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In the video below I'm playing variations on 'Woman Called Mary', a Lightnin Hopkins blues song in E that was the foundation of about 60% of Hopkins' output. The feel is incredibly important. The blues in E is very simple, so it's important to add a variation each time to play a verse or fill.

Lightnin' Hopkins Guitar Tuning

lightnin hopkins guitar lessonThe famous Texas blues man Sam 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 man  Sam 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.

Lightnin' Hopkins Guitar Lesson - Baby Please Don't Go


Lightnin' Hopkin Guitar style

Sam 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 a Lightnin Hopkins blues song, 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.

How To Play Like Lightnin' Hopkins - More Tips

Sam Hopkins' 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.

In the video below, made for truefire.com, I give more tips about how to play like Lightnin' Hopkins:


Here's a great article from Americansongwriter.com:

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.

Article Source: https://americansongwriter.com/2015/05/lightnin-hopkins/

Lightnin Hopkins Guitar Style


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!)

Of all the prominent Texas blues men, none were more respected than Sam "Lightnin'" Hopkins, who throughout his profession, taped for almost 20 different labels. 

A national blues artist of the highest quality, who between his earliest recordings in 1946 to his death in 1982 recorded more than 85 albums, Hopkins saw the blues style of fingerpicking change significantly over the course his profession. 

However, he never wandered off far from his trademark soulful and mournful noise that he refined on both acoustic and electrical guitar. 

Hopkins' complex boogie riffs resonated with artists and fans alike, and his apparently limitless ability for lyrical improvisation made almost every live performance a distinct experience. 

This penchant for spontaneous imagination gave his performances a sense of immediacy and significance, unlike a number of his peers, and endeared him to audiences everywhere he went. Hopkins' appeal would wax and wane throughout almost 5 decades of recording, but he remains a vital impact on American music and has  motivated countless musicians with his style and originality.

Hopkins was born in Texas in 1912, one of Abe and Frances Hopkins' six kids. Upon the death of his daddy, when Hopkins was three years of ages, his mother transferred the family to Leona. 

By age eight, Hopkins made his first cigar-box guitar and within two years was playing in the area with his bros John Henry and Joel. In 1920, Hopkins happened to meet the famous blues man Blind Lemon Jefferson at a social function and struck up a friendship. 

Still a teenager, Hopkins also started working with his cousin, singer Texas Alexander, and both Alexander and Jefferson would provide the early encouragement that would start fueling his ambition. 

Hopkins' musical partnership with his cousin was disrupted by a mid-1930s sentencing to the Houston County Prison Farm, however upon his release, Hopkins reunited with Alexander. In 1946, while performing as a duo, they captured the ear of Alladin Records talent scout, Lola Anne Cullum. 

Uninterested in Alexander, Callum's vision was to introduce Hopkins to pianist Wilson "Thunder" Smith, recreate Hopkins as "Lightnin'" and have "Thunder & Lightnin'" become Alladin recording artists. Hopkins and Smith's debut recording, "Katie Mae" was cut on November 9, 1946 and saw immediate regional success. 

Hopkins made records prolifically during the next few years, even scoring a nationwide hit with "Shotgun Blues." During the next years, he would tape for many different labels, both as a solo artist and with a small rhythm section. 

In 1954, Hopkins tape-recorded an extremely prominent batch of tunes for the Herald label, where he was captured playing aggressive electric guitar. Along with drummer Ben Turner and bassist Donald Cook, the trio blasted through a series of up-tempo rockers that were groundbreaking in their ferocity. 

Far too aggressive for the times, the value of these recordings would take another decade to be completely appreciated, and by the end of the 1950s, Hopkins discovered himself back in Houston, with little promise of pursuing a recording profession.

It was right at this time (1960) that Hopkins met the music researcher Mack McCormick, who in addition to Chris Strachwitz, was in the throws of launching the California-based record label Arhoolie. They presented Hopkins as a folk-blues artist, a function he was destined to fill. 

That exact same year, pioneering ethnomusicologist Sam Charters tape-recorded Hopkins in his tiny apartment, utilizing a borrowed acoustic guitar, resulting in an album for the higher profile Folkways Records label. The resulting album presented Hopkins to a brand-new generation of listeners