On one hand, Big Mama’s Door (Okeh/Sony)—Alvin Youngblood Hart’s critically acclaimed 1996 debut album—is like a haunted relic of prewar blues with its covers of Charley Patton (“Pony Blues”) and Leadbelly (“The Gallis Pole”). But on the other hand, originals like “Joe Friday,” referencing the 1960s television series Dragnet, snap us forward in time.
Hart takes a similarly varied approach on his other albums as a leader, from Territory (1998) to Motivational Speaker (2005), his last solo album. (He continues to tour solo and has recorded on a variety of side projects.) He splits his time between acoustic blues and classic-rock-inspired formats, which can leave some folks scratching their heads. But make no mistake: He always plays the blues like he owns it.
Like a lot of guitarists in the 1960s and ’70s, Hart—who spent his formative years in Oakland, California—first discovered music through such rock, pop, and R&B bands as Humble Pie, Thin Lizzy, and the Jackson 5. (Hart even went on to tour with former Thin Lizzy guitarist Gary Moore.) He was also exposed to early blues by his parents—and especially by his grandparents when he visited them in Mississippi. And he spent time in Chicago, playing with some of the elders of the blues scene and earning the name “Youngblood.”
Irresistible Grooves in Open G
In his acoustic playing, Hart mines the sonic territory of such blues players as Patton, Robert Johnson, Skip James, and others. He uses open-G (or open-A) and open-D tunings, often in conjunction with a capo, to put his own stamp on the music. He plays fingerstyle without a pick, on Fraulini and National six-string guitars, as well as various 12-strings, and he leans heavily on single-chord grooves with monotonic bass patterns, in which his picking hand’s thumb thumps out a constant four-beat rhythm.
Let’s start out with a few exercises that will get you acclimated to playing monotonic grooves. For the first set of exercises, you’ll be in open-G (low to high: D G D G B D), with everything falling over the I chord (G7). Later, you’ll switch to open-D.
In Ex. 1, play a simple monotonic bass in quarter notes on the open fifth string (G). Keep the bass going in Ex. 2 as you add a double stop on beat 1 and the “and” of 3. For the proper groove, be sure to use a metronome. In Ex. 3, there’s a more syncopated groove with an eighth-note triplet and a hammer-on. Play the hammer-on with your second and third fingers, and the third-fret notes with your first finger.
Hart tends to limit himself to the first five frets to create irresistible grooves. Ex. 4 is similar to what he plays in the instrumental “Amazed ’N’ Amused” from Big Mama’s Door. You can play this riff with just one finger—your first—on all the fretted notes. Also inspired by “Amazed ’N’ Amused,” Ex. 5 is similar to a move that Robert Johnson would make in this tuning. Interestingly enough, it can function either as an extension of the I chord or reflect a IV chord change. In this example it’s more like an extension of the I chord.
Ex. 6 is a nod to the opening of “Big Mama’s Door” and has a sort of choppy sound. To get that sound, emphasize beats 1 and 3 by plucking the strings with a combination of your index, middle, and ring fingers. Then use your thumb to play the notes on beats 2 and 4 with percussive downstrokes.
Now let’s explore Hart’s work in open-D tuning, in a series of exercises in the key of D major. The guitarist plays monotonic bass on “If Blues Was Money,” which has a riff similar to Ex.7. Against the bass line, play a descending minor run on the first string that resolves over the second, third, and fourth strings. This kind of groove, even though it’s in a major tuning, is reminiscent of such celebrated Skip James songs as “Devil Got My Woman” and “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues,” in D- or E-minor tunings.
Ex. 8 is patterned after what Hart plays over the IV chord (G) in “If Blues Was Money.” In the first measure, use a heavy palm mute—rest the side of your picking hand’s palm on the strings as you brush the G chord with your thumb. In the second measure, fret the first-string F with your third or fourth finger and give just a slight upward push to produce a quarter-step bend.
Now it’s time to break out the slide.
Slide on In
Now it’s time to break out the slide. Hart favors a glass bottleneck on his fourth finger, but you can use any type of slide to play Ex. 9, which is informed by the intro and turnaround from “Joe Friday.” Start off with a descending run on the second string and play a quick tritone (FG and C, implying a D7 chord) before sliding into the double stop on the V chord (A).
Ex. 10 is similar to the verse of “Joe Friday.” It echoes the descending line from the turnaround before it veers up the neck for a slide phrase that descends from the fifth (A) to the third (FG) to the flatted seventh (C). Hold your slide low—towards the ground—to produce the notes on the first string.
Hart’s open-D ideas are put together in Ex. 11, which I’ll call “Dragnet Blues.” The first five bars borrow the descending line from “Joe Friday,” but extend it down the second string and punctuate it with a double stop. Play this five-bar lick twice, on the second pass with a walk up to the IV chord.
The IV-chord (G7) phrase is typical of “Joe Friday” and “If Blues Was Money.” Revisit the double-stop lick for the I chord, but in the second bar, play some triplets for more emphasis. Hart doesn’t usually play the V chord, but I threw in a line borrowed from Blind Blake’s “Police Dog Blues.” The phrase gets away from the monotonic bass with a more syncopated lick typical of Blind Blake. The last three measures take you through the IV, I, and V chords, respectively.
Have a listen to Big Mama’s Door and Down in the Alley—Hart’s all-acoustic albums—to get a feel and ear for his music. A lot of what he plays is based on prewar blues, but he also mines hillbilly tunes, country, rock, and just about anything else that inspires him. You’ll notice he doesn’t restrict himself to the 12-bar form; his music is very open-ended. As you put your effort to learning these songs, just remember: Capturing the feel and learning some of the licks is much more important than playing everything note-for-note.
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