Big Boogie

First position C boogie

One way to think about the harmony of a boogie is as two chords that you change between. In C, one way to look at the shuffle is as movement between two chords: C major and C major 6.

The obvious problem is how to grab these chords so that you can switch between them quickly. One choice is to leave out the top note and play


I usually use my index to barre the D and G strings, giving me the grips xmr0xx and xmrrxx. However, it is worth noting that the moveable maj 6 shape x3221 with xpmrix is used frequently in other contexts where the octave in the highest voice is indispensable.

You could also voice the chords with the fifth on the bottom:


For the subdominant (IV) chord F 7 try these second-inversion (meaning the fifth's on the bottom) voicings:


The grips for these were counterintuitive to me, and took some practicing to get right after I figured them out. I think xrpmxx is the best starting grip because it allows you to smoothly play F 7 as xrimxx (F maj 6 is obviously xr0mxx).

The dominant chord (G 7) follows the same pattern as the tonic:


Steady rolling in A

The key of A natural is wonderful for the six-string fingerpicker. To start off, you have this fat tonic chord

This is a pretty standard open A7, except I have specifically included the E in the bass note. I think you are usually better off playing this note. It makes the chord sound very fat.

The voicing is a fifth-root-fifth on the lower three strings, and dominant seven-third-fifth stack. This is a very common piano voicing as well, and also sounds very good on the acoustic guitar.

RJ plays a few variations of this chord. The two we’ll look at first add an octave or a dominant seven at the very top of the voicing

They are both still A7, but the effect of holding the octave version for three measures and then dropping down to the dominant seven voicing is a recurring harmonic device in RJ’s music. It appears in both “Steady Rolling Man” and with G style voicings in “Love In Vain,” one of RJ’s most covered tunes.

These vociings again illustrate the importance of the dead thumb technique. While keeping a steady downbeat on the chord form, the index and middle fingers of the picking hand are free to articulate the upper harmonic notes and interplay with the vocal melody. A nice separation of concerns where the thumb plays the bass and the fingers play the harmony part.

The IV and V chords for this boogie can be similar to those used for “Kind Hearted Woman”. But these voicings also suggest a natural voice leading through the V and IV chords. Try playing the V-IV turnaround like this, resolving back to the A7

Putting these all together, you have the voicings for “Steady Rolling Man”.

Dead thumb

One of the most important aspects of playing great music on solo guitar is recognizing the guitar’s rhythmic capabilities. The guitar is used to sing melodies and of course play chords and accompany in harmony. Always remember that the guitar is also effective percussion.

No doubt you are familiar with a walking bass, meaning a bass playing quarter notes, four per bar in standard time. A common enough thing in jazz. RJ uses the same concept to deliver a steady, low-register outline of the harmony.

For example, in the tune “Kind Hearted Woman”, RJ dead thumbs the following two-note chords to outline the I-IV-V harmony of the tune.

That’s the lowdown. Now about how to play it. You really have to work it to get this to sound good. It takes a lot of practice—not to mention familiarity with a particular instrument—and it doesn’t pay off till the very end. Worth it. The four-on-the-floor groove cements RJ’s tunes: you can’t play RJ without learning how to dead thumb.

Some practicalities: keep practice interesting. Don’t practice so much as play through the tune, skipping parts that are too difficult but keeping the rhythm. The three two-note chords in “Kind Hearted Woman” are so simple that you can learn them with one time through. Keep the rhythm steady.1

RJ supposedly played with a thumb pick, and recorded facing a corner in a hotel room. I don’t think you need a thumb pick to play his tunes well, but I do think you need to play them facing a corner. The walls that make the corner reflect and compress the sound of your guitar. Our ears hear more detail. Mistakes are more evident and so is virtuosic guitar playing. You can learn a lot about how well you play by playing into a corner.

Ideal arm position for dead thumbing through “Kind Hearted Woman” will depend on your guitar. You’ll obviously want to be comfortable. The fleshy part of the palm next to the pinky should rest across the bridge, right where the strings pass over it. Rolling your hand back to uncover the strings and forth to dampen their sound should be easy and natural. You need to be able to control how long each note rings. For these dead-thumbed low-register notes, you want them to decay quickly, like a drum.

  1. If you’re having trouble keeping a steady rhythm, try learning the chords to a couple of your favorite reggae songs and playing and singing them. Some suggestions: “Guns of Brixton” and “Police and Thieves” (The Clash), “Waiting in Vain” or almost any other Bob Marley tune, “Johnny Too Bad” (Jimmy Cliff).

