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Robert Johnson's Thumb Bass Style

Jim Burger (4613) · [archive]
Style: Blues · Level: Intermediate · Tempo: 120
Pages: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

In any Robert Johnson song, there are several pieces to the puzzle that make the song sound good, which is why the many who have covered his songs have never been able to fully replicate Robert's brilliance. In this lesson, we'll look at one of the key techniques that Robert used in many of his non-slide songs -- the combination of a thumb bass played on the open 4th-6th strings with a melody played using the 1st and 2nd string (for more info on this technique, check out Josh Graves's excellent lesson "Dead Thumb").

The effect of this technique is shown below, in an example using Johnson's approach from "Steady Rollin' Man" (note: the 4-bar intro is tacked on for effect, and we'll look at it later, but the thumb bass technique is really visible in bars 5-16). It is startling how easy this technique is, and how little variety one sees in Johnson's songs that use this technique. He used this technique in almost half his recorded songs! (see p.9 for a list of his songs which use this approach) On the following pages, we'll look at some examples in a little more detail. To round out the picture, on pages 6-8 we'll look at a couple of intros and turnarounds that Robert used a lot.

Before we get started, here are some general notes to keep in mind:

1. All of these songs are played using a 12-bar blues progression in the key of A (A-A-A-A-D-D-A-A-E-D-A-A/E)
2. Johnson's guitar is generally tuned up a half to a whole step, so if you want to replicate his sound you will have to either tune up or use a capo on the 1st or 2nd fret. Personally, I just play them in A.
3. In pretty much all of the songs, Robert sings a lyric line in bars 1-2, 5-6 and 9-10, so there's not a lot going on on the guitar. The more interesting fills are in bars 3-4 and 7-8 with a turnaround in bars 11-12 (a common Johnson turnaround is shown on page 7 of this lesson)
4. The thumb bass is generally palm muted, which is why he gets a real thumping sound on it. It's played on open strings, so you're basically just playing 5th string (bars 1-4), then 4th string (bars 5-6), then 5th (bars 7-8), then 6th string (bars 9-10), then whatever is used in the turnaround
5. Since they are played in bars 3-4 and 7-8, the main fills are mostly played using A chord fingerings, almost exclusively on the top 2 strings. Learn your A7 arpeggios and you'll be able to do anything you want. Here are some fingerings Robert used a lot:
Robert Johnson's Thumb Bass Style
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