10 Things You Gotta Do To Play Like Robert Johnson

This lesson illustrates a good portion of the raw materials Robert Johnson used and will help to point you in the direction of his playing.
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CONTRARY TO POPULAR BELIEF, ROBERT Johnson didn’t invent Delta blues. In fact, Delta blues was already beginning its migration to a more urban sound when the Mississippi-born bluesman recorded what was to become his legacy—multiple takes of 29 songs recorded during just five sessions held in San Antonio and Dallas, Texas, between November 1936 and June 1937. Johnson simply absorbed the music of his era and re-wrote the blues bible. As Johnson historian and archivist Stephen C. LaVere so eloquently wrote in his liner notes to 1990’s Robert Johnson: The Complete Sessions CD box set, “what he made of that influence was such a departure from what he was given that it fails to become a matter of significance, except in determining the basis of his style. However, what is significant is the profound influence he and his music and recordings had on his contemporaries and the tremendous contribution they all made and continue to make on the evolution of the blues and popular music in general.” It’s true. You’ll hear echoes of R.J. spread across generations in the music of everyone from Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Chuck Berry, Jimi Hendrix, and Eric Clapton, who has championed Johnson’s music since his pre-Cream era, to Keith Richards, Bob Dylan and Billy Gibbons.

You can find loads of biographical info and speculation regarding Johnson’s personal life, his death at 26 on August 16, 1938, and his musical influences (who included mentors Willie Brown, Son House, Charley Patton, and peers such as Leroy Carr, Skip James, and Lonnie Johnson) both in print and on the web, but when it comes to actually playing his music, we’re all pretty much on our own. Johnson’s uncanny ability to simultaneously juggle two or three independent guitar parts while singing like hellhounds were hot on his trail is notoriously difficult to duplicate on the instrument or the printed page, but we’re here to help. For best results, you’ll need this article as a primer, a copy of the Robert Johnson: The Complete Sessions (Columbia), which contains 41 takes of 29 songs, for audio reference, and print copies of Robert Johnson: The New Transcriptions (Hal Leonard), which contains Peter Billmann’s excellent and extremely detailed transcriptions of 31 Johnson tracks, and Dave Rubin’s Robert Johnson: Signature Licks (Hal Leonard), in which the author analyzes excerpts from 15 of the transcriptions, for visual aid.

Many who dabble in Johnson’s music end up reducing it to a few repetitive guitar riffs, and that certainly helped keep the songs alive, but playing them à la Mr. J. is a whole ’nother deal that can open up magical new worlds. (Just don’t get me started on that sell-your-soul-to-you-know-who crap!) First, you’ve gotta...


The bulk of Robert Johnson’s catalog is based on, but does not strictly adhere to the 12- bar blues progression, so it’s common throughout his repertoire to find a 2/4, 3/4, 5/4, or 6/4 measures mingling with 4/4 bars, or the omission/addition of a complete measure to produce 11- or 13-bar verse and bridge forms. Of course, these cases are often highly subjective and we’ll never really know exactly where R.J. was feeling the “one.” For examples of such rhythmic hiccups, check out the first two verses of “Kindhearted Woman Blues” (Take 1), and the astounding flurry of open chords in verse 2/bar 5 of “Rambling On My Mind” (Take 1). WTF! Regarding Johnson’s instruments, exhaustive research by scholars, historians, and devotees has determined that the two flat-top acoustic guitars in two of the only three photos of Johnson known to exist (the third remains unpublished) are a Gibson L- 1 (ca. 1929) in the famous studio portrait, and a Gibson L-00 (ca. 1935-36) in the dangling- butt photo booth self-portrait, where R.J. is capoed at the second fret and appears to be fretting his signature turnaround in standard tuning. The first photo also confirms that Johnson played with a plastic thumbpick and bare fingers. On his recordings, it sounds like he generally stroked his almost-always palm-muted bass figures with the pick while plucking upper-string counter lines and licks with his fingers, but this is not a hard rule, so experiment at will. The same goes for fret-hand fingerings. Except for the notated suggestions, you’re on your own, but take a tip and employ a full firstfinger barre whenever practical to fret entire chord forms even if you are only using parts of them. (Tip: R.J. reportedly only used his thumb to fret the bass note of D/F#.) And oh yeah—you’ve gotta sing like you’ve got hellhounds on your trail. But that comes after you...


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?

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.”) To play along with the TCS tracks, you’ll have to move your capo one fret higher than indicated (open-to-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!

Now that that’s out of the way, it’s time to...


Johnson recorded a dozen of his 29 songs (five of which share similar forms, chord voicings, and riffs) in standard tuning, and played them in the actual (non-capoed) or virtual (capoed) keys of A and E, but, according to TNC, not always at concert pitch, hence the tune-down-half-step and tune-up-half-step indications in Fig. 1. This makes sense, as Johnson was constantly retuning between takes and probably had no fixed pitch reference available. For simplicity’s sake, let’s keep it at A-440 and begin stocking our R.J. chord book with characteristic voicings.

Perhaps Johnson’s most enduring contribution to the blues pantheon was his signature turnaround, which was typically dropped into the last two bars of a blues progression, used as an ending, or “doubled” for use as an intro. Familiarize yourself with the key-of-A voicings in Ex. 1a, noting the common-tone A’s in grids 4-8, and then slowly play through all nine chords. Give the first three and last two grids two beats and all others one beat, and you should hear the mournful sound of a signature Johnson double turnaround begin to take shape. (Tip: Start on grid #4 for the single version.)


Memorizing the four pairs of 2-, 3-, 4-, and 5-note I7-IV7 (A7-D7), or I7-Idim7 (A7-Adim7), voicings shown in Ex. 1b will help you get a handle on quite a few of Johnson’s verse accompaniment figures, as will the additional IV- (D/F# and D/A) and V-chord (E5, E7, and E7#9) shapes in the next row.


Follow suit as we switch to the key of E for a new set of single turnaround voicings in Ex. 1c, and some boogie-shuffle-ready I-, IV-, and V-chord movements (E5-E6-E7, A5-A6-A7, and B7/F#) in Ex. 1d, and you’ll have everything you need to put together a moderately slow blues or medium boogie shuffle à la Johnson in A or E. (Ah, if only it were that simple!)


Because if you want to be recognized, you’ve gotta...


What better place to start than with Johnson’s first recording? But first, this important message: Key-wise, chances are R.J. simply thought of capoed songs and their chords in terms of open-string keys (primarily A and E), so the actual pitches and names of chords essentially become irrelevant—if you’re playing capoed A chord forms, you’re in (virtual) A, and if you’re playing capoed E forms, you’re in (virtual) E. With this in mind, the following excerpts from take 1 of “Kindhearted Woman Blues,” a moderately slow blues (though Johnson speeds up considerably as the song progresses) played in the virtual key of A, have been notated with all tuning, capo, and play-along info labeled exactly as in TNT. If you’re playing by yourself, tune however you like, but if you want to play along with TCS or KOTDBS, you’ve gotta follow the footnotes. (Submit or ignore—the choice is yours.)

Ex. 2a illustrates how Johnson used the voicings from Ex. 1a to begin the song with a signature double turnaround employed as a 3- bar intro, complete with two extra beats in bar 1 and a rare, off-the-cuff hammered-and-pulled triplet at the end of bar 2.

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Ex. 2b shows how R.J. accompanies his vocal by thumb-picking some of the I7-Idim7 verse accompaniment voicings from Ex. 1b and simultaneously adding upper-register counter lines. The Adim7 functions as a temporary IV (D7) chord.

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Next, Johnson responds to his 2-bar vocal call with the cool, slightly dissonant I7-Idim7-I broken chordal run in Ex. 2c. (Tip: Switch your fingering from A7 to Adim7 on the and of beat three.)

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Ex. 2d paraphrases another I-chord verse move found in many Johnson songs, this time using a slide into his A7 intro voicing (try subbing Adim7 on the repeat) and some palm-muted bass thumps (another Johnson trademark) played on the open E and A strings as A5/E. Johnson often tacked a busy triplet figure like the one in Ex. 2e onto the previous lick to build momentum into the IV chord. This variation features both full and arpeggiated A7 and Adim7 voicings and has achieved immortal status. Consult TNT for the rest of the story. (Bonus: Look and you’ll find much crossbreeding in Johnson’s songs. “K.W.B.” is very similar in form to and contains many of the same riffs as “Phonograph Blues” [Take 1], “Dead Shrimp Blues” [Take 2], “Me and the Devil Blues” [Takes 1 & 2], and “Honeymoon Blues” [Take 1], so check ’em out!)

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Robert Johnson didn’t invent the “dun-ta-dun-ta” boogie shuffle, but his “Sweet Home Chicago” has long been regarded as the blueprint for the form. The song, possibly the only R.J. tune that consistently conforms to a 12-bar form, kicks off in the key of E with a transposed version of the turnaround from bar 2 of Ex. 2a voiced with the pinky at the 12th fret. Johnson then breaks into a contrapuntal I-chord (E7) verse accompaniment figure similar to the one in Ex. 3a, which adds fingerpicked open third and first strings to a thumbed E5-E6- E7-E6 boogie bass riff built from the voicings in Ex. 1d. Transpose the same bass moves to the fifth and fourth strings a la Ex. 1d to cover A7, the IV chord. Ex. 3b depicts a typically sparse Johnson V-chord (B7) move ideal for bar 9—four muted B7/F# voicings and a lone open B—which he often liked to follow first with quarter-bent, even-eighth minor-third intervals plus a single-note, 5-6-root lick similar to Ex. 3c, and then with a turnaround like the one in Ex. 3d, which puts into context the voicings from Ex. 1c. (Bonus: Check out both takes of “When You Got a Good Friend” for similar moves.)

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We’ll begin our journey into Mr. Johnson’s mysterious world of alternate tunings with open A—spelled E, A, E, A, C#, E, low to high— which he employed on ten songs. The grids in Ex. 4a reveal the four shapes Johnson used to play his patented turnaround in this tuning. (Tip: Start ’em on beat two.)


Open A’s inherent minor third interval on the top two strings offers options not available in other tunings, especially (but not only) for slide guitar, and Ex. 4b shows three pairs of two-chord moves that Johnson played barehanded to create movement within the I and IV chords (A7 and D7) in the actual or virtual key of A.


Need a V chord (B7)? Simply raise those IVchord voicings two frets. (Tip: These voicings produce chords one whole-step lower in open- G tuning.) Moving into the realm of open-E tuning (E, B, E, G#, B, E), Ex. 4c offers a highly economical adaptation of Johnson’s classic turnaround that now requires only a single fretted note for each of the first three shapes and no fretting at all for the last one. Again, you’ll want to start on beat two.


Ex. 4d outlines the minimalist moves necessary to form E5-E6, A5-A6, and B5-B6, the I, IV, and V chords in the actual or virtual key of E. (Tip: All open-E voicings in Ex. 4c and Ex. 4d also work in open-Em tuning [E, B, E, G, B, E], which Johnson used only for “Hellhound on My Trail.”)


Finally, we come to Johnson’s Aadd9 “mystery tuning”—an ingenious hybrid of open E on the bottom (E, B, E) and open A on top (A, C#, E). A recent discovery, it’s believed that Johnson only used this tuning on two songs, both of them boogie shuffles, and the stretched-out key-of-E turnaround voicings in Ex. 4e may explain why. Ouch! (Tip: You can play open-E-shaped verse accompaniment voicings in this tuning.)


Now, let’s check out how Johnson operated within each tuning’s unique topography.


Johnson recorded “Ramblin’ on My Mind,” the first R.J. song to feature a slide version of his “Dust My Broom” riff, in open-E tuning, a strategy that proved ideal for playing the song’s boogie shuffle rhythms and “Broom”-ish slide figures. The raised fifth string allows easy access to root-5 and root-6 chords on the bottom two strings (a la Ex. 4d), while tuning G up to G# facilitates full- and brokentriad slide riffs on the top three strings, as demonstrated in Ex. 6a, which fits snugly into bars 3-5 of a 12-bar boogie shuffle in E. Johnson used the chord grips from Ex. 4d to cover the IV (A7) and V (B7) changes, and then tacked on the open-E-conversion turnaround (or its imbedded parenthesized variation) in Ex. 6b to the end of each verse. (Tip: Consult TNT for those pesky rhythmic irregularities.)


Speaking of the classic and often-imitated “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom” riff, Johnson originally played it barehanded sans slide in a tuning of his own design. Discovered when the original 78s were re-examined for TNT, and dubbed “Aadd9” tuning, Johnson’s aforementioned “mystery tuning,” which he also used for take 2 of “Phonograph Blues,” was indeed a revelation that finally explained how he was able to pull off the signature “Broom” licks and decorate his boogie shuffle rhythms with high-fretted counter lines using a single tuning. The A-tuned top three strings and Etuned bottom strings facilitate both the faux-slide licks, and the I- and IV-chord boogie shuffle rhythm figures in Ex. 7a, which essentially allows you to play open-Alead licks in the key of E. Ex. 7b shows how this tuning stretches that signature turnaround and some very modern-sounding V-chord moves into nearly unmanageable fingerings, but I doubt this presented a problem for Johnson’s supernaturally long fingers! (Tip: Use the alternate second measure for an authentic R.J. ending.)


We’ll end where we started, back in standard tuning for Johnson’s only recorded solo from the first take of “Kindhearted Woman Blues” presented TNT-style, with all tuning, capo, and play-along footnotes present and accounted for. Treat ’em as you like and dig in for the complete 11-bar solo transcription in Ex. 8 to learn how Johnson put it all together. Highlights include shimmering 7th chords (bars 1 & 3) alternating with descending diatonic-sixth-based fills (bars 2 & 4), in-depth IV-chord moves (bars 5, 6, & 9), Ex. 2c’s dissonant I7-Idim7-I7 lick displaced by a beat in bar 7, bar 8’s elongation to 6/4, and of course, that turnaround one last time in all its glory (bars 10 & 11). So there you have it—the realization that the study of Robert Johnson’s guitar playing is a lifelong endeavor. Though the preceding examples barely scratch the surface of the music Johnson etched into those 78 rpm discs, they illustrate a good portion of the raw materials he used and will help to point you in the right direction.