Guitar Lesson: How to Play the Blues Like R.L. Burnside

If you like your blues with funky drive, listening to and learning Burnside’s riffs and licks will get your mojo working. Learn to play in his raw percussive style.

The late Mississippi Hill Country blues artist R.L. Burnside was relatively unknown until the 1990s, when he signed with Fat Possum Records and began touring both nationwide and in Europe. His sound was heavily influenced by his neighbor, Mississippi Fred McDowell, as well as contemporary blues artists of the day, like Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, and Lightnin’ Hopkins. Burnside’s raw single-chord-driven and percussive sound was emblematic of the groove-driven Hill-Country players.

If you like your blues with funky drive (think Gary Clark Jr.), listening and learning Burnside’s riffs and licks will get your mojo working. Make sure to check out Burnside’s playing on YouTube, or on his many recordings, where you will find some great examples of how he approached the music.

Illustration of R.L. Burnside rolling dice on the train tracks with an acoustic guitar slung over his back.

Open-G Grooves

Burnside played many of his tunes in open-G tuning (low to high: D G D G B D) with a funky vibe and percussive attack. Guitarists tend to gravitate toward his version of “Poor Black Mattie”—an infectious, single-chord groove that keeps the foot tapping.

Burnside relied heavily on single-chord grooves, and all of the examples in this lesson explore the possibilities of a single-chord groove in G. Ex. 1 is inspired by the main groove from “Poor Black Mattie.” The key to playing it is to nail the percussive “chucks”—like a rock drummer’s snare hits—on the second and fourth beat of each measure.


Burnside played fingerstyle, using mainly his thumb. To cop his sound in Ex. 1, use your thumb to brush the strings while simultaneously palm muting the bass strings—remember, allow your picking-hand palm to rest gently on the strings near the bridge. As for your fretting hand, play the notes on strings 1 and 2 with your first finger. 

Ex. 2 is a slight variation on the “Poor Black Mattie” groove, which, after a slide up from the first to the third fret, has your third finger reaching for the fifth fret, G. Both Exs. 1 and 2 are faster grooves—around 160 b.p.m.—and sound best played that way. It may take some time to nail these examples with the proper attack, but you should be able to get them grooving with a little practice.

In contrast, Ex. 3, similar to “Peach Tree Blues,”is a much slower groove at around 100 b.p.m. This relaxed tempo is an invitation to play a couple more notes—and that’s just what Burnside does. Slide on the second string with your third finger and play the fifth-fret notes with your first finger.

Ex. 4, inspired by “Skinny Woman,” is also a slower groove that emphasizes the bass notes. Burnside, a master of transitions, would often morph a pattern like Ex. 4 into a riff like Ex. 3, before moving into a percussive palm-muted section like Ex. 5. On beats 1 through 3 of Ex. 5, use a down/down/up strumming pattern—your thumb on the downstrokes and your index finger on the upstrokes—while palm muting.

You can hear a John Lee Hooker influence in Ex. 6, which takes its cue from “Jumper on the Line.” Burnside plays a boogie-style groove in his own percussive fashion. Check the notation for proper strum direction—again, use your thumb for the downward strums and your index finger for the upward strums.

Another great slow groove is “Rollin’ and Tumblin’,” which Burnside may have picked up from McDowell. For slide, Burnside placed the bottleneck on his ring finger. The syncopation of the slide phrases in Ex. 7 is important. The first slide of the double stop on strings 3 and 4 is a little longer than the other slide notes. It gets a full eighth note, as opposed to a triplet eighth, so be sure to elongate the first slide double stop. 


In Ex. 8, insert the opening phrase from “Rollin’ and Tumblin’”: a double-stop played on the first and second strings, which then transitions to the midrange groove from Ex. 7. Keep your slide low and evenly angled over both strings, as it’s easy to misgauge your slide angle and not make good contact with the strings.

Now Put It All Together

In my original composition “Burnside’s Brush” (Ex. 9), I borrow some of Burnside’s licks and phrasing, while keeping the groove going strong. I wanted the transitions to sound natural, in keeping with Burnside’s seamlessness.

Start off with the pattern from “Peach Tree Blues,” keeping a slow and even pace. Play the slide notes with your third finger, not the bottleneck. In bar 4, bring in the bottleneck to play a phrase similar to the bass-driven “Skinny Woman” lick, but with a triplet bass/treble/bass snap to punctuate the line. Use your thumb on the sixth string and grab the first and second strings with your middle and ring fingers, respectively.

After repeating the first six bars, climb up the neck a little to create a phrase that can either be interpreted as an extension of the I chord (G) or as a move toward the IV chord (C). It might be a bit of a stretch, but use your third finger to reach up to the eighth fret.


In the next section, starting in bar 13, play a percussive/palm-muted triplet-based phrase that is punctuated by the same slide line from the second section. Then, perform a series of double-stops on the third and fourth strings that are similar to the groove from “Rollin’ and Tumblin.’” Keep your slide tilted inward to get good contact with strings 3 and 4.

If you’re a fan of R.L. Burnside, then you’re already familiar with his strong rhythmic prowess. His picking-hand dynamics are equally important, and you can learn to copy them through careful listening. But most important, always remember to tap your foot and stay in the groove!

How to Play the Blues Like R.L. Burnside guitar lesson musical notation examples 1–8
How to Play the Blues Like R.L. Burnside guitar lesson musical notation example 9

learn to play the blues on acoustic guitar
Pete Madsen
Pete Madsen

Pete Madsen is an acoustic blues, ragtime and slide guitarist from the San Francisco Bay Area. He's the author of Play the Blues Like..., an essential guide for playing fingerstyle blues in open tunings.

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  1. I want to say thanks to Pete Madsen for this video and written instructional piece. While I am officially pre-novice (i.e., I’m in my 50’s and never learned guitar or any instrument), I am thinking about learning guitar and therefore have been listening to videos. R.L Burnside really resonates with me for some reason (I’m from Michigan but apparently Mississippi is in my soul somewhere), and I was glad to have come across this video and hear Pete describe how he played his distinctive style. I actually understood, visually and by ear, what you were sharing, so thank you for making it feel accessible (even appreciating it is a great feeling, regardless of whether I am personally playing it).