt to analyse how aspects of the music have given it such an admirably distinct character.
The sound is somewhat determined by the ‘rock trio’ instrumentation, and the most defining aspect is arguably Hendrix’s guitar playing.Hendrix’s guitar was tuned a semitone down for the recording, and this had the effect of creating a denser tone than would be produced normally, and made certain guitar techniques easier. Through this and other sound-shaping processes, such as assumedly choosing his Stratocaster’s neck or middle pickup to give a ‘warm’ tone, keeping the sound ‘clean’, and using the ‘Octavia’ effects pedal [Brown 1997: 163; Sievert 1989], Hendrix produced a rich tone for the rhythm guitar part.The Leslie Speaker [Brown 1997: 160,163; Kramer ; McDermott 1992] that Jimi ran both his guitar [Ogunjobi 2008: 110, 111] and voice through has a prominent effect upon the mix, more obviously upon the vocals. The voice mostly sounds in front of the listener in the stereo image, but the speaker makes a part of the signal flicker to the right.
In conjunction with a slight phasing [Brown 1997: 163; Kramer ; McDermott 1992] of the signal, the split vocal sounds slightly out of time with itself, and the overall effect gives the voice a delicate, ethereal quality, which is complimented by the timbre of the glockenspiel.The tonal centre of the song is eb, and the form is five repetitions of the same harmonic structure, with the last repetition fading out after four bars. The opening cycle is just guitar and glockenspiel, until a drum fill in bar 10 signifies the approach of verse 1. This contrasts with Sting’s and Derek and the Dominoes’ versions, which fade in straight to a verse and begin with a full-band riff respectively. In verse 1, the bass and vocals are added to the texture, which remains the same for two verses.The fourth cycle, which is a guitar solo, is anticipated by a ‘dive bomb’ using the guitar’s tremolo arm, and introduces a lead guitar part over the original rhythm part, which now mostly strums the changes.
The fifth cycle continues the solo until the fade out. For most of the song there is a 4/4 feel, yet come the 8-9th bars of each cycle the beat becomes harder to trace. As the Cb at that point lasts for only two beats, it seems that bar 8 is in 2/4, and that bar 9 then returns to 4/4, showing an instance of harmonic rhythm dictating metric feel.The chord progression is as follows: eb, Gb, ab, eb-7, bb, A, ab, Cb, Gb, Fb, Cb, and Db. The A and Fb are not diatonic to the key of eb minor, and whilst A is a passing chord between bb and ab, the Fb seems more structurally significant.
Because of this, Brown  states “the intermediary chords arise from contrapuntal motion between the V chord in measure 5 and the VII chord in measures 9-10,” suggesting that the chords between bb and Db are not of much structural importance.However, if these chords were omitted, the harmonic character of the song would become so different that it seems they cannot be merely decorative. It is perhaps more apt to consider bars 6-8 (or just 6-7) as being in the subdominant, ab minor – as all the chords within these bars are diatonic to it – and that bars 9 (or 8) to 10 return to the tonic key. The melody is decorative throughout, featuring mordents, double stops, and come the solo, pitch bends.In cycle 1, the guitar melody outlines the chord changes by beginning each bar with a bass root note, doubled by the glockenspiel.
The melody seemingly alters the harmony in cycle one from what is described above. For instance, the first bar of the other cycles is simply eb, but the phrases on the last two beats of bar 1 suggest Gb and ab, leading the melody convincingly into the Gb phrases of the next bar. In bar 2, rather than simply being Gb, the hammer-on to and repeated striking of B on the 3rd and 4th beats suggests Gbsus4.Bar 5 has a C in the top voice, evoking bbadd9, which makes this the first non-diatonic phrase in the song. The ending of the double-stop phrase with Eb and Gb in bar 6 suggests, along with the Cb from the ab chord, Cb/Eb. In bar seven, starting on beat 2, descending parallel 5ths imply abmadd9, Gbadd9, and Fbadd9.
Yet another 9th is used to colour the following Cb, and another double stop phrase ends the opening guitar section with Db/F of first beat of bar 10. The extensive effects, psychedelic lyrics, and extended solo perhaps make the song seem typical of acid rock.Yet it is significant that the effects are conservative compared to other songs on the album – rather than seeming alien and surreal, they highlight a delicate quality. What’s more, the subject matter is more understandable than other songs of the time, as it is trying to communicate an emotional experience. And lastly, it is the juxtaposition of the raw solo with the delicate, decorative rhythm guitar that is poignant, as both tenderness [Brown 1997: 163] and passion are evoked.
The culmination of these things is the essence of the song – an invocation of the feelings Hendrix experienced playing at the Monterey Pop Festival put “in the form of a girl”[Brown & Hendrix 1994: 70] – a sense of communal intimacy encapsulated in an image of desire and affection. Through the combination of the constituent parts of the music, Hendrix tries to communicate the feelings he had as a universal message. Which is apt when one considers it was released in the year of the “Summer of Love”.