Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Robert Johnson’s Gibson L-1 Guitar Tunings:

About Blues Legend Robert Johnson’s Gibson L-1 Guitar Tunings:

One-hundred-and-three years after his birth, Robert Johnson remains a mystery. Or at least his guitar tunings are.

Just google “Robert Johnson guitar tunings” and you’ll see the debate still rages. The speculation — and without Johnson or his first-hand student Robert Lockwood here to tell us, it is to a certain degree speculation — ranges from him employing just a handful of open tunings and standard tuning to as many as 17 different tunings including some based on major and minor seventh chords.

For a man who recorded 41 versions of 29 songs more than 70 years ago, all of this controversy among slide and Delta-inspired pickers trying to exactly duplicate his sounds on guitar is fascinating — and funny, at least when name-calling and accusations break out on the guitar forums and wherever else acoustic blues “purists” gather.

It’s evident from the wide-ranging sounds and techniques Johnson employed, from slide slurs to tri-tone chords to likely playing in keys other than the chords his open strings were tuned to, that Johnson was anything but a purist. If he was, he would have sounded like Charley Patton, Lonnie Johnson and Son House, and simply drifted into the footnotes of the genre’s history.

Rather than sort through the hubris — excellent instructors like Bob Brozman and Woody Mann have done that in books and on film — let’s stick to a few things we know to be true, and — since Johnson was notorious for hopping freight cars — perhaps get you riding the musical Peavine Special down to the Delta, Johnson style.

Although Johnson was reportedly playing an electrified guitar by
the time he was poisoned by a jealous husband in 1938, the key
to sounding like Johnson is a nice, clean toned acoustic guitar with excellent projection like the Gibson L-1 he was photographed with. In 2006, the asking price for a guitar identified as Johnson’s was $6 million. The Robert Johnson L-1 made by Gibson’s acoustic luthiers is $5,997,207 less, and it’s an exact reproduction of the 1926 model that Johnson played.

Then it’s a matter of tuning and technique. The slide, limber-fingered turnaround and other hallmarks of his playing are documented on those recordings, but the way to get there is to zero in on his tunings. Here are some things we’re sure about:

Like the New Orleans blues and jazz guitarist Lonnie Johnson, whose recordings Robert Johnson heard, Robert occasionally used dropped D, also like a lot of metal bands and rockers do today. Check out “Drunken Hearted Man,” which is punctuated by plenty of Lonnie-like chordal flourishes and features Robert nakedly — and beautifully — copying Lonnie’s vocal style. It’s a sad and gorgeous song, and one of the few under-performed numbers in his repertoire. “Malted Milk,” with the notorious couplet “I’m gonna beat my woman/Until I’m satisfied,” also sounds like it’s in dropped D tuning. For the record, dropped D simply drops the low E string in standard tuning by one note.

Robert also played plenty in open G, inspiring Keith Richards, for whom open G is a go-to tuning. The Rolling Stones’ cover of Robert’s “Love in Vain” hews close to the bones of Johnson’s performance in open G. “Walking Blues” is also in open G. When blues players refer to Spanish tuning, they’re typically talking about open G or its related forms. Open G is D-G-D-G-B-D.

Johnson also used the more typical Delta tunings of open D and open E, which are D-A-D-F#-A-D and E-B-E-G#-B-E. These are great entry points for slide guitar and even dive-bomb rock, because chords are formed simply by placing a single finger across all the strings at any fret. It’s fairly easy to burn on slide in these tunings, like Jack White, but after that — as with anything that seems simple — being able to really make a personal statement with single note lines and partial chords in these tunings requires a degree of mastery.

Two of my favorite Johnson tunings are open E minor, providing the eerie sounds accompanying his wailing vocal on “Hellhound on My Trail,” and open A. Open E minor and open A are both “Spanish” forms, constructed along lines similar to open G. Open E minor is B-E-B-E-G#-D and has been called “the Devil’s tuning” by many Johnson aficionados for its haunting tone and easy access to menacing sounding tri-tones. Open A is a tad closer to open G and is as beautiful as open E minor is spooky. Tune your guitar to its E-A-E-A-C#-E line-up and try finger-picking a pattern on the high strings. The chiming tones are lovely, as they were when Johnson used the tuning for “Come On in My Kitchen,” “Crossroads Blues” and “Terraplane Blues.”

This stuff isn’t just for blues freaks. I’d also encourage songwriters to explore open tunings. If you’re used to playing in standard, the chordal freedoms and limitations of open tunings and the sounds they make open up a new world that can be wildly inspiring.

*Article by Ted Drozdowski / Gibson Guitar Magazine / 05.07.2010


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