A first look at Robert Johnson’s “Kind Hearted Woman”

Robert Johnson’s entire recorded output is twenty-nine tunes plus duplicates, amounting to between forty and fifty tracks. His most commercially successful tune, “Kind Hearted Woman”, is a midtempo 12-bar blues in A. Most guitarists already know the benefits of playing a blues in the key of A: all three chords are mostly open strings.

The chords that RJ uses in are clustered in three different areas of the neck. The subdominant D7 and the dominant E7 are played close to the nut.

That E7 is garden variety, but it’s worth taking a close look at the blues-approved D7 grip. I tend to play this with my thumb wrapped around the neck, but I think that’s a bad habit. I would try to get used to playing this chord with your middle finger if you’re just learning it. You can mute the G, B, and E strings with your right palm the fingers of your left hand. But make sure you practice how you strike this chord so it sounds right. It’s very easy to play badly. Practice this chord until it sounds right. Listen to the recordings and see how tight and abrupt (staccato) the chord sounds. Try to mimic that sound.

The voicing itself is a first inversion D major triad. (Meaning that it’s a D major triad with the notes in this order: third, fifth, root.) The voicing is so low in the register of the guitar that it can sound muddy if you don’t strike it well.

Now for the two groups of chords clustered around the tonic A7. The first is the shape used in the intro, one of the verses (“I love my baby / My baby don’t love me”), and the solo. First, there&srquo;s a three-chord descending figure. These chord shapes are relative to the fifth fret (the first one is xx7989):

The next cluster contains two more ways RJ plays the tonic A7 in this tune.

And now the predominant tonic grip, and a cousin.

Now that’s an interesting voicing. The conventional A7 that guitarists typically learn, x02020, has a common piano-style stacking, the root-fifth, which would be played with the left hand on the piano, plus the seventh-third-fifth in the right hand, which is just the major triad with the root moved down one step to the minor seventh.

RJ’s voicing keeps the harmonically strong seventh-third-fifth stack but inverts the bass notes (to fifth-root), which sounds exceptionally strong on the guitar because of the implied root an octave down (implied meaning you don’t play it but you hear it).

Anticipation in the right hand

Thinking about where your fingers are is antithetical to playing well almost all of the time. If you’re thinking about where on the neck you are, chances are your solo isn’t going great. However, there are a couple of cases when some forethought really pays off.

Today, let me just use this little phrase in eighth notes to illustrate: D C A G F D. This is the D minor pentatonic scale, otherwise known as I iii IV V vii where I is D and the lowercase numerals mean that the note is flatted.

If you’re not familiar with this kind of notation, the major (also called Ionian) scale is I II III IV V VI VII, and other scales are described in reference. So to indicate a scale with the same intervals as the major scale except the second note is flat: I ii III IV V VI VII. Roman numerals do not constitute the world’s most intuitive written number system, but they have the virtue of being unlike Arabic numerals.

Fucking anyway—if you’re in D Vastapol (D A D F♯ A D) and you want to play that scale with a slide, you have to play

           m  i  t

which pretty much means you have to have your right hand fingers sorted before you even start the phrase. If you hit 2 10 with your thumb its hopeless to try to hit the other notes in time to make a smooth phrase, even at moderate tempos.

How to make open strings and fretted notes sound the same

As discussed earlier, it's to our advantage to use open strings whenever possible. However, it's also easy for open strings to sound weird and different (and not in a good way), especially if we're not perfectly in tune and intoned.

You can make open strings and fretted notes sound the same with

  1. A tuned guitar
  2. New strings
  3. Small-bodied guitar
  4. Corner-loading
  5. Nickel strings (as opposed to bronze)

A small bodied guitar and playing into a corner will both compress the sound of the guitar. Since will even a hint of laziness in your picking hand will be amplified tenfold when it comes to the variance in the volume of an open string, compression helps to smooth the sound.

Itchy skin blues in C

Here's an interesting one, new to me. Try these chords for a swinging midtempo blues in C

I called the second chord F7/C rather than just F7 because I wanted to say in the name that the lowest note in the chord is C. In this case, C is already in the chord (it's the fifth of F7 and, obviously, the tonic note). With these chord voicings, and the limitation of how we're tuned, it is impossible to add a B below the F at (6,1). So we just leave out the F. Gives us another finger to work with as well. And a little bit of foreshadowing...

