Delta blues giant Robert Johnson (May 8, 1911–August 16, 1938) is one of the most fascinating and mysterious performers in music history.
He created an essential body of blues guitar music, recording 29 songs in 1936 and 1937 that would exert a powerful influence on the likes of Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Keith Richards, Johnny Winter and many others.
In this edition of In Deep, we’ll examine the variety of picking techniques and tunings that Johnson used to craft his timeless, deeply emotional music. One of the staples of Johnson’s style is his ability to sound at times like two guitar players, combining driving rhythms on the lower strings with melodic figures on the higher strings. Due to the fact that his recordings were intentionally sped up when first released, definitive analyses of his tunings and capo positions is near impossible.
That said, the interpretations offered here are practical and easily achieved. Johnson’s tunings can be broken down into four categories: standard tuning, open G, open D and drop D. Some of the songs interpreted as open G or open D may have in fact been performed in open A or open E, respectively. Let’s start with standard tuning, which is the tuning Johnson used for the recordings “Kind Hearted Woman Blues,” “I’m a Steady Rollin’ Man,” “Love in Vain” and “Sweet Home Chicago.”
The last song was performed in standard tuning with a capo at the second fret. A complete transcription of “Sweet Home Chicago” begins on page 126 of the April 2011 issue of Guitar World (note that all tab numbers represent the distance from the capo; i.e., “12” represents 12 frets above the capo, though the note is actually played at the 14th fret).
The intro is a “turnaround,” normally