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Robert Johnson's 100 birthday is coming up on May 8th.



The Mystical Musical Secrets of Robert Johnson

Ted Drozdowski

If timelessness is the mark of true musical greatness, then Robert Johnson deserves to be canonized on the same level as Bach and Beethoven. His popularity has continued to grow since his death in 1938, as evidenced by the continuous stream of Johnson reissues and tribute albums, and the festivals and symposia organized to celebrate the 100th anniversary of his birth this May 8.

Over the decades, the Mississippi guitar innovator’s music has been covered and coveted by a huge range of artists: Eric Clapton, Muddy Waters, Big Head Todd, Rory Block, Led Zeppelin, Juliana Hatfield, Peter Green and the Rolling Stones among them. And the latest and best reissue package of Johnson’s own 41 recorded versions of 29 songs — all he left behind besides a few suits and his Gibson L-1 acoustic guitar — has just been released by Sony’s Legacy label. Robert Johnson: The Centennial Collection includes those tracks, superbly mastered, plus two perspective-granting discs of his contemporaries ranging from Sleepy John Estes to the Light Crust Doughboys. It also includes the DVD biography of Johnson and his work; Can’t You Hear The Wind Howl?

There’s still much speculation about how Johnson became the Delta’s undisputed master of guitar. All that’s known is he left the region as a fumble fingered youth and came back so cutting that he literally frightened Muddy Waters when Waters encountered him performing on a street corner. All the junk about selling his soul to the Devil aside, it stands to reason that Johnson achieved his status through a mix of innate talent, instruction and practice. And that’s still what it takes to play like Robert Johnson. That and some soul.

Assuming you’ve got the ability and the feeling, here are a few tips you might consider when approaching the technical aspects. First, if you don’t fingerpick, learn. That is the only way to play Mississippi Delta or hill country blues in an unimpaired manner and with the proper tone, which is a combination of meat and dynamics.

Another is to work with open tunings. Johnson may have used as many as 17. Eyewitnesses weren’t so adept at sussing out how he tweaked his strings, and the details in his recordings will always be the victims of the primitive technology and the scratchy, distorted quality of the shellac discs it yielded for the market.

But listening to the sides Johnson cut in San Antonio and Dallas in 1936 and 1937, it is clear he was playing in keys apart from those to which he was often open tuned, violating common Delta blues practice. To approach his sound, it’s good to start with an even-toned and well-balanced acoustic guitar, like the Gibson L-1 that he was famously photographed with. That guitar sold at auction in 2006 for a cool $6-million, which makes the Robert Johnson L-1 hand built today by Gibson’s acoustic luthiers in Bozeman, Montana, a relative bargain.

The lightening turnarounds and zipping slide heard on Johnson’s recordings are all a matter of practice, but the tunings he used, which will get you in the right territory, are a literal matter of record. One favorite was dropped D, created simply by dropping the lowest string in standard tuning from E to D. You can hear Johnson use this tuning on the dark-hearted classic “Malted Milk,” which also shows the influence of New Orleans’s Lonnie Johnson on the young Mississippian. Lonnie Johnson also employed dropped D with some frequency, and Robert Johnson’s vocal performance on the song is imitative of Lonnie Johnson’ crying style.

Johnson also played in open G, which influenced Keith Richards to make that his go-to tuning. The tuning is also called “Spanish” by older bluesmen, and runs D-G-D-G-B-D. You can hear the Stones use it on their cover of Johnson’s “Love In Vain” and listen to Johnson get his G thang on with “Walkin’ Blues.”

Two more common tunings Johnson used — common to the Delta and Mississippi hills, at least — are open E and open D. Elmore James become open E’s most famous exponent, and dug into that tuning on his career establishing cover of Johnson’s “Dust My Broom.” Derek Trucks is the modern era’s most notable open E player. Open D is a dirtier beast. Low chords sustain like Satan moaning with a bellyache. Open E is E-B-E-G#-B-E and open D is D-A-D-F#-A-D and should not be confused with D-A-D-G-A-D-, which is a little more uptown.

If you want to get spooky, try open E minor: B-E-B-E-G#-D. And to get spookier still, play Johnson’s “Hellhound On My Trail” in that tuning, as he did.

If you’re looking for pretty, go no further than open A: E-A-E-A-C#-E. This high string tension takes some getting used to, but the reward is angelic chiming tones, like those Johnson achieved in “Come On In My Kitchen” and “Terraplane Blues.”

Blues fiends will debate the merits of Johnson verses his somewhat older Delta inspirations like Charley Patton and Son House. But the fact is that despite Johnson’s technical superiority, all three are distinct stylists who established their authority early on in the history of recorded blues. And while they all serve as the foundation that Delta blues as it is appreciated and understood today was built upon, Patton and House were fundamental influences on Johnson as well — the roots of the roots.


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Awesome read!   Thanks Dan.  I especially like the tunings.

I like Open C on my Chickenhead resonator.  C-G-C-E-G-C

Sounds really cool:)

Thanks Dan,

I was running into road blocks tryin to learn a lil RJ. I guess I can get back to work now. I appreciate the post.


Great post, thanks.

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