Jimi Hendrix's "All Along The Watchtower": An Esthetic Analysis


This essay was part of the final paper submitted for my CLUSTER 60 course, which earned a grade of A.

Barely seven months after one of the most iconic traditional folk artists of all time, Bob Dylan, released “All Along the Watchtower,” Jimi Hendrix completely revamped the original song, infusing it with a noticeably different energy—albeit maintaining every line in Dylan’s original version. With British magazine “Total Guitar” naming Hendrix’s cover as the greatest cover version of all time, it begs the question: since the songs are lyrically identical, which musical techniques boosted Hendrix’s cover to the top charts? When contrasted with Dylan's original version, one of the most distinct features of Hendrix's cover is that it is separated into "sections" of a journey. If both versions are analogized, Dylan's would be similar to a long car ride on the highway, consistently moving in one direction with a stable melancholic tone; Hendrix’s is a roller coaster ride, building suspense and thrill in certain parts while expressing forlorn and exasperation in others. Hendrix also ensures that each individual “section” is signposted clearly by a change in intensity and musical style. This paper provides an in-depth esthetic analysis on each of these individual chapters and identifies patterns of signification or imagery that listeners are enticed to perceive from the musical text.

Hendrix’s cover begins with the bass, drums, and the acoustic 12 string playing four chord loops, each lasting four seconds long and punctuated with a vibraslap on beat 4 of every bar. Despite the slight percussion variation after the second chord loop to lead in the electric guitar, the harmonic motion of each chord loop is exactly identical and they rotate in order. This static rotation paints an image of someone pacing back and forth in a small room, their next movements almost predictable as it is so repetitive. The addition of the vibraslap, producing a sharp echo, works astoundingly well to further clarify the image of being trapped in a room, giving listeners a sense of a loud sound reverberating in a small enclosure. When the electric guitar enters after two Chord Loops, the intensity increases, as if someone is starting to get frustrated with the endless repetition and is eager to jump out of the loop and do something different. Right before Verse 1, a spring reverb is used to create two repetitive notes, painting the image of the main character of a show slamming the table, standing up, and saying “this is it – I’m speaking up.”

On Verse 1, the band pulls back dynamically as the music gets less intense to make room for the vocals, cutting off the build-up right before the climax. Building on the connotative interpretation of the Intro, this anti-climatic sensation could be due to the diminishing excitement from the thought of escaping the current routine upon realization that it is difficult to escape the trap one is caged in. It is also interesting to note that at 0:10, the “clipping” of a guitar is used to produce the sound effect of a “cocking gun”. Here, a poietic perspective may suggest that this specific sound effect works together with the lyrics and the anti-climatic experience to indicate the frustration and confusion regarding the Vietnam War that 1960s listeners felt. While that remains a strong possibility, our esthetic analysis simply makes note of this sound event and the imagery that may be associated in the minds of a 1960s listener.

In the second verse, both the vocals and instruments start to get more intense. Although the chord loops are consistent with those in Verse 1, Hendrix starts Verse 2 on a “flat,” giving it a subtle Blues vibe that could be interpreted as a nod towards the song’s folk origins. This unconventional variation between the singing and the background instruments appears to be a desperate attempt to break free from the endless chord loops. To emphasize this effect, Hendrix uses different electric guitar notes to fill the gaps between lines of lyrics. This further introduces an element of unpredictability, to the point where listeners cannot establish a pattern to predict what is to come next. Another interesting perspective is to view the vocals themselves as sound events. In this verse, the word “businessmen”  is almost spit out in disdain. This brings an unprecedented element of angst and frustration to the verse to match the crescendo. In contrast, Dylan’s vocals are airily dragged out in each line, injecting the song with melancholy but leaning heavily on the explicit meaning of his lyrics to convey a sense of condemnation. 

As opposed to conventional guitar solos, which build themselves from below up to a climax at the end, Hendrix’s approach to the Bridge that trails Verse 2 is different in two ways. Firstly, he does not conform to the notion of demonstrating masterful guitar skills by fitting as many notes as possible in a single bar. Instead, he starts off each individual bar with a hanging note sustained by a spring reverb before entering a series of fast notes. These hanging notes, which punctuate the fast beats of the guitar solo, mimic the psychedelic effect for his listeners. In effect, one would stare at a spot to marvel at all the changing colors (hanging note) before turning their head, just to realize their vision is becoming blurred and the colors are mixing together due to the LSD (fast portions). Although the electric guitar notes are droning and not particularly rushed, Hendrix manages to pull it off and give his listeners a feeling of disorientation and derangeness. The second way which Hendrix opposes the conventional structure of a guitar solo is to start the Bridge on a high note, gradually bringing it even higher in the middle, but unexpectedly entering a rapid descent down the scale with fast notes towards the end. Here, it is evident that this unorthodox structure is a rebellion against conformity.

Following the Bridge’s sharp descent, Verse 3 starts on a high note, effectively raising the energy level of the song. Although this verse follows the structure of the previous two, the band is no longer making as much room for the vocals. Both the vocals and the instruments are high intensity, appearing to compete for attention within a restricted space. This fight for dominance is parallel to Hendrix’s insistence on defying orthodox structures in his musical performance, lending a sense of someone trying to break free from societal conventions that are caging them. Layering on the idea of anti-conformity, the vocals in this verse have ever more variation from the guitar notes. While the previous verses follow a fixed high-low-high-low pattern for the line endings, Verse 3 has no discernible patterns whatsoever. This gives Hendrix the musical freedom to infuse more emotions into Dylan’s lyrics. Hendrix enunciates certain words stronger such as “excited” and “joke,” but drags down the tone on words such as “fate” and “now”. Combined with vibrato effects fading these words out, Hendrix uses his vocals as an instrument to signify exasperation and hopelessness, further intensifying the narration for his listeners. 

