August 16, 2018 marks the 80th anniversary of Robert Johnson’s death at age 27. In his short time as a recording artist, from 1936 to 1937, the legendary blues guitarist, singer, and songwriter committed 29 songs to wax—recordings that placed Johnson in the highest echelon of American musicians, and which have been studied compulsively by blues guitarists for decades.
“Hell Hound on My Trail” (sometimes spelled “Hellhound on My Trail”) was recorded in Dallas during Johnson’s final recording session, June 20, 1937, and is one of his most popular recordings. The song is in open E minor; to get into this tuning, raise your fourth and fifth strings a whole step, to B and E, respectively, so your guitar is tuned E B E G B E (low to high).
Johnson’s accompaniment on “Hell Hound” is built on two main ideas. He starts each verse with major thirds on the top string pair, loosely following the contour of a vocal line. The lower string is bent slightly throughout, for a crying sound. Worry less about nailing the notes than capturing the overall effect here.
The second idea is a kind of turnaround that appears throughout the verses, in which Johnson pairs descending fretted notes on string 5 with ringing open strings, etching out a basic progression of E7–C#m–C. When Johnson includes the open B string on the last two chords, C#m7 and Cmaj7 are formed. It’s unlikely that Johnson was going for jazz chords, but these moments give the song a stark and unexpected sound.
Even more surprising are the fleeting dissonances here and there—for instance in bar 23, on beat 1, the open E string rubs against the sixth-fret F in a jarring way, as do the fourth-fret D# and the open fourth string (E) on beat 1 of bar 38. A method book won’t advise you to make note choices like this, but such moments lend an uncanny quality to the music.
This article originally appeared in the December 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine. Please order a copy to access the music notation for this song.