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Play Blues Guitar Robert Johnson Style

There are literally hundreds of thousands and possibly millions of acoustic guitar players around the world.

It's the most common music instrument by far, because of it's portability and the simple fact that you can get a fundamental tune out of it in a couple of weeks.

I'm going to discuss 'acoustic blues guitar' simply because this is my primary interest and I want to talk about finger picking strategies and blues guitar picking. Generally, electric guitarists use a plectrum of some sort to pluck the strings in and up down motion. Naturally, there are always exceptions, like Mark Knopfler, who uses his bare fingers to play both electric and acoustic guitars.

His uncommon style caused Chet Atkins to say "I don't understand how he's doing, but he can sure do it! " You don't need to adhere to the norm - we can make our own rules, but we need to start out somewhere.

This starting point is commonly focused on past master players. In the genre of acoustic blues guitar, this implies blues pickers like Robert Johnson, Lightnin' Hopkins, Doc Watson, Reverend Gary Davis and a lot of others.

Naturally there are a lot of variations in style, but pickers can be broadly divided into two categories - those who wear finger picks and those that don't. We'll ignore how many picking fingers these folks used for now.

I've seen ragtime blues artists execute competently with up to 3 finger picks on the right hand, which didn't include the thumb! At the other end of the spectrum, some master pickers only use one, either steel or plastic.

I favor a steel pick, as it can be bent a little so that the tip of the pick corresponds with the contact point of a naked finger hitting a string. This indicates that there's no realignment required for the angle of attack.

Plastic finger picks are commonly thicker and protrude a bit more, so an adjustment in picking technique is necessary. This is essential if playing some songs that need picks, and some that don't, for example.


Chet Atkins and Mark Knopfler

show us how it's done on acoustic guitar

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Picks for the fingers.

I prefer metal finger picks for playing acoustic guitar - a steel finer pick can be bent a little so that the tip of the pick corresponds with the contact point of a naked finger hitting a string. This indicates that there's no realignment required for the angle of attack. Plastic finger picks are commonly thicker and protrude a bit more, so an adjustment in picking technique is necessary. This is essential if playing some songs that need picks, and some that don't, for example.

Thumb-pick opposed to bare thumb.

Generally, the pick provides a sharper, louder sound and amplifies somewhat. Some striking techniques are less difficult to accomplish in this way, such as 'throwing' the thumb onto the string giving a percussive effect. A significant benefit is that it saves the thumb from becoming sore. Bare finger guitarists have to practice very routinely to grow a thick callous so that they can play in comfort. In general, picks are easier to get in between the strings, so are great for picking individual strings in rapid succession.

Finger Picking With Bare Fingers.

A naked thumb can hook behind a string, pull it up from the sound board of the guitar and let it snap back, generating an accented beat which can be attractive in some styles of blues. In general, bare fingers are really precise and can create a wonderful bouncy style when performing ragtime guitar, either in the style of Scott Joplin-type piano rags or original ragtime blues in the style of Blind Blake. The thumb rolls and triplets highlighted in the latter's music make it really hard to play with finger picks.


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Many of the latter stylists, similar to Chet Atkins, utilized strengthened finger nails. I doubt if any older blues guitarists utilized this technique, but who can say? A lot of Texas guitarists favored a plastic thumb pick and bare fingers, frequently just using one finger of the right hand with incredible dexterity. Blind Blake seemed to have used naked fingers and and some contemporary blues men recollected that he had a hole in his right hand thumb, exactly where it was worn down by the bass strings of his guitar.


The mysterious Willie Walker, who only cut two sides in the 20s, seemed to be a real master of the ragtime guitar technique. His songs showcase lightning quick solitary string runs that seem difficult if using the thumb and index finger alternately striking the strings. It would seem probable that he employed a plectrum gripped in between thumb and forefinger, employing this to alternate the bass line whilst striking the treble strings with one or two fingers.

There are a lot of, types of finger picking and we can rely on the example of the great guitar masters to assist us to develop our own strategies as we search for the ideal blues guitar lessons.


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