Before Hendrix performs the Trip,  he mirrors Dylan’s significantly shorter guitar, tambourine and harmonica solo. Both of them build this section up in the minor key, which is commonly associated with gloom, darkness and foreboding. While Hendrix borrows heavily from the first Bridge’s hanging notes, he chooses to tread the conventional route of starting this guitar solo on a lower note and building up to a climax, dropping down the scale slightly at the very end. While Dylan transitions directly from this brief solo back to Verse 4, Hendrix was able to see how this lowering of notes and usage of the minor key is able to create suspense for his audience. Hence, he created the Trip—arguably the most famous guitar solo of all time—effectively tapping into the full potential of this Bridge to function as an interlude before the main event, preparing his audience’s body and mind for an impending spike in adrenaline. 

What follows is an iconic guitar solo that plays into the notion of “less is more”. Instead of going over the top by forcing his amplifier into overdrive to send his audience into a frenzy, he achieves an even more intense effect by doing the exact opposite. The band retracts significantly, with only the percussion playing a simple consistent beat while the electric guitar takes on the prominent role. By warping simple guitar notes with reverb and pitch bending, Hendrix successfully creates a sensory overload that is simultaneously disorienting and relaxing. The hanging notes here are in pairs of notes on opposite ends of the octaves, hypnotizing the listener into a side-to-side sway and creating a sense of floating in space. At 2:15, the trip is interrupted by a loud “hey” that works as a call-and-response for the entrance of the “wah-wah” pedal. The “hey” expertly simulates the effect of psychedelia kicking in, and the “wah-wah” sound is akin to the sonic distortion of being under the influence of psychedelia. In subtle ways, it builds on the sensation of hovering in an endless abyss while it creepily mocks your inability to control your senses. Right when the psychedelic effect seems too intense for the listener to handle, Hendrix marks the entrance into the transition by reducing the pitch bending and allowing the percussion to become more prominent. The pace quickens and the disorientation fades away, suggesting an illusionary leeway back to reality as the psychedelia wears out. The vibraslap is also re-introduced here and acts like a “sober pill,” shaking off any remaining derangement and building up the energy leading into Verse 4.

Right off the bat on Verse 4, Hendrix capitalizes on the momentum from the previous bridge to start the verse with a high energy. The vocals are at its peak in the first two lines, before evening out in the middle. However, the last four lines are significantly more intense and raspy as Hendrix practically shouts the lyrics. It is particularly worth noting how this verse no longer has elements of frustration or helplessness. Instead, listeners can perceive both excitement and liberation in Hendrix’s voice, as if through the psychedelic trip, he finally found the truth about what is happening, or perhaps how to escape the loop. In the final lines, Hendrix seems to be urging the listener to catch up to him and get “in the know”. There is a noticeable urgency in his voice as he mentions “wildcat did growl” and “wind began to howl”—almost as if he is warning the listeners to catch on quickly before danger befalls them. From the perspective of a 1960’s listener, Hendrix’s strained voice conveys concern about the US’ precarious position in the Vietnam War and how the government kept the public completely unaware of the truth.

The final bridge of the song starts with a series of repetitive notes before gradually climbing up the scale, repeating notes along the way. These repeated notes create an experience for the listener as if they were climbing up a long flight of winding stairs, presumably the watchtower’s. Hendrix also combines an increase of tempo of this bridge with pitch bending, giving an effect of “dropping the mic”—as if he just tore down the veil that blinded himself and others for so long. At 3:40 and 3:53, Hendrix faintly repeats the line “all along the watchtower,” as if he is urgently repeating a hint to the truth he has found and he needs to alert the world about it. The outro continues in the same tempo and general tone as the bridge, but abruptly fades in volume towards the end. These fading echoes seem to signify that there is more work to be done and that Hendrix would be back to finish the job.

In his 1974 album Before the Flood, Bob Dylan made a “more heavy-duty” arrangement of  “All Along the Watchtower,” essentially conceding that Hendrix had made the song his own (Stubbs 77). He described his reaction to hearing Hendrix's version in 1995: "It overwhelmed me, really…he could find things inside a song and vigorously develop them. He found things that other people wouldn't think of finding in there.” (“Fort-Lauderdale, Sun Sentinel Today 29/9/95”). Even though Hendrix did not make changes to a single line of Dylan’s original lyrics, he uses various sound objects to create a sonic landscape which immerses the listener into an experience that transcends words. While Dylan relied heavily on the literal meaning of the lyrics to convey his message, Hendrix is able to magnify the intended effect of the lyrics by effectively conjuring emotions of frustration, disorientation, and urgency in appropriate sections of the song—creating a timeless masterpiece of auditory experience that is appreciated across generations without reading between the lines.

Work Cited

Future Publishing. “The Best Cover Versions Ever.” Total Guitar, 2003, p. 1.

Stubbs, David. The Stories Behind Every Song. Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2003.

“Fort-Lauderdale, Sun Sentinel Today 29/9/95.” Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel, Sun Sentinel, 29 Sept. 1995, www.interferenza.net/bcs/interw/florida.htm.