Try interspersing some nice picking around the C chord. Use this grip primarily, with your index on the second string, middle on the forth, and ring on the fifth string. USe the pinkie at (3,4) to add a bluesy note (the seventh) as needed. Also try this run of notes


Otherwise known as the way cooler and messier-looking



Making choices

As guitarists, we have to make choices about where to play a particular voicing. There are not only plenty of ways to play Cmaj7 on the guitar neck, there are many ways to play the exact voicing we discussed in the last lesson (C G B E, or, more generally for any chord I V VII III).

If you're playing the change Cmaj7 Cmaj7/B you'd be an idiot for not using the open stringed voicings

But if you're playing Cmaj7 C♯°, it's usually easier to play

On open strings

The guitar shares an important trait with the piano. Both instruments can play more than one note at once. Both the guitar and the piano are polyphonic instruments (polyphonic from Latin poly- meaning “many” and -phonic indicating “sounds”). In this way they differ from the human voice.

That's where the similarities end.

Quick, what's the difference between these two Cmaj7 voicings?

They have the same notes (C G B E) in the same order. If you sung each as an arpeggio they are identical. They're the same chord on the piano.

But on the guitar, they sound completely different.

The difference is the open strings. On the guitar, not only do we have to deal with the exact same note being available in many places on the neck, we also must recognize that the same note played in two different places will have a different timbre.

Play the A on the second fret of the G string. Then play the same note on the seventh fret of the D string. Now play the two other places you can play it on the guitar (5,12) and (6,17). Sounds different in each place, doesn't it? I bet that you could probably close your eyes and guess which place I was playing that A.

Timbre is an effect of the construction of the instrument and the physical principles by which is produces sound. The sound of the guitar is produced by a vibrating string under tension. The frequency of the harmonic overtones that make of the timbre of the guitar is proportional to string length. This is such that the longer a string is, for a given thickness and tension, the higher the overtones it produces. The shorter the string, the lower in pitch the overtones will be. That's why the note sounds progressively "darker" as you move up the fretboard. The string gets shorter, and the overtones get concomitantly lower in pitch.

Playing an E blues

Every guitar player can fake his way through an E blues. The advanced solo player, however, can rip through several variations on the E blues with style and grace. I'll start with an unusual, groovy form.

We'll be using the E boogie form with the boogie notes on the B string. Here's a harmonized high-register E boogie form using counterpoint.

I'll let you off easy for the A chord. Try these:

The ring and middle fingers are used to allow an easy transition between the E and A forms, as you will have to make this switch between three and six times per twelve bars, depending on the form you choose.

The choice of dominant chord here is really a matter of taste. The standard take, used by Big Bill Broonzy, Skip James, and many others, is an A form barred up two frets. You loose the root note so you might call this "B with a E in the bass" meaning that the lowest note in the chord is an E. It's common practice to write B/E meaning the same thing. Other examples: A-7/E, Gmaj7/B, D/F♯

The above is good choice when you want the boogie rhythm unbroken. This is excellent when the vocal line does something unusual over the IV-V turnaround, as the chords ground the listener no matter how outlandish the melody.

However, the dominant voicings in the next section may be matched to this boogie with little effort.

Robert Johnson–style E boogie

Robert Johnson was a tremendous player, as even a casual listening will attest. Here is a boogie that shows up in his work frequently. It uses the unharmonized E form with the boogie note on the A and D strings, the unharmonized A form with the boogie note on the D string, a tonally ambiguous bent minor/major third, and a tight stock dominant voicing with a nice twist.

Don't forget the open D in the last one.

For two measures of the A chord, use

For the turnaround, RJ ignores the typical structure and substitutes these voicings

Johnson's turnaround voicings... what can I say about them? The first is a tight B dominant 7, the second is an ambiguous minor/major third (the G on the B string is bent to a G♯) that could be E major or Bmaj6, and the third is an altered B7, call it B major minor 6/F♯. This obtuse naming hides the excellent tension created by this chord. The F♯ resolves down a whole tone to the root, E; the D♯ resolves up a half step to E; the G resolves up a half step to the major third, G♯. A beautiful, hard-to-analyze chord that suits the progression well.

Sweet ii-V cycle in C

The jazz standard "In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning" has the changes ii-V7 | iii°7-VI7 | IV♯°7-VII7. Since this is just a ii-V in C, then another ii-V shifted up two frets, and then yet another ii-V shifted up two frets it tends to sound like, well, you're playing the same voicings over and over and just moving up two frets. Not very good voice leading. Try these voicings