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lightnin-hopkins-texas-blues-man-how guitar-was-tunedThe famous Texas blues man Lightnin’ Hopkins was the Mr Cool of the blues and had a massive influence on a lot of guitarists.

His guitar technique could be simply structured or quite complicated, but never appeared to be strained or out of place. He perfected the monotonic bass way of guitar picking, just like Big Bill Broonzy, and other such as fellow Texan Mance Lipscomb, often favoring the key of E.
In his rendition of ‘Baby Please Don’t Go’ the melody played  on the treble strings mostly follows his vocals, which is normally not a good idea, but naturally, Hopkins makes it work!

Lightnin' Hopkins Tuning - Normal, but not Quite!

His acoustic guitar was often tuned down one or two steps, but was generally regular tuning, which suited the level of his low voice. A pulsating driving bass pattern pushed the music along and the resulting effect was magical.

Expert in slow guitar blues in the keys of E and A, he often demonstrated his total control of his picking thumb by putting together syncopated patterns while singing simultaneously. (Listen to his song Mojo Hand and have a go - good luck!) my advice for Hopkins style guitar playing is take it slowly and try to keep it authentic.

If we talk about blues, we often think of a guitar blues from the Mississippi delta in the key of E, the thin and whining higher notes supported by the rhythmic bass pattern of the picking thumb beat.

It's always possible to make the blues as complicated as we can, but the fact is that the most appealing blues songs are often very simple – it’s the style and touch that sets them apart.

A master like Texas blues master Lightnin Hopkins, could create syncopated arrangements, but was also unparalleled in creating music with that almost undefinable ‘bluesy’ feel, a must for any student who wants to learn how to play blues guitar.

Blues Guitar in E - Regular Tuning.

Learn Lightnin' Hopkins Blues Guitar - Guitar Tuning done right!

lightnin hopkins guitar tuningHopkins might hit one string and let it ring while moving on to the treble strings. Perhaps he would damp the string with the palm of his picking hand now and again to change the mood, or double up on the tempo delivering two beats instead of one. He called this his ‘heartbeat’ sound, which had a powerful appeal directly to the emotions.

Often there’s not a lot happening but the feeling is solid blues and difficult to copy. This kind of feeling is exactly what musicians mean when they say that what you leave out is just as important as what you put in!

Listening to the old blues, we can feel that it’s very closely related to modern rock. If you want to start playing the blues in E, just form that basic E chord and experiment. Don’t forget to have fun and practice every single day.

Tips for playing a blues in E, Lightnin' Hopkins style.

Lightnin' wasn't called the Mr Cool of the blues for nothing. His stage presence was huge, honed over many years of playing for parties and dances throughout his home state of Texas. Of course, later on in his career he was sought after all over the USA, but also beyond in Europe, where he toured to sell-out audiences. One of his compatriots tells a compelling anecdote about Hopkins' style and panache.

He was having a drink with the Texan blues man, who was waiting to go stage at a dance following the performance of an 8 piece swing band. He thought that the lone blues guitar player would 'die a death' after the huge sound of the previous group of musicians. It just wasn't the case. In minutes, Lightnin' had the audience in the palm of his hand, setting up a syncopated boogie and just growing the blues in that slow and low Texas drawl. It was a site to see.

Here's a great article from

Lightnin’ Hopkins: Can’t Hardly Keep From Crying

This article appears in the May/June 2015 “Blues Issue,” now available on newsstands.

Listen, if you will, to the first 30 seconds of Lightnin’ Hopkins’ “Moanin’ Blues.” Listen to what happens when the weight of the world and love and loss is too much – if that all could form a pulse, a breath, a ratcheted rhythm, it would be this.  Even before his lips form more than a drawn-out “mmmm,” and even without ever touching on a chorus or repetitive, easy vamp, Hopkins breathes and plucks humanity. ‘I can’t hardly keep from crying,” he sings, with pulls of the strings cutting through like acid tears, the hollow of his guitar a quivering lip. No one else can capture what life feels like – what it really feels like, in all its ache and sadness and uneasy humor – quite this way. Two and a half minutes of “Moanin’ Blues” and we know we all must moan the same: we all, really, get the blues. 

“When you get a sad feelin’, you can tell the whole round world you’ve got nothin’ but the blues,” Hopkins says in the 1967 documentary The Blues According to Lightnin’ Hopkins, and he was the vessel for it. Born Sam John Hopkins, he grew up on a cotton farm in Centerville, Texas, immersed in music from the likes of Alger “Texas” Alexander and other local luminaries – Blind Lemon Jefferson, known for his fast-picking and haunting howl, let the young boy play alongside him on a cigar box with chicken wire strings, becoming an early and deep influence. He went on to develop a style that spoke its own complete language: you can’t describe Lightnin’ Hopkins as “bluesy” so much as you can describe Shakespeare as “Shakespearian.” He was the first and only of his kind. 

When Hopkins died in 1982 at the age of 69, The New York Times called him “perhaps the greatest single influence on rock guitar players,” but the headline referred to him as “blues singer.” That dichotomy says it all – Hopkins played the blues, but his musical style was as important to the evolution of rock and roll as Elvis’ hip shimmy. The way his notes wrapped around the words, not went along with them, informed a whole generation of loose, freewheeling compositions unafraid of using an off-the-tracks rhythm – Jack White owes a lot to Led Zeppelin, but they both owe more to Hopkins, in the same way that so many modern musicians who drive their songs from a place of syncopated emotion, and not predictability, did. And do. The dynamic crush of the Black Keys’ “I’m Not The One” rings pure to Hopkins’ roots, and bands as far ranging as the Red Hot Chili Peppers to Jimi Hendrix to Eric Clapton all owe licks to Lightnin’.

Hopkins made dozens of LPs on many different labels, but they were often just as indicative as he could be live – he rarely recorded multiple takes, and his improvisational style came through loud and clear. Some call him country blues – whatever that means, really – something that Justin Townes Earle once showcased artfully in his cover of “My Starter Won’t Start,” which used the singer’s lead plucks to trace the meeting place between these two genres that, in their essences, sometimes aren’t as far apart as they might seem.

In fact, it’s Hopkins himself that is so difficult to define because his influence is so broad. Rock, blues, jazz, country. It’s all built on his gut-wrenching performances, his heartbreaking lyrics that sometimes take a wink at themselves on his free-form discourse between the guitar and the singer. It’s never quite clear, or important, really, whether it’s the vocal or the melody that’s driving a song; they talk with each other, play, push and pull. Even a heavy-metal solo can find some roots in that – as can anyone who takes a left turn from traditional music patterns (12 bars are just the beginning), starts a song with a single-note lead or makes dissonant sounds scream poetry. 

From traveling in his early days with Alexander to stints on the Chicago blues scene or the ’60s folk revival, Hopkins never wavered, never compromised, and influenced generations past and generations to come. You can tell the whole round world you’ve got nothin’ but the blues, but no one told them like he did, and it’s quite possible no one ever will.

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Did Lightnin' Hopkins Ever Use Open Guitar Tunings, or Bottleneck?

Only very rarely. It seems he played the song 'Abilene' in open E tuning, but tuned lower to keep the strain off the strings. Open E is a lot like open D guitar tuning, and he could have used that. All the rest of his songs were in regular tuning, but hardly ever tuned to E,A,D,G,B,E - mostly he tuned it down one or two steps, but this was never set in stone. On possibility is that he simply tuned it to suit his voice that particular day!

I read that he didn't own a guitar for a period, and just played one given to him for recordings and performances. Other times he would accept a decent guitar as payment for a gig, together with food, a bed and something to drink (of course!)

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