Muddy Waters, Elmore James, John Lee Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf are amongst several other blues prodigies of the 1940s we regard as the true pioneers of urban electric blues. The edgier style of playing they founded has inspired virtually every generation of blues guitarists since.
However, these founders of electric blues, naturally, grew their roots from the styles of playing that came before them. This prior generation yielded an era of acoustic blues legends. In his “Electric Roots” edition of Blues Traditions, Reverend Robert Jones breaks down the connections between the acoustic blues traditions and their electric blues descendants.
Here are ten free video guitar lessons from the course. For the full course, check out Reverend Robert Jones’ Blues Traditions: Electric Roots on TrueFire!
Blues Guitar Lesson – Roots & Musical Innovation: Course Primer
The purpose of these lessons is to show how traditional acoustic blues styles helped to shape the seminal sounds of classic electric blues. We’ll focus on the styles of four highly influential blues guitarists: Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Elmore James and John Lee Hooker. We’ll explore some of the general sounds that characterize their styles, and then we will attempt to trace some of the country blues artists who helped to shape their electric guitar styles.
In this lesson, I used two very different guitars. I do the acoustic demonstrations on a OO size flat top built by Gary Zimnicki (www.zimnicki.com). The wood comes from a house built in Detroit in 1910. The guitar that I use for the electric demonstrations is a Silvertone archtop (model 2256) built in and sold only in 1940. It’s equipped with an old DeArmond model 1000 pickup, and I play this through a Fender Deluxe with a “Hall Of Fame” reverb pedal and little distortion from an “OCD, Fulltone” pedal.
Blues Guitar Lesson – Muddy Waters: Overview
McKinley Morganfield, aka Muddy Waters, was one of the most important blues guitarists in the history of the style. Born in 1915, Rolling Fork, Mississippi, when Waters moved North to Chicago in the 1940’s he brought a style of guitar that was heavily influenced by the music of the Mississippi Delta. Originally, Waters had probably played a variety of cheap flat-top acoustic guitars. However, when the Library of Congress photographed him at age 19, it appears he was playing a National steel bodied guitar. When Muddy arrived in Chicago, though, he decided that he needed something with more volume than an acoustic guitar. Consequently, many early electric blues player chose archtops fitted with DeArmond pickups (the monkey on a stick).
Blues Guitar Lesson – Muddy’s House of Johnson: Acoustic Roots: Demo
When Muddy Waters came to Chicago in the 1940’s, an established blues scene already existed. Early artists like Hudson Whittaker (Tampa Red), Georgia Tom Dorsey and Big Bill Broonzy had laid a foundation with acoustic blues sounds. Muddy represented a later generation of blues men who migrated directly from Mississippi and brought a harder-edged sound. Muddy Waters was known to have said that he had three major influences: Robert Johnson, Son House and himself. This piece shows how Muddy borrowed from older musicians, especially Son House, to develop his own style.
Blues Guitar Lesson – Homesick Blues: Electrified: Overview
One of the things that set Muddy Waters’ music apart was that it appealed to a large number of African Americans that had migrated to big cities like Detroit, New York and, of course, Chicago. The themes of this song are homesickness and separation from your significant other.
Blues Guitar Lesson – Homesick Blues: Electrified: Performance
We play this piece in an Open G tuning (D-G-D-G-B-D). “Homesick Blues” is based on Water’s piece “I Feel Like Goin’ Home”. He used this progression and these licks for a number of his recorded pieces. This piece is related to tunes like Son Houses’ “Jinx Blues”, Willie Brown’s “Future Blues” and Charley Patton’s, “Moon Goin’ Down”. The key to the piece is the descending figure we play on strings 6 and 4, (3rd fret, 2nd fret, 1st fret, open). This pattern works as a lick sing over on the “I” chord, but it also works as a turnaround.
Blues Guitar Lesson – Homesick Blues: Electrified: Breakdown
The sustain of an electric guitar allowed early Chicago blues men to play slower and more simplified rhythms than they did on acoustic instruments. Notice how the slower accompaniment sets a pocket that, not only makes room for soulful vocals, but also allows other instruments (harmonica, piano, etc.) to participate in the call and response of the song.
Blues Guitar Lesson – Adding Some More Robert: Acoustic Roots: Demo
This segment shows how Robert Johnson used a musical template for songs like “Kind Hearted Woman”, “Little Queen Of Spades”, “Me And The Devil” and many others.
Blues Guitar Lesson – Muddy’s Lament: Electrified: Overview
“Muddy’s Lament” draws from tunes like “Sad Day”, “Honey Bee” and “Long Distance Call”. Even though the theme of the songs vary, the idea centers around being out of touch with one’s lover. Think of how creative these guitarists and musicians were to adapt a fairly limited collection of licks and techniques to explore a wide variety of emotions in their storytelling.
Blues Guitar Lesson – Muddy’s Lament: Electrified: Performance
Musically, this tune relates to Robert Johnson’s blues in A. Muddy adapted it to the key of D, and he played it in an Open D tuning. Also, Muddy used slide to play pentatonic figures that created a call and response to his singing and allowed for instrumental soloing.
Blues Guitar Lesson – Muddy’s Lament: Electrified: Breakdown
Utilizing an open D tuning (D-A-D-F#-A-D), notice how Muddy slides into the chord, moving from fretting the top three strings at the second fret and sliding into the third fret with the index finger while adding a “G” on the first string at the fourth fret. This movement reminds us of Robert Johnson’s “Kindhearted Woman”, etc. We perform this movement in triplets, with a “daa-da-da, daa da-da, daa da-da, daa da-da”, feel. Also, please note that you can use several ways of articulating he IV and V chords. On the IV chord, you can bar the fifth fret, and then bend the second string at the 8th fret to make it a bluesy 7th chord.
Conversely, you can play the 4th string at the fifth fret with your slide. Then, walk back to the D chord using the pentatonic scale. Finally, you can play a first position G chord by placing your index finger on the 3rd string at the first fret and your second finger on the fifth string at the second fret (it looks like an E7 when you are tuned in standard). On the V chord, you can bar at the 7th fret and play the same figure that you did on the IV, or you can slide to the seventh fret on the 4th string, or you can play an A chord in first position by placing the index finger on the third string at the first fret and the middle finger on the fourth string at the second fret.
These things are really much more simple than the explanation, just refer the the video and the tab. The most important thing, though, is to keep the rhythm going with the thumb. That muted “thunk” is one of main identifiers of a number of Mississippi guitar styles.
Digging these free blues guitar lessons? Check out Reverend Robert Jones’ full course, Blues Traditions: Electric Roots.