Video Lesson: How to Play the Blues Like Skip James

Capturing the haunting, emotive quality of Skip James' music is a challenge. Learn to get into open-D-minor tuning and explore his evocative music.

One of the most memorable scenes from the 2001 dark comedy Ghost World is one in which the protagonist, Enid, played by Thora Birch, listens to a vinyl recording of Skip James’ “Devil Got My Woman.” The alienation of the suburban teen is reflected in this haunting song.

Nehemiah “Skip” James (1902–1969) grew up on the Woodbine plantation near Bentonia, Mississippi. His early recordings, such as “Devil Got My Woman,” “I’m So Glad,” and “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues,” all released in 1931, echoed the stark and harsh conditions of Depression-era life. The economic strife of the time led to poor record sales, and James was forced to relocate to Dallas, where he became a preacher.

In 1964 a group of blues revivalists, including the fingerstyle guitarist and composer John Fahey, traveled to Mississippi, where they found James lying sick in a hospital. With the help of Fahey and friends, James was able to perform and record until his death, in 1969. Thanks to notable performances at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival and the release of an album, Greatest of the Delta Blues Singers, James captured a new audience hungry to hear his evocative music.

James’ work is characterized by haunting themes, due in no small part to the use of open-D-minor tuning (low to high: D A D F A D). The guitarist picked up this tuning from a fellow Mississippi musician, Henry Stuckey, who had learned it from Caribbean soldiers while serving in France during World War I.


James used open D minor to create insistently repeating musical motifs, often based on just one or two chords, for hypnotic effect. I find his music challenging—not owing to any technical difficulties it presents, but because it’s hard to capture the emotive quality of the milieu in which he worked. James’ music always haunts me as I strive to articulate and understand it.

‘Devil Got My Woman’

If you’re familiar with open-D tuning (D A D FG A D), then it’s very easy to get into D minor: simply lower string 3 down a half step, to F. In general, as you tackle these examples, it’s best to dedicate your picking hand’s thumb to the bottom three strings and your index and middle fingers to the higher strings.

Once you’re in open D-minor, try Example 1, which is similar to the introduction to “Devil Got My Woman.” James often used descending patterns like this, in which double stops are anchored by a steady bass pattern, to set up his verses. Your best bet is to play this example with your first and second fingers on strings 2 and 3, respectively.

Example 2 is patterned after a move further along in the intro to “Devil Got My Woman,” where James skips strings and dispenses with the bass notes to give the triplet-based line a little more urgency. You can bar this figure with your first finger and use your third finger to grab that ninth-fret B.

For the verse of the same song, James shifts to an A minor chord, similar to the first two bars of Example 3, before moving back to D minor. Note that the second two bars provide an instrumental response to the vocal’s call.

Example 4 is similar to the ending of “Devil Got My Woman” and is a relatively cheery departure from the rest of the song. Play this by barring the first three strings with your first finger. Pay attention to the triplet feel and syncopation. 


‘Hard Time Killing Floor Blues’

Example 5 is inspired by the introduction to “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues.” Notice how the time signature—12/8, or 12 eighth notes to the bar—emphasizes the triplet feel and slow tempo of the song. If you have trouble understanding this meter, think of the first measure of the example as a shuffle, where the quarter note followed by the eighth note is one beat. The count is “One and, two and, three and, four,” or long-short-long-short-long, etc. The dotted-quarter bass note in the second measure represents a full beat. The final three notes in measure 2 flow into the song’s verse.

Underneath the main vocal line, James plays a pattern similar to Example 6. Again, getting the rhythm and feel for this passage is the most important thing. Look at each measure as combinations of triplets and shuffle, and you’ll be on the right track. For instance, in the first measure, each group of three notes represents one beat.

Example 7 is a repeating phrase, similar to one under which James hums and moans in “Hard Time Killing Floor.” The hypnotic effect on the original recording is practically unmatched on any other blues track of the era. To play the phrase, I recommend using your first finger on all of the third-string notes.

‘Bad Times Coming’

I’ve compiled this lesson’s examples in an original piece I call “Bad Times Coming” (Example 8), which starts off with the “Devil Got My Woman” lick from Ex. 1. The fourth measure’s phrase is similar to Ex. 2, but with a little more melodic movement on the second string. Use your first finger to bar the top three strings and a combination of your second, third, and fourth fingers to play the notes on string 2.


The phrase in measures 7–9 is all about the descending figure played on the second string with the open sixth and first strings surrounding it. Make sure to let the open strings ring to get an appropriately spooky sound. The last four bars of “Bad Times Coming” return to this phrase, but fleshed out with octaves between strings 2 and 5. Play the six-note chord on the first beat of each measure with a downward brush of your thumb.

As always, I recommend supplementing this lesson with a heavy dose of listening to the original recordings and internalizing the sounds and rhythms before sitting down to play. It’s not necessarily a happy road, but it’s a rewarding one.

Musical examples 1 through 7 in standard notation and TAB to accompany this lesson on how to play acoustic guitar like Skip James.
Musical example 8 in standard notation and TAB to accompany this lesson on how to play acoustic guitar like Skip James.

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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