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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

For starters, let's talk about the thumb bass. I could never quite get the resounding thump that Robert gets, but I get it better when I palm mute the bass strings while plucking them fairly aggressively. How does one palm mute? The concept is simple, but it takes lots of practice to get used to. You need to hold the fleshy part of the right side of your picking hand so that it touches the strings just enough to stop them from vibrating too much when you pick them. This makes for a slightly unfamiliar position for the picking hand, and it will take some time and practice before you get used to holding it so that you're not muting too much or too little. When you're playing the Robert Johnson-type stuff, you also need to make sure that you're muting only the low strings, as you will simultaneously be picking a melody on the high strings, which you don't want to mute. If you still have trouble with this, email me, but the main thing is that it takes some time and getting used to...

Now let's take a look at the example below, which is done in the style that Robert uses for "Steady Rollin' Man". The muted thumb bass, which Robert played in many songs as an unvaried string of quarter notes played on the beat, can be slightly jazzed up as shown in the 4th beat of the first 2 bars. This little run can generally be inserted at any time if your fingers are free, Robert did this kind of stuff a lot.

The melody line is not really a melody as such, but rather consists of whole-note double-stops or single-string runs played in the bars where vocals are predominant, alternated with quick fills that are slightly more complex. All of the double-stops and fills are played on the top 2 strings and are derived from the following chord fingerings:
Notice how most of the interesting little runs are played in bars 3-4, 7-8 and 11-12, as bars 1-2, 5-6 and 9-10 are reserved for vocals. Also note that the 12-bar sequences in this song are not punctuated by turnarounds in bars 11-12, which is unusual.

Personally, I get a little bored playing runs only on the first string, so I tend to do a little bit more on both 1st and 2nd strings when I'm playing this song. But then I listen to Robert, and he plays it real simple but it sounds real good!
Robert Johnson's Thumb Bass Style - Page 2
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