Introducing Hard Rock

Essential Question

In what ways did Jimi Hendrix help create a new "Hard Rock" sound while retaining a connection to the Blues and R&B of his past?


Ray Davies wrote “You Really Got Me” on the piano in the front room of the Davies family home, stabbing out that insistent two-chord riff in two-finger chords. His guitarist brother Dave, at 17 five years Ray’s junior, transferred the riff to guitar, playing it through a tiny, battered 5-watt amp, its natural propensity for distortion when cranked to the max exaggerated by the holes Dave had poked into the speaker’s cone with a knitting needle.

— Charles Shaar Murray on Hard Rock

Hard Rock didn’t emerge as something cohesive, something planned, or something immediately obvious in its musical-historical importance. As the epigraph above suggests, it began with something as unlikely as a knitting needle in a speaker cone. Only in retrospect did it appear that significant events had taken place that together led to something deserving of a name. And the name it got was “Hard Rock.” By that time, however, the Kinks, widely celebrated as having given the movement its birth moment with “You Really Got Me,” were exploring other musical territories. They may have set things off, followed by the Who with “I Can’t Explain,” but another group represents Hard Rock’s dramatic entrance better than either of those British acts: the Jimi Hendrix Experience.

This lesson presents Jimi Hendrix and his band as a Hard Rock case study. In contrast to British groups like Cream (which featured Eric Clapton, a former member of both John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and the Yardbirds, on guitar) and Led Zeppelin (featuring former Yardbird Jimmy Page), Hendrix came out of the American Rhythm and Blues scene. But as a member of that scene, he was not a solo artist or a celebrated member of a group (as were Clapton and Page) — he was as true sideman, in the shadows. Hendrix, then Jimmy James, played guitar for the Isley Brothers, King Curtis, and Little Richard, among others.

Importantly, though Hendrix’s later style would go well beyond what he did as an R&B sideman, he would always retain a little of his musical past in the rhythmic approach he took to “lead” guitar. In a song like “The Wind Cries Mary,” one can hear a rhythm guitar player raised on Soul and R&B, no matter that the guitar is featured, front and center, in a way that would be unusual on a Soul or R&B recording.

This lesson will consider the manner in which Hard Rock pushed overdriven, distorted guitar to the front. It will contrast an R&B style, often driven by keyboards and horn sections, with Hendrix’s “Purple Haze,” where the guitar takes center stage, with only drums and bass as accompaniment. The lesson will also explore the way Hendrix was received — not as a journeyman from the world of R&B, but as a phenomenon that seemed to arrive as if from nowhere.

Written in 1966, Peter Jones’ featured review (linked to on the chapter home page) puts it thus: “NOW hear this — and kindly hear it good! Are you one of the fans who think there’s nothing much new happening on the pop scene? Right… then we want to bring your attention to a new artist, a new star-in-the-making, who we predict is going to whirl round the business like a tornado. Name: Jimi Hendrix. Occupation: Guitarist-singer-composer-showman-dervish-original. His group, just three-strong: The Jimi Hendrix Experience.” From the writer’s position in 1966, it all looked new. But like all musicians, Hendrix came from somewhere. This micro lesson looks into the situation, exploring both the artist’s musical past and his ultimate place of arrival in the emerging Hard Rock scene.

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Upon completion of this lesson, students will:

  1. Know (knowledge):
    • The importance of Jimi Hendrix as an innovator in the emerging Hard Rock scene of the mid-1960s
    • The guitarist’s past as a sideman for Little Richard, the Isley Brothers, and King Curtis, and the influence of that past on his Hard Rock recording
  2. Be able to (skills):
    • Extrapolate arguments about music by assessing sound, mood, tone, instrumentation
    • Draw connections among various print, audio and visual texts
    • Write creatively for personal and/or small group expression
    • Compare and contrast texts, arguments and ideas
    • Common Core: Students will closely read a music review and analyze word choice (CCSS Reading 4; CCSS Reading 6; CCSS Language 3) and compare the review to videos of music performances (CCSS Speaking and Listening 2; CCSS Speaking and Listening 3)
    • ​Common Core: Students will edit the review and incorporate and support their own arguments (CCSS Writing 5) and/or students will conduct a short research project (CCSS Writing 7)