Play Like Mississippi John Hurt: Steve James, Happy Traum, and John Sebastian Show You How

Although John Hurt’s style and repertoire are often imitated, his guitar sound is hard to duplicate. In this lesson, Steve James teaches you how to play like Mississippi John Hurt.

Although John Hurt’s style and repertoire are often imitated, his guitar sound is hard to duplicate. He picked with his thumb, index, and middle fingers, bracing his ring and little finger lightly on the face in front of the treble foot of the bridge. He wore no thumb or fingerpicks, producing a clear, bell-like tone with a combination of nail and what must have been some very well developed callouses.

The strength of Hurt’s hands and arms is a matter of record (as in oft-told arm-wrestling vignettes from the Gaslight), but he never overworked his instrument. Playing downstrokes with a hyperextended thumb and all upstrokes with evenly flexed fingers, he made judicious use of palm muting, usually opting for a wide-open, ringing sound. He often thumbed double- stops or chords on the low strings to emphasize the backbeats and to add harmonic color, and his control of individual string dynamics and chord overtones was remarkable.

The near metronomic tempo of the alternating bass lines that framed most of Hurt’s arrangements is given additional drive by his subtle feel for playing slightly behind the back beats. “It’s all in the right shoulder,” he told guitarist Marc Silber when asked how he got so much sound out of a guitar.


Many of Hurt’s songs are based around two or three conventional first-position chord shapes. The guitarist often used his thumb to fret the low string. He employed both standard and alternate tunings, like open G and D, and often added melodic-interest texture to a repeating tonic-and-fifth bass line by throwing in a third or even a sixth (as in “Spike Driver Blues”). Hurt sometimes used a pedal tone—a single low note through consecutive chords, as an A on the A and D chords in “Monday Morning Blues,” “Coffee Blues” and “Casey Jones.”

Typically, Hurt played within position, maintaining a chord shape with his second and third fingers on the low strings while adding melody and blue-note fills on top with deft manipulation of his first and fourth fingers, the latter of which could jump from string to string fast enough to fret eighth-note passages (witness “Spike Driver” and “Casey Jones”). Although Hurt liked cowboy chords, he was not bound by standard fingerings. If a note he needed was up the neck on the first string, he would affect a low voice by fretting the same note two octaves below on string 6 or by using an open string to create an interesting, if unconventional, harmony.

Mississippi John Hurt playing guitar

In the Pocket

Hurt’s guitar accompaniments were generally short and melodic, but he hardly ever played two consecutive verses exactly the same way. In demonstrating his style of playing, John Sebastian, the jug band and rock’ n’ roll veteran, zeroes in on the pocket (rhythmic feel) and riffs that make Hurt’s music move.

In Example 1 Sebastian plays patterns inspired by “Spike Driver Blues,” Hurt’s classic one-chord take on the John Henry ballad. Sebastian frets the low G with his third finger throughout. In his interpretation, he does a bass line alternating steadily between the sixth and fourth strings. As for the melody notes, he frets the first-string G, as well as the second (third-fret D) and flatted third (third-fret Bb) with his fourth finger; he grabs the first-string F with his first finger to form a G7 chord.

The principal differences between Sebastian’s and Hurt’s versions are in the thumb-picked bass notes. Sebastian, like Hurt, moves his second finger to stop the fourth-string E, using this note alternately with the open D from the third measure throughout the piece. Hurt plays the E in the bass steadily through bars 3 and 4 only, then adds a fifth-string B in subsequent measures.


Mississippi John Hurt guitar lesson example 1

In his reading of “Avalon Blues,” the song that led to Hurt’s rediscovery, Sebastian again breaks the arrangement down to basics. As shown in Example 2, he uses a three-note bass line on each chord shape, adding the fifth-string B to the E chord, a low E to the A chord, and a second-fret F# to the B7 shape. Playing way behind the backbeats in the Hurt style, Sebastian cops one of Hurt’s favorite riffs around the E chord and also borrows an A-to-A7 chord change. A four-note bass run connects the B7 and E chords in measure 10.

Mississippi John Hurt guitar lesson example 2

High Melodic Riffing

Happy Traum, with his vast teaching experience, knows how to get to the heart of Hurt’s playing particularly well. He is fond of the guitarist’s melodic riffing up the neck (Example 3) and demonstrates this approach using a D chord at frets 5–7, with the open first string used in a clean transition to a first-position A chord. The phrase used around the E7 chord in bars 9 and 10 is similar to the one in Sebastian’s arrangement of “Avalon Blues,” with the addition of a high G#—a real finger-stretcher.

Also worth practicing is the pretty turnaround that Traum details around the A chord in the final bars. Note how the open A string acts as a pedal tone—again, a favorite device of Hurt’s—on the A and D chords. Traum uses a four-beat alternating bass line throughout this example. You’ll hear Hurt sometimes insert a two-note-per-measure bass figure for effect at the beginning of a measure when playing “Avalon Blues.”

Mississippi John Hurt guitar lesson example 3

Less Is More

In preparation for my turn in the sequence, I listened to recordings and watched footage of Hurt at work—there are excellent black-and-white close-ups from Pete Seeger’s 1965 Rainbow Quest television show. What a player he was! I checked out Hurt’s version of the “Casey Jones” canticle. (Casey’s fatal train wreck happened on April 29, 1900, near Vaughan, Mississippi—about 40 miles down the line from where a young Hurt was starting to learn guitar.)

In Example 4, as with Sebastian’s “Spike Driver,” your fourth finger gets a fretting workout, and the melody notes are the same. Listen for that quick C-chord change in the third bar; also add a major third (B) to the G-to-D bass line in bar 6 just before the change to A. Again, the open A string is pedaled through the A chord and that two-beat change to D just before the resolution on G in bar 8—another common Hurtism, which typifies the less-is-more approach that makes his guitar music so enjoyable to listen to and to learn. 

Mississippi John Hurt guitar lesson example 4
Steve James
Steve James

The late, great Steve James was a noted roots musician and raconteur. He is the author of several well-regarded books on blues guitar.


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  1. I have learned a lot with Steve. Right now, working on his “Amos Johnson Rag”. I will always miss him. RIP

  2. These seem much more lively than other John Hurt arrangements that I’ve met – with more interesting internal lines and runs. Could you recommend where I can find full-length versions.