John Lee Hooker, 1992 - GuitarPlayer.com

John Lee Hooker, 1992

At 72, John Lee Hooker can proudly look back on a career that began in Clarksdale, Mississippi, during the 1930s. Unlike his contemporaries Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson, Hook didn’t play roll-and-tumble Delta jukes, choosing instead to launch his career in Memphis, singing gospel and blues. He moved to Detroit after World War II to work by day in an auto plant, and make the rounds of Black Bottom clubs by night. In 1948, “Boogie Chillen’”—his first R&B hit—inaugurated the most prolific recording career in postwar blues history. It’s estimated that between 1949 and ’53 alone, Hooker cut some 70 singles on 24 different labels, using a dozen different names to avoid contractual problems. Hooker made his first foray into Europe in ’62, and returned to find that “Boom Boom” had become his first crossover hit. Covers by the Animals and other British Invasion bands helped him win white audiences at home.
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As it was in the beginning, so it is today: the very heartbeat of John Lee Hooker’s music remains his unique songwriting, powerful voice, and down-home, propulsive guitar. Like Muddy Waters, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and very few others, he remains a musical law unto himself—still specializing in the sparse blues and infectious boogies that first rocked the globe more than 40 years ago.

What do you look for in a tone?
I look for a deep, gutty feelin’. I don’t use picks, so I can get that deep gut feeling. People ask, “How you get that?” It’s just there. There’s a lot of people try to play real fast chords—da da da da da—that’s not the blues. It’s synthetic. It ain’t the hard, solid blues. It’s a lot of speed and everything. It’s got no feeling to it. You sit down and play some funky, funky guitar. Take your time! Don’t rush it. Just let it come flowing through you. I can play guitar so funky, until it bring teardrops to your eyes.

While most musicians stick to 12-bar blues, you seldom follow that format.
That’s for the birds. People just feel—that’s the way the blues supposed to be played. The way you feel those notes or scales. Shut your eyes, and then you’ll know what you’re doing. I know what notes to hit. I know what notes not to hit. I can do a 12-bar perfect. Oh, yeah. If I did, then I wouldn’t be known as John Lee Hooker. See, I’m known for not doing it. I don’t do it, because it would take away a lot of my feeling. You cannot learn this in a book. You feel it here [points to heart and head]—not by what you got writing on a piece of paper. Throw that paper away!

Why do you play semi-hollowbody guitars?
Well, I like them. You got to do that now because the generations come and go, and the young generation likes to dance, and they want it loud. But you still can make it funky loud.

How do you set your amp controls?
Different songs, different settings. I don’t like it real sharp. I like it kind of medium. Not too much bass, not too much sharp.

It must be wonderful to have so much success at this point in your life.
I was taught that if you do good deeds, somewhere in life it’s gonna come back. I had a good life, and I had a rough life. I’ve had both. I don’t try to live in the past. I live for today, and for people today. I can’t change the rough things that come through, so I look for the future. This world changes all the time.

Excerpted from Jas Obrecht’s interview in the August ’92 issue of Guitar Player.

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