Mitch Mitchell: When Rock Drumming Became Complex

Mitch Mitchell

Jimi Hendrix was an undeniable genius. But beyond his revolutionary guitar playing and composing skills he further revealed his brilliance by hiring Mitch Mitchell and Noel Redding to back him up. Mitchell’s style of “lead drumming” was similar to Ginger Baker’s style in that it always demanded attention and was an integral ingredient in the material. Mitchell was also heavily influenced by jazz, which helped him stand out, as the songs might not have been as memorable or popular with a more conventional rock-drumming approach. It can easily be argued that Mitch Mitchell was one of the first jazz fusion drummers since he so successfully bridged the two styles of jazz and rock, using lots of rudimental sticking patterns while interacting with the music around him and refusing to play simple accompaniment. His contribution to the music and influence as a drummer was as great as any of his contemporaries. Here are some prime examples of his contributions to the drumming vocabulary.

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“Voodoo Chile” from Electric Ladyland

Mitchell plays a funky bass drum part that begins each measure alternating rhythms of 1 ah (2) & with 1 ah (2) e &. His hi-hat opening on the & of 2 remains constant. In the last two lines we see some of the interesting fills that show off his fast hands. The simple bass drum-and-hi-hat intro to the song seems perfectly normal after hearing it so many times, but it’s an unconventional approach to entering a song and is far more memorable than the choices many other drummers would have made.

DRUM! Notation Guide

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“Manic Depression” from Are You Experienced

Jimi Hendrix’s song about bipolar disorder may not accurately comply with the clinical description provided by the American Psychiatric Association, but it is a great tune in an unusual rock waltz style with a classic drum groove every drummer should know. The tune is in 3/4 with a churning triplet feel that could just as easily be transcribed in 9/8. Mitchell’s approach to playing this song is reminiscent of a lot of Elvin Jones’ jazz drumming.

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“Little Wing” from Axis: Bold As Love

This ballad burns. Countless musicians have covered this great song. And if you’ve ever struggled to find the beginning of the drum fill, this transcription should help. The areas of likely confusion center on deciphering where the guitar part begins and navigating the 6/4 bar leading into the fill. Counting definitely helps with this kind of intro. Mitchell plays a great fill in the fifth line. The rhythm is tricky, and figuring out a workable sticking may frustrate you. My best guess is that Mitchell’s sticking is R RlrrLR RlrrLR R R LR.

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“Crosstown Traffic” from Electric Ladyland

The over-the-bar-line three-over-four fill that starts this song is seen again just before the first verse, at the point this transcription begins. Mitchell plays a funky groove underneath quarter-notes played on his hi-hat. By keeping the hi-hat sparse he creates a little more syncopated tension in the groove than if had he played a more flowing eighth pattern.

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“Wait Until Tomorrow” from Axis: Bold As Love

This lesser-known song has five short drum breaks that are definitely worth checking out. These could have influenced jazz rock drummers that followed Mitchell, like Danny Seraphine of Chicago or Bobby Colomby of Blood, Sweat And Tears, since they sound like some of their drum breaks by making great use of triplets and offbeat syncopations. The second and third breaks are pretty similar but sound different because Mitchell starts them in different places. The last break is a linear pattern played with a RLF sticking repeated over and over.

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“Fire” from Are You Experienced

This track has it all — high energy, burning fills, and a really funky groove that could make James Brown smile. Mitchell always listens and rarely holds much back. The interplay between Mitchell and Hendrix still seems inspired and fresh after all these years.

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“Hey Joe” from Are You Experienced

Could a song be more politically incorrect? “Hey Joe, where you going with that gun in your hand?” Well, Joe’s on his way to murder his girlfriend for cheating on him, and then is going to escape to Mexico. While this is not the smartest caper ever planned, it does make for a pretty great song. It is complemented by Mitchell’s fiery playing, which starts small, but builds and builds with increasingly incredible fills. There’s a slight swing to the groove that makes it feel so perfect. The secret to the thirty-second-note fill at the end of the seventh line is that it’s played entirely with a paradiddle sticking.

DRUM! Notation Guide

To read a rare interview with Mitch Mitchell about the early days of the Jimi Hendrix Experience, go here