Blues You Can Use - The Gypsy King: Billy Cox -

Blues You Can Use - The Gypsy King: Billy Cox

AS THE ANCHOR FOR JIMI HENDRIX’S BAND OF GYPSYS, BILLY COX HELD ONE OF THE MOST coveted slots in rock history—but the explorations of this famed trio never strayed too far from their roots in the blues.
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As the anchor for Jimi Hendrix's Band of Gypsys, Billy Cox held one of the most coveted slots in rock history—but the explorations of this famed trio never strayed too far from their roots in the blues. Born in Wheeling, West Virginia, Cox spent his high school years in the Pittsburgh area, gaining valuable early exposure to the city’s happening jazz scene. After graduation, Cox enlisted in the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division, where in 1961 he met a fellow serviceman named Jimi Hendrix. Jamming together at Fort Campbell, the pair established a musical relationship that would go beyond their imagination. After leaving the service, Billy and Jimi formed an R&B group called the King Kasuals and toured the Chitlin’ Circuit for several years before Hendrix decided to try his luck in New York City.

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In New York, Hendrix was discovered by former Animals bassist Chas Chandler, who brought him to England to start his legendary career with the Jimi Hendrix Experience. Oddly enough, Cox turned down the invitation to join Hendrix in the U.K., and the job went to Noel Redding. But by 1969, Hendrix grew weary of the constraints of showmanship and disbanded the Experience. He called his old pal Cox to join a short-lived group that included rhythm guitarist Larry Lee, former Experience drummer Mitch Mitchell, and two percussionists. This is the group that played Hendrix’s iconic closing set at Woodstock (where this month’s example was recorded), but the group soon morphed into a trio with drummer Buddy Miles. The Band Of Gypsys recorded their self-titled live album at a 1969 New Year’s Eve gig at the Fillmore East, but not long afterward, Miles vacated the drum chair and Mitch Mitchell returned. This trio played many shows until Hendrix’s untimely death in August 1970, leaving behind an unfinished studio album and hours of live recordings that have resurfaced over the years.

Let’s look at Cox’s approach on “Red House,” a smoldering 12-bar that was a staple of Hendrix’s later live shows. There are several recorded versions of this tune; the music shown here is based on Hendrix’s set at the Woodstock Music Festival. Cox most likely had his bass tuned down a half-step to match Hendrix, so this line would have been played as if it were in C. However, the range still fits on a standard-tuned instrument, so it’s written out as a blues in B.

Like most slow blues, this one is best written in 12/8 time, as it makes for less “ink” in each bar, but 12/8 also holds challenges for the intrepid reader. The first thing to remember is while the tune is felt as a slow 4/4, each quarter-note pulse is sub-divided into eighth-note triplets, as shown in Ex. 1. As written in 12/8 time, what you feel to be a quarter- note is actually three eighth-notes’ worth of space, so the dotted quarter-note is the proper rhythmic value for the main pulse (Ex. 2). This month’s line is similar to what Cox played during the last chorus of the tune, sometimes known as a shout chorus: It’s the big finish, and Cox is hitting the high notes, filling out the rhythm, and in general, taking it home. The rhythmic complexity of Ex. 3 looks pretty scary on paper, but like most rock and funk rhythms, it looks harder than it actually sounds. I’m sure you’ve heard this stuff before—it’s a classic implied double-time shuffle feel over a slow 12/8 blues. Piece of cake. At this slow tempo, eighth-notes seem like quarter-notes, and the 16ths sound like swung eighth-notes.

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The line relies heavily on the R–5–b7–8 box pattern, using the dramatic effect of the octave to create movement without straying from the root. Like many slow blues, the progression goes to a quick IV in bar 2, but in bar 3, Hendrix takes the I chord up a half-step to C7 for the second half, à la T-Bone Walker. Cox reacts late to the change, and gets there shortly after. But then he seems to change his mind and goes back down to B before the bar is over. In bar 5, he once again goes high rather than low, but the chunky G string on his 1968 Telecaster Bass punches through like a velvet sledgehammer—a helpful thing because at that moment, rhythmic ambiguity between the guitar and drum parts briefly creates a potentially dangerous cross-current. In bar 7, Hendrix jumps up a half step again, but this time Cox will have none of that; instead, he holds down the I chord, creating the perfect tension and release. In bar 8, he rips some quick 16th-note triplet rakes into a classic chromatic walkup from the 3rd of the I chord to the root of the V in bar 9, where the mighty Tele Bass roars again as Cox adds some more rakes at the apex of the final cadence. A quick stop on the downbeat of the IV chord (followed by an impassioned but slightly pitchy vocal declaration about what someone’s sister will do), into classic blues ending No. 1, and we’re outta here.

Billy Cox is still actively performing and recording. Check him out at


Jimi Hendrix, Woodstock [Polydor, 1994]