By Tom Feldmann
It’s amazing that Robert Johnson is the most well-known figure in the history of the blues. He recorded only 29 songs from 1936 to 1937, but they have become rites of passage for many guitarists spanning all genres. The diversity and creativity that he has inspired is amazing, as is the simplicity of his approach. In fact, seven out of the 15 songs he recorded in standard tuning revolve around the same A-position form. These include classics like “Kindhearted Woman Blues,” “Phonograph Blues,” “Me and the Devil Blues,” “32-20 Blues,” and such lesser-known titles as “Dead Shrimp Blues,” “Little Queen of Spades,” and “Honeymoon Blues.”
For this lesson, I’ve written a Johnson-inspired blues in A major that teaches you the typical intro, walkdown, fills, verses, and guitar break used throughout his A-based songs. Variations are also included and can be found on the last page of the notation (scroll down for music examples).
In Section 1a, the I chord (A7) is in eighth position. Your fingering should be 2, 1, and 3 on strings 3, 2, and 1, respectively. This frees up your fourth finger for ornaments like the hammer-ons used during the guitar break of a subsequent section. Move the same shape down two frets, to seventh position, for the next measure. And for a variation, see Intro 2 at the end of the piece.
In Section 1b, you’ll find a classic walkdown. Bar strings 1 and 2 at the fifth fret with your fourth finger, and use your third, second, or first finger for the fourth-string bass run that takes you down to the V chord (E7) in the open position. Johnson had a cool variation on this move, decorating the A7 chord with pull-offs—see Walkdown 2, which follows Intro 2.
The verse progression is based on the standard 12-bar form: four bars of the I (A7), followed by two bars of the IV (D7); another two of the I; then one bar of the V (E7) and one bar of IV; and ending with the two-bar walkdown, which incorporates the I and V chords.
Verses 1, 3, and 4 begin with a fifth-position A7 chord, best fingered with your first, third, and second fingers on strings 4, 3, and 2. For the bass line, with its shuffle, you’ll be hitting strings 5 and 4 simultaneously. Palm-muting those strings will help you execute this rhythmic feel. If needed, play the shuffle bass over the chords before adding any embellishments.
Throughout, try fingering the open D7 chord using your thumb wrapped around the neck to fret string 6, and your second, first, and third fingers on strings 3, 2, and 1.
Alternatively, the chord can be played with your second finger fretting string 6 and your third, first, and fourth fingers on strings 3, 2, and 1. For added effect, snap the sixth string as you walk into the D7 chord by placing your thumb under the string and letting the string slip off.
For Fill 1, the I chord is centered on the fourth fret before moving back up to the fifth, leading into a first-string walkdown from frets 5 to 3 into the open A7 chord. Johnson appropriated this fill from the bluesman Scrapper Blackwell and made it his own trademark. In Fill 2, fret the fifth-fret A with your fourth finger and use your third finger to play the third-fret bends, nudging them slightly sharp.
The first three bars of Verse 2 are played like the intro. In the fourth bar, on beat 1, the A chord should be formed with your first finger barring strings 1 and 2 and your second finger on string 3. Johnson uses this pattern in “Little Queen of Spades” and “Honeymoon Blues.”
The second verse sees a new fill—Fill 3, which you’ll play similarly to Fill 1, but instead of the single-string walkdown to the open-position A7, you’ll stay put on the chord in fifth position.
Verse 3 comes from the third verse of “Kindhearted Woman Blues,” where Johnson sings: “Ain’t but the one thing / makes Mister Johnson drink / I’s worried ’bout how you treat me / baby I begin to think / Oh babe / my life don’t feel the same / You breaks my heart / when you call Mister So-and-So’s name.” Johnson also uses this third-verse variation in “Phonograph Blues” and “Dead Shrimp Blues.” This verse contains Fill 4, another homage to Blackwell, who used the lick in tunes like “Blue Day Blues” and “A Blues.”
The guitar break that precedes the third verse recycles many of the previous section’s materials. If you’ve learned the second verse and bars 5–6 of the third verse, then you should have no problem playing it.
As for Fill 5, remember to use your fourth finger for all of the hammer-ons.
The final verse is a repetition of the first verse. But don’t be afraid to diverge from what’s written here—there are many alternative possibilities inherent to the music. Put together your own arrangement with any elements from this lesson or other blues in A you might know.
Tom Feldmann has spent nearly 20 years studying and performing the Robert Johnson songbook. Feldmann’s verse-by-verse instructional series, The Guitar of Robert Johnson, is available through Stefan Grossman’s Guitar Workshop.