John Lee Hooker Talks Tone and Plays “Boom Boom”

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PHOTO: Paul Natkin | Getty Images

The very heartbeat of John Lee Hooker’s music was his unique songwriting, powerful voice, and down-home, propulsive guitar. Like Muddy Waters, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and very few others, Hooker was a musical law unto himself, specializing in the sparse blues and infectious boogies that first rocked the globe in the post-WWII era.

Hooker was born this day, August 22, in 1920, and scored his first Number One record with “Boogie Chillen” in 1949. He followed it up later that year with “Crawlin’ King Snake,” and in 1951 released his second Number One hit, “I’m in the Mood.”

“Boom Boom,” which Hooker is shown performing below, was his last hit single, reaching 14 in 1962. He enjoyed popularity throughout his life as well as a resurgence in the Nineties with albums like Chill Out, Don’t Look Back, The Best of Friends and Face to Face. Hooker died in his sleep on June 21, 2001.

In this excerpt from the August 1992 issue of Guitar Player, Hooker talks with Jas Obrecht about the secrets behind his tone, gear choices and his distinctive style of playing the blues.

Wish a happy birthday to one of the all-time great blues guitarists.

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.

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