Between 1936 and ’37, bluesman Robert Johnson recorded 29 songs, unknowingly casting the mold for blues and rock guitar for decades to come. A good case in point is Johnson’s “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom” (1936), with its boogie and insistent triplet moves, which guitarist Elmore James later made into a blues standard. James’ 1951 electric slide version in turn inspired the powerhouse blues-rock band ZZ Top and countless others.
The notation here includes transcriptions of both the original Johnson and James versions. Johnson made frequent use of nonstandard tunings, and his recording is in what’s often labeled as Aadd9 tuning (low to high: E B E A C# E). To get there from standard, raise strings 2–5 a whole step each. (If you would prefer not to put the added tension on your guitar’s neck, you can simply tune strings 1 and 6 down by a whole step instead.
Johnson’s version is based loosely on a 12-bar blues in E. I say loosely, because in this unaccompanied setting the guitarist takes liberties with the form—for instance, subtracting two beats in bar 3 and adding one in measure 10. While I’ve notated just the first verse, note that in subsequent verses, there’s much improvisation in the details, so in learning the song, go more for the overall spirit than a note-for-note reading.
The piece is somewhat demanding of the fretting hand, with stretches as great as six frets. If you have smaller hands or if you find certain parts painful or impossible to play, you can easily find workarounds. For example, beginning in bar 7, you can sacrifice the fifth-position dyads in the bass and play the open A string instead. Whatever fingering you choose, don’t forget to shuffle the eighth notes—play them long-short, rather than evenly as written—and use a bit of palm muting (lightly rest your picking hand’s palm on the strings as you play) for a crisp rhythmic effect.
James’ 1951 version is truncated not just in name (“Dust My Broom”) but in form, four verses compared to Johnson’s six. It’s also in an entirely different tuning, open D. To get into D from standard, lower strings 1, 2, and 6 down a whole step, to D, A, and D, respectively, and string 3 down a half step, to F#. Though James recorded “Dust My Broom” on electric, it’s a great arrangement for a dobro, or really any kind of acoustic guitar—as long as the action will allow for a decent slide tone.
James’ opening slide part is one of the most recognizable and imitated riffs in blues and rock. It’s quite repetitive, so once you’ve got it down, you’ll have learned much of the song. Start by playing those eighth-note triplets—that’s three evenly spaced notes on each beat—all in downstrokes. On beat 4 of bar 1 and elsewhere, you’ll need to dart quickly between the C on string 1, fret 10 and the A on string 2, fret 12. Pay close attention to your intonation—target the notes directly above the fretwire, rather than between frets, as with conventional fretting-hand technique—but remember that capturing that almighty triplet groove is what’s most important here.
Due to copyright restrictions, we are unable to post notation or tablature for this musical work. If you have a digital or physical copy of the July/August 2019 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine, you will find the music on page 58.