Need to spice up your blues phrasing? Look no further than this Robert Johnson post for insight into licks by the legend himself...
Robert Johnson (1911–1938) is universally recognized as the King of the Delta Blues, and for good reason. Robert Johnson’s playing style has influenced scores of rock and blues guitarists that followed after him for decades.
Johnson influenced so many aspects of the blues — through his playing, his songwriting, and his aura. No performer has led — or was alleged to have led — a more mythic or legendary blues life. Some people believe that Johnson gained his talent in a deal with the devil; he died young and under mysterious circumstances, and his songs are haunting with chilling themes about the devil and death.
Johnson played his brand of blues in many keys and in many different tunings, but he’s probably best known for his work in the key of open A guitar tuning.
In example #1, below we find a passage in standard tuning that Johnson frequently used for intros, turnarounds, and endings.
Notice that the lick is similar to others that are in the key of E. This example uses a technique where one tone stays the same (the top) and another moves (the lower, descending).
Another example of one of his classic "A" turnarounds is shown below in example two.
Example #2). Key of A
Notice the similarities between example one and two. The chord shapes and fingerings are far more challenging in example one. However, in lick two the chord ideas are gone and only the essentials are left to form the outline of the pattern.
Example three uses another turnaround from the key of "A." This time the upper and lower scale tones ascend and descend at different directions. While this causes more complex fingerings, it also adds significantly to the sound of the line.
Example #3). Key of A
Next, we'll switch keys to another popular key used by Robert Johnson, the key of "E." Here we'll begin with a look at one of the most common licks used by him (and later copied by literally hundreds of other blues and rock players for decades after).
Example #4). Key of E
The above blues lick can be applied all over blues jams. It can be used as a lick in a songs intro. We'll find it used in section endings as well as, outros.
Another popular variation on this phrase is found in example five.
Example #4). Key of E
Robert Johnson’s music embodied the Delta blues in its finished state. And there was no end to Johnson’s innovation. He played with a slide and without, in altered tunings as well as standard, and he shifted from accompaniment to a featured guitar style effortlessly.
Actually, only one solo break of Johnson’s talent is even on recording. To hear Robert Johnson play his only known recorded solo break, check out “Kind Hearted Woman Blues.”
Robert Johnson is arguably the most well known figure in the history of the blues. Though the 29 songs Johnson recorded from 1936-1937 had little impact during his lifetime, a collection of his singles, entitled King of the Delta Blues Singers was released in 1961 and found widespread recognition.
Then, 30 years later, The Complete Recordings of Robert Johnson was released selling over one million copies. The first blues recording to do so, winning a Grammy in the process.
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