By Pete Madsen
Some think of Robert Johnson as the man at the crossroads with hell hounds on his trail, but many know him as the pre-war blues artist who had a profound impact on generations of musicians. His licks, phrasing, and general guitar panache have provided Eric Clapton, John Hammond, and many others the tools for creating inspired blues solos and rhythms. In this lesson, I’ll take a look at some of the songs Johnson played in open tunings. The goal is not to play a particular song note-for-note, but to grab some of his melodic and rhythmic ideas and run with them in the context of a 12-bar blues.
Johnson actually played closer in pitch to open-A tuning, but since that might add too much tension to your guitar neck I’ll go a whole step lower with open G (D G D G B D). Ex. 1 demonstrates a common I–IV–V shuffle progression in the tuning. The standard treatment for the shuffle is to play two strings simultaneously, progressing from dyads containing the root and fifth (G and D) to the root and sixth (G and E) and root and seventh (G and F), with the consecutive eighth notes played not straight but long-short.
Johnson employed this style of bass-driven playing from time to time, but more often he would break up the sound. For instance, in Ex. 2, which is similar to a motif in his “Terraplane Blues,” the I chord sounds quite different. It still starts out with the low-bass sound courtesy of the fifth and fourth strings, but then jumps to the higher strings, hitting G-type chords.
In Ex. 3, play the IV chord by barring strings 1–4 at the fifth fret and grabbing the eighth-fret BH with your fourth finger, or if you’re wearing a slide, your third finger. Then, perform a rhythmic flourish by bouncing on and off the first three strings at the fifth fret and landing back down on the original chord. To get a clean sound, pick the notes with your thumb and fingers, rather than strumming with a pick. Ex. 4 is a cool riff, similar to “Terraplane.” It’s based on a compact G7 chord played on the top three strings. Beat 2 of this measure has more of a triplet feel. At the end of the bar, try a rake: drag your thumb or thumb pick down through the strings while palm-muting—keep your pick hand covering the strings near the bridge of the guitar to get a muffled sound—then pick string 2 with your index finger before bringing your thumb down heavily on the G-D dyad at beat 1 of the next measure.
Slide Guitar Technique
For the most part, Johnson used a slide sparsely, to punctuate phrases or reinforce vocal lines. A case in point is the pattern he played in “Walking Blues” (similar to Son House’s “Death Letter Blues”), which informs Ex. 5. This riff is based on a monotonic bass pattern. The slide plays the in-between notes on the “ands” of 1 and 2.
Typically, in open G tuning, the IV chord would be played at the fifth fret, but Johnson sometimes used his slide to play it at the eighth fret, with just the fifth (G) and flatted seventh (BH creating a nice tension in the sound—see Ex. 6. And when playing the V chord, Johnson would often just play the root note with the slide like in Ex. 7, which is inspired by “Crossroads.”
The 12th fret is prime real estate for some tasty slide work. Johnson used this position as home base for such melodic phrases, as in “Come on in My Kitchen,” or a rhythmic statement similar to that shown in Ex. 8. He might play a triplet-based multi-string lick—think “Crossroads” or “Dust My Broom”—then stop dead in his tracks with a fretted (no slide) note like the low G in this example. This choppy style of playing helps accentuate the rhythm.
Ex. 9 ends a phrase typical of a song like “Come on in My Kitchen.” This is a great lick that uses the fourth string to start off a bass-driven run culminating in the higher G note played at the fifth fret on the first string.
Master the Turnarounds
The turnaround is usually played in the last two measures of a 12-bar blues. Its purpose is to direct the music to return to the beginning of the progression, often via a phrase traveling from the I chord to the V chord. Johnson’s turnarounds were often little works of art in themselves.
Ex. 10 is a simple descending turnaround that uses the open third string as an every-other-note drone, pitted against notes on the fourth string that descend from G to D. Incidentally, you can play this exact same turnaround in standard tuning if you are in the key of G. Ex. 11 incorporates the sixth string to create a fuller sound. Use your bottleneck for the triple stop in the second measure.
The R.J. Way
This piece uses Robert Johnson–inspired licks to create a solo comprised of two 12-bar choruses. The first four bars alternate between a standard two-string shuffle rhythm and two rhythmic variations. The first variation is taken from Ex. 2. The second is my own idea using the flatted seventh (F) played on the fourth string and descending to the fifth (D). The C chord in the bar 5 uses the same fingering as Ex. 3 and then bar 6 brings the slide into play.
The slide stays busy in measures 7–10, with licks at the 12th fret over the G chord, and then single-string slide lines for the V and IV chords before the appearance of the turnaround—a variation on Ex. 10, with three string rolls instead of an every-other-note drone.
The second 12-bar chorus starts in bar 13 with a nod to the “Terraplane Blues” lick from Ex. 4. I’ve played around with the phrasing by creating more of a shuffle eighth-note feel in the treble voicing of the second measure, and then a backwards triplet roll in the bar 15. In bar 16 the bass drops out, allowing the punctuating single note lick to stand on its own. Moving to the IV chord in bar 17, let the bottleneck slide from one fret below the chord and use percussive “chucks” to create a bit of separation. Bar 19 returns to a single-note slide run at the 12th fret, using the 11th fret to create an evocative whine, like in “Come on in My Kitchen.” Play another single-note slide phrase similar to the one in the previous 12 bars for the V chord and then a three-string C7 voicing that descends chromatically down to a C triad at the fifth fret. Finally, use the bass-driven turnaround lick from Ex. 11 and finish off with a slide lick that ends on the flatted seventh (F).
Try creating your own licks and variations from these examples. A teacher once told me that when you are improvising and stuck for an idea, think, “What would so-and-so do?” Fill in so-and-so with the great players like Johnson, as well as Skip James, Big Bill Broonzy, and Blind Blake, and you’ll never be left wanting for ideas.
The tuning is D G D GB D.
Pete Madsen is a San Francisco Bay Area–based guitarist who specializes in acoustic blues, ragtime, and slide guitar. His books, including A Guide to Bottleneck Slide Guitar and Improvising and Variations for Fingerstyle Blues, are available at learnbluesguitarnow.com.