Learn To Play: Riffs In The Key Of Robert Johnson

If you had to sculpt a Mount Rushmore of bluesmen, three of the spots would be debatable. The remaining spot, without question, would go to Robert Johnson. To fully understand the depth of his influence, think about this: Robert Johnson only recorded 29 songs. Ever. He was poisoned in 1938 at age 27, just as he was reaching his prime and recording technology was becoming more accessible. But the precious sliver of his work that remained etched in wax went on to influence everyone from the next generation of Mississippi Delta bluesmen to Eric Clapton, Keith Richards and Led Zeppelin to Bob Dylan, Hendrix and even Beck Hansen. Knowing his catalog of songs is almost requisite if you want to jam with other blues players. This lesson might not cover them all in full, but the basic feel will help you tackle most of them.

The Gear Of Robert Johnson

Robert Johnson

In the age of blues shredders like Joe Bonamassa taking pics of themselves with mountains of gear they've funded by playing sold-out arenas, it seems silly to talk about the "gear" of a man who traveled with one beat-up guitar and played unamplified in tiny juke joints for just enough money to buy a few drinks. Nonetheless, there's a purity there. It's a proof point that gear does not make you important, successful or a passionate musician.

Little is known about the details of Robert Johnson's life, but one of the three existing photographs of him (his studio portrait) shows him holding a 1929 Gibon L-1. Some speculate that this was just a guitar that the studio (Hook Brothers in Memphis) had on hand.

Johnny Shines, who traveled with Johnson in the 1930s, has said that Robert played Kalamazoo and Stella guitars. He is seen in another photograph holding what appears to be a Kalamazoo KG-14, a model that would have been brand new when Johnson hit the recording studio in 1936. Many believe that this is the model he played on his iconic recordings.

Nitpicking here is silly when you think about the reality that Robert Johnson probably played whatever was available on any given night. He wasn't commercially successful in his own time or sponsored by any company, so it's reasonable to believe that he went through more than a few guitars while weathering years of travel and financial uncertainty.

If you're chasing his tone, you could go out and spend $2k+ on Gibson's L-1 Robert Johnson tribute model, or you could just dig up a well-worn parlor guitar on Reverb for under $300 and get much closer to the actual feel and sound. Thin bass response? Slightly off tuning? Beat to hell? All the better. Now you just have to work on your blues howl.

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