From the January 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar | BY PETE MADSEN
Tampa Red (1904–1981), born Hudson Woodbridge, in Smithville, Georgia, and raised as Hudson Whittaker by his grandmother, was one of the most popular bluesmen of the late 1920s and ’30s. Sometimes billed as the “Guitar Wizard,” he recorded over 250 songs between 1928 and 1942 and is known for his single-note bottleneck slide lines played on a National tricone resonator guitar.
After developing his guitar technique, Tampa Red moved to Chicago, where he got his big break by teaming up with singer Ma Rainey on several sessions. These dates led to a lasting musical partnership with Rainey’s music director and pianist, Thomas Dorsey.
In 1928, Tampa Red and Dorsey recorded the hit song “It’s Tight Like That,” which helped launch the 1920s fad for hokum—a humorous style of blues filled with double entendres. The pair continued to work together until 1932, recording a total of 90 songs. After that, Tampa’s output slowed a bit, but he continued to play on sessions with Sonny Boy Williamson, Big Maceo, Memphis Minnie, and others.
Tampa Red was one of the first blues musicians to play a resonator guitar. He was sometimes billed as “The Man with the Gold Guitar,” based on his chosen instrument, a National Style 4 with gold plating. His fingerpicked style was clean and precise. Even on recordings from the 1920s, which can have notoriously bad audio fidelity, you can hear his phrasing very well.
If you’re playing slide on a guitar with low action and/or light-gauge strings, you might have difficulty getting a satisfying tone when working through this lesson. Try some heavier strings—ideally, on a resonator—and you will get the best feel for Tampa Red’s refined sound.
Tampa Red played mostly in open-D (low to high: D A D F# A D) and open-E (E B E G# B E) tunings, using a capo to change keys. In this lesson, we’ll focus mostly on moves inspired by two of his instrumentals in open D, “Denver Blues” and “Boogie Woogie Dance.” These little masterpieces provide a good representation of Tampa’s bottleneck slide style.
Examples 1–3 represent the first four measures of three different verses from “Denver Blues,” which was originally recorded in open-E. To simplify things, I have written this lesson entirely in open D. Everything is, of course, playable in either tuning, as the strings share the same intervallic relationship.
Rather than grounding his fingerstyle playing in a repetitive alternating bass pattern like Big Bill Broonzy or Mississippi John Hurt, Tampa intertwined the bass and treble voices more like Blind Blake or Reverend Gary Davis, employing a dance-like approach where the two voices would step back and forth with rhythmic emphasis.
The single-note slide phrases in these examples are mostly played on the first string. Make sure to keep your slide held low, so that it doesn’t interfere with the open-string bass notes. By the way, Tampa Red wore his slide on his fourth finger. He also used a short slide, rather than one long enough to cover all the strings.
Example 1 introduces slide phrases that mostly follow the D major pentatonic scale (D E F# A B). Notice in measure 3 the triplet-based phrase that descends the string. Pick this run with your thumb and index fingers.
Taking its cue from the second verse of “Denver Blues,” Example 2 reorders the phrase a bit, laying out another triplet-based run that hammers down on the fourth-fret F# then jumps up to the 12th fret. Practice this move slowly, until you can play it with precision, gradually edging up the tempo.
Example 3 ups the slide quotient while laying down a steadier bass pattern, played on the downbeat of the first three measures, to help ground you. Looking at notation while playing slide can be very challenging. For proper intonation, focus more on watching where your slide lands than the notes on the paper. Listen to these phrases closely and try to sing them before attempting to play them.
Tampa Red’s shift to the IV chord was sometimes well-disguised—see Example 4, also inspired by “Denver Blues.” In this two-bar section, there’s not much harmonic information to indicate a shift to the G chord, save for the double-stop on beat 3 of bar 1. Of course, you don’t necessarily need to hear the chord when auditory expectation has already mentally shifted your attention to it.
Example 5 is a turnaround similar to what Blind Blake would play in a tune like “Police Dog Blues.” The phrase starts off on the D chord, then moves through G with a nifty triplet run in the bass. Then, there’s a brief reset of the fretting fingers as you “stumble” through an A7 chord. I particularly like this broken-chord sound because the harmonic development is stretched out over an entire measure.
Taken at a faster tempo, Examples 6–8 are similar to Tampa’s “Boogie Woogie Dance.” Example 6 imitates the central groove of the song, a bit of a choppy sound with the interplay between bass and treble forming the dance on the I chord (D). The IV chord (G) comes into play in Example 7, similar to phrases Big Bill Broonzy played in songs like “Pig Meat Strut.” The melody, which is played on beats 2 and 3 in the first measure, is pushed forward and played on beats 1 and 2 in the second measure. This creates an urgency that keeps things cruising along.
Based on the last four measures of a 12-bar blues, Example 8 has a slick move starting on the V chord (A) and descending to the I (D). The chord grip in the first bar of this example is typical of an A chord voicing in D tuning—fingers 2, 1, and 3 on strings 4, 3, and 2, respectively. In the second measure, move this shape up two frets and place your third finger on string 1, then descend one fret. After that, play a series of descending octaves, culminating in a move back to D.
Example 9 is an imagined verse for “Boogie Woogie Dance.” It blends single-string slide ideas over the I chord (similar to “Denver Blues”) with chordal ideas for the IV and V chords. The song is anchored by a predominantly alternating bass line, with slide notes played on the first string. If you’ve mastered the slide phrases from the first three examples, you shouldn’t have any problem with the first four bars of this example.
For the G chord in measure 5, use your third finger to play the descending melody on the first string. (Note: I have seen guitarist Toby Walker play this song with the slide on his third finger and use his fourth finger for melody.) In the descent from the A chord, I have given some picking-hand directions for a roll—remember: p = thumb, m = middle finger, and i = index. Strive to play these flourishes cleanly and with precision—again, hallmarks of Tampa Red’s seminal style.
Pete Madsen is a San Francisco Bay Area–based guitarist, author, and educator who specializes in acoustic blues, ragtime, and slide guitar.
This article originally appeared in the January 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.