5 ways to play like Robert Johnson without making a deal with the devil

Robert Johnson
(Image credit: Robert Johnson)

The Robert Johnson legend goes that he gained his guitar virtuosity from the Devil after a midnight meeting at a Crossroads, as described in the song he recorded back in the 1930s – and rejuvenated nearly 40 years later by Eric Clapton and Cream.

The 29 songs he recorded (plus 12 alternate takes) show a musician who was technically and stylistically ahead of many of his peers. That he died tragically young aged 27 has only fuelled the fi re of myth, but more important is that the real legacy of his music has influenced the generations of blues guitarists that followed.

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One of the things that makes his playing so remarkable is how ‘self contained’ he was – as a travelling solo musician with no band, he had to be! So, no backing tracks this time, though a tapping foot certainly helps the rhythm along. Our tab examples were all played fingerstyle. Enjoy – and take care at the crossroads!

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1. Try this intro / turnaround idea first 

(Image credit: Future)

Descending chromatically using what is basically an open D7 shape, we get that universally recognised fingerstyle blues intro/turnaround. Use gentle but percussive palm-muting on the sixth string by resting the side of your pick hand on the string by the bridge, but let the higher strings ring out in marked contrast to the bass.

2. An alternative turnaround 

(Image credit: Future)

An alternate take on the intro/turnaround idea, this line takes a slightly more syncopated approach, with a ringing open first string for a bit of top end sparkle. 

This and the previous example are completely interchangeable – and a player such as Robert Johnson would be able to mix and match ideas like this on the fly.

3. Basic 'I-IV' groove 

(Image credit: Future)

Moving on past intros, Johnson’s accompaniment style is less regimented, incorporating counter-melodies and what might now be called lead guitar lines. 

Ringing open strings can help to keep things flowing while shifting positions, and you’ll see that in action here. Details like the quarter-tone bends make all the difference, too.

4. 'V-IV-I’ – the 12-bar blues ending

(Image credit: Future)

Following the classic ‘V-IV-I’ 12-bar blues ending, this example showcases a bluesy A7 shape with the G note on top, before moving to another flavour of descending turnaround. 

As happens so often in blues, we finish with a hammer-on from minor to major 3rd, sitting on the fence between a pure major or minor feel.

5. Alternative ending line

(Image credit: Future)

An alternative to our previous line, this more technically advanced version uses some more of Johnson’s favourite chord voicings with the major 3rd in the bass of the B7 and A7 chords. 

The open string notes in bars 2 and 3 give you a brief moment to shift from the A7/C# chord to the closing phrase.

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