The Music Theory Behind the Hendrix Chord, and How to Play It

There have been few, if any, guitarists in history as talented as Jimi Hendrix. While his career was short-lived (he died in September of 1970, just over three years after the release of his first album), his influence on music was monumental.

In addition to popularizing the use of the thumb in barre chords and using special effects in a way that had never before been seen, Hendrix introduced his listeners to what became known as the “Hendrix chord.”

While Hendrix wasn’t the first guitarist to use this chord, it has become irrevocably associated with him and his music. In this article we’ll look into the music theory behind this famous chord and see how to play it in several different shapes.

What is the Hendrix chord?

The technical name for this chord is a Dominant 7#9 (read “dominant seventh sharp ninth” or “seven sharp nine” for short).

As its name suggests, the 7#9 uses the dominant seventh chord as its base. In addition, it tacks on a sharp ninth (a ninth raised a semitone) to create a funky, dissonant sound.

This means that, in relation to the root note, a 7#9 chord consists of a major third, perfect fifth, minor seventh, and augmented ninth.

In Hendrix’s case, it was usually played as an E7#9, meaning E was the root note.

While Jimi Hendrix most famously used the 7#9 in Purple Haze, it’s also found in Foxy Lady. Notable uses by other artists include Led Zeppelin’s The Lemon Song, Cream’s I Feel Free, and the Beatles’ Taxman

A series of E7#9 Chords found in Purple Haze

Building a 7#9 Chord Example: E7#9

To find the notes in any Hendrix Chord, simply build a Dominant Seventh chord on the root note and add a sharp ninth (one octave above a sharp/augmented second).

When building a 7#9 chord on E (Hendrix’s favorite variation), we’ll first take the notes of an E7 chord:

E, G#, B, and D

Now, we’ll simply add a sharp ninth. The easiest way to find this, as previously mentioned, is to take the sharp second and add an octave to that.

In E, a sharp second is G natural. Thus, our completed E Hendrix chord features the notes E, G#, B, D, and G.

E7#9 Hendrix Chord on Musical Staff
An E7#9 chord on the musical staff

As you may have noticed, a sharp ninth (the G in the above example) gives us what’s essentially a minor third shifted up an octave (a minor third is enharmonic with an augmented second).

In other words, in this chord we have both a major and a minor third (G# and G). This is what gives the Hendrix chord its paradoxically pleasing dissonance.

How to play the Hendrix chord (shapes)

There are two primary ways to play a 7#9. Jimi Hendrix typically played it the first way, as an open chord, while it can also be played in a unique shape that utilizes a pinky-barre.

Shape 1: E7#9 Open

E7#9 chord diagram

This was Hendrix’s favorite way to play the chord; it’s the shape used in Purple Haze. To play it this way, fret:

  • The 6th-fret D string with your index finger
  • The 7th-fret A string with your middle finger
  • The 7th-fret G string with your ring finger
  • The 8th-fret B string with your pinky

In this variation of the chord, you can strum all of the strings.

This shape is also moveable. It can be played anywhere on the fretboard, as long as you only strum the middle four strings. So, for instance, to play a C7#9, you could move this shape down to where your third and fourth fingers are on the third fret.

Shape 2: Pinky Barre

7#9 chord moveable

Alternatively, you can play a Hendrix chord using this moveable shape spanning the bottom four strings. It won’t have the same robust sound as the full E7#9 shape, but it sounds similar to that shape without the bottom and top strings.

To play this shape, fret:

  • The first-fret G string with your index finger
  • The second-fret D string with your middle finger

Now, barre the bottom two strings of the third fret with your pinky.

You can use this shape anywhere on the neck and you’ll get the same relative sound.

Garrison Bates
Garrison Bates loves music. He started playing and learning piano at age four and guitar at eleven. He began studying music theory when he was young and especially enjoys rock 'n' roll, old country, and folk music.
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