“Down In The Delta” Fingerstyle Blues In The Style Of Robert Johnson

To the fingerstyle guitarist, the word blues conjures up a world of possibilities. There’s the jaunty Piedmont style of Blind Blake, Mance Lipscomb, and Mississippi John Hurt; the locomotive drive of country-blues and rockabilly as served up by Merle Travis, Scotty Moore, and James Burton; or the jazzy sophistication of the walking-bass blues arrangements of Chet Atkins and Jerry Reed. But most of the time when you utter “blues” and “fingerstyle” in the same breath, you’re talking about Delta blues.

Unlike the cheerier styles of other blues forms, Delta blues is gritty and slogging, characterized by a steady, thudding quarter-note bassline played by the thumb, while the fingers pepper sparse chords and melodic fills over the top of the bass notes. When musicians refer to the Delta blues, they’re describing the music specific to a geographic region in northwest Mississippi and that hard-edged acoustic sound hammered out by Charlie Patton, Son House, and especially Robert Johnson—the Delta blues’ most famous and influential practitioner, who has contributed some of the best recorded examples from the period. It is in the spirit of Mr. Johnson that we tackle this arrangement.

The 12-bar solo presented here captures the essence of the Delta style by meting out a quarter-note bass and juxtaposing minor-pentatonic melodic phrases and fills above it. Note that the motif in bar 1 is imitated in bar 2, but over a quick-four A chord. Bar 3 is a classic double-stop melodic fill that ends with a variation of the ascending motif first heard in bar 1. This repetition and reprise is typical in Delta blues, which derives much of its melodic impetus from the call-and-response vocal style practiced in the cotton fields, work camps, and turpentine mills of the early 20th-century Deep South.

In bar 7, you see the arpeggiated form of the classic fill first presented in bar 3. Note that the slides on beats one and three are exactly the same, but after that, the phrase in bar 7 executes an arpeggio version of the more insistent-sounding double-stop lick in bar 3. Memorize these two fills; they will serve you well.

The V chord on bar 9 is played as a 2nd-fret barred B7 chord. As the notation indicates above the staff, hold the barre for the entire measure before releasing to the two open strings on beat 1 of the A7 chord in bar 10. The piece closes with a Delta-blues chestnut—a turnaround in descending, arpeggiated sixths against (what else?) a steady quarter-note bass. You can check out a recorded version of this arrangement by visiting jonchappell.com/deltablues. •