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Happy Birthday Robert Johnson

May 1, 2011

gp0511_riffs_RJ1_nrTO COMMEMORATE THE 100TH anniversary of the birth of Robert Johnson (give or take—do we really know when this guy was born?), we’re giving you this refresher course on how he tuned and capoed when tracking his classics. Here, Jesse Gress demystifies the various ways Johnson got his blues across and distills it all into this handy reference guide. Now go get some!

Robert Johnson has been documented using seven different tunings—standard, plus six alternates—and he had numerous signature moves in each one, but exploring these in tandem with his recordings isn’t quite as simple as it might seem. Apparently, when the original 78 rpm discs were referenced from Steve LaVere’s collection for The New Transcriptions, considerable pitch and key discrepancies were discovered between these and many of the remastered CD tracks on 1990’s The Complete Sessions. It was also determined that R.J. often tuned down a half-step, which (along with capoing) made song keys difficult to decipher. And to further complicate matters, the 1998 Sony/Columbia reissue of King of the Delta Blues Singers features a selection of songs that reflect their original 78 rpm pitch. Yikes! This clusterf**k makes playing along with Johnson’s recordings confusing and transcribing them a nightmare! So how do you deal?


Cross Road Blues - Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings
Fortunately, The New Transcriptions puts the whole mess in perspective by providing state-of-the-art tuning and capo info for at least one take of every song from each source. (Fact: Johnson was known to switch tunings for different takes of the same song, as on “Phonograph Blues.”) I’ve condensed this info into the handy chart shown here, which lists the tuning and capoing for every track from The Complete Sessions in accordance with TNT. (Tip: You can find the song titles at To play along with the TCS tracks, you’ll have to move your capo one fret higher than indicated (opento- first, first-to-second, etc.), except for tracks 9-11 and 13-15 on disc 1, and tracks 2-6, and 18-21 on disc 2, which are played as indicated. Finally, tune 1/4 step sharp for tracks 7 and 8 on disc 2. (Of course, you could always varispeed the source, but it just ain’t the same.) Whew!
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