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Welcome to the BMS Listening Corner-GUITOBER EDITION!

Category: BMS NEWS BMS Listening Corner

In the BMS Listening Corner, faculty members of the Brookline Music School recommend active listening experiences for the community of Brookline Music School (from students, teachers, parents and friends of the greater BMS community) in order to encourage discussion and engagement with music that intrigues, excites, and educates the aspiring musician and music-lover.

In our Guitober Edition, cello faculty & friend of guitarists everywhere, Valerie Thompson, recommends a deep listening of Jimi Hendrix’s famous version of “The Star Spangled Banner” from his performance at Woodstock.  


Jimi Hendrix is considered one of the most influential electric guitarists of all time and one of the most celebrated American musicians of the 20th century.  He is well known for his creative use of overdrive, distortion and many of the “less desirable” sounds one could coax out of the feedback of a guitar amplifier.  He could make his guitar talk, sing, bellow, and scream.  His performance of the national anthem on August 18th, 1969 at Woodstock is a moving and masterful example of how he could bend, twist, and shape the sound of the guitar to express not only the melody of “The Star Spangled Banner” but to convey its lyrics and its complicated meaning to many citizens of the U.S. during the time of the Vietnam War.

First things first.  Before you dig into this truly electric performance of the “Star Spangled Banner” by Francis Scott Key & John Stafford Smith, sing thru the song:



Notice the striking images that are mentioned in the song. The lyrics describe the aftermath of a great battle with a lone flag standing unscathed and unharmed by the recent turmoil. There is a hope that with truth, righteousness, and determination the heroes will conquer their foes and that their bravery will be rewarded.

Make note of the contour (shape) of the melody. When does it go up? When does it go down? Now listen to Jimi’s version.

How does it compare to the versions the song you are more familiar with? Is it slower? Faster? When does he play his version of the melody simply? When does he use ornamentation? Jimi uses many interesting sounds to be expressive on the guitar. He uses ornaments that are not uncommon to classical instruments such as trills, vibrato, and slides but because of his heavy emphasis on the ornamentation and his use of effects like distortion, feedback and the whammy bar the ornaments sound very different than what you might think of when you hear them on the flute or violin.

Imagine an opera singer with a giant resonant voice singing this anthem. What does Jimi do to try and imitate the sounds of a robust singer? When you think of the traditional versions of “The Star Spangled Banner” can you identify moments where the melody seems to soar? What does Jimi do to bring that soaring feeling into his melody?

Can you hear where Jimi sticks closely to the melody? When does he seem to veer from it? Think about the words of the song when you hear Jimi move away from the melody. What do you think he is trying to do with his guitar playing in those moments? What picture is he trying to paint with his choices to move away from the melody? What does he do on the guitar to make those sounds?

Does he include any other melodies (or “musical quotes”) in his version of “The Star Spangled Banner?” If so, can you identify them and what they might mean?

Think about the traditional versions of “The Star Spangled Banner” you have heard and even sung. Would you say it ends on a hopeful and triumph note? How does Jimi’s version end?

When Jimi performed this version of the national anthem at Woodstock, the U.S. was a country rife with protest and the tumultuous repercussions of an unpopular and seemingly unending war. Some citizens felt alienated by the actions of the government but they still strongly identified with being a part of this country. Does Jimi’s performance sound like a protest? Is it a sound painting of the extremes of war? Do you hear pride or celebration? What other emotions and experiences do you hear in his performance?

It was a complicated time in U.S. history and Jimi Hendrix’s groundbreaking performance of “The Star Spangled Banner” was notable not just for the innovative way he approached playing the guitar but for the image-filled and intensely emotional expression he brought to the national anthem.

An example of additional listening:

Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture commemorates the defense of Russia against Napoleon’s invading army in 1812. What sounds of battle do you hear in the piece? What instruments make those sounds? Do you hear any of those similar sounds of battle in Jimi Hendrix’s version of “The Star Spangled Banner”? Are there melodies that sound triumphant in the 1812 Overture? Do they soar? How does that compare with any sounds of triumph you might have heard in Jimi’s playing? Do our heroes triumph at the end of the 1812 Overture? Did our heroes triumph in the end of Jimi’s version of “The Star Spangled Banner”?