Learn to Play: Riffs in the Key of Skip James

Skip James, born in 1902 in Bentonia, Mississippi, was the best-known practitioner of what came to be called the Bentonia School of delta blues—characterized by minor key alternate tunings, intricate fingerpicking, and brittle melodies sung or played on top. The eerie, hypnotic music found few fans when James first recorded it in 1931, but was picked up and widely acclaimed during the blues revival of the 1960s.

The Coen brothers featured a cover of one of James' songs, "Hard Time Killing Floor Blues," in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, with blues musician Chris Thomas King faithfully updating the song while maintaining the original's haunting quality. (King also played the film's Robert Johnson-inspired blues drifter.)

In the video above, Joe goes through both James' original and King's take on the song, demonstrating the open D minor tuning, the droning thumb work, and the piercing, snappy melodic lines. You can also check out more lessons in our "Riffs in the Key of..." series below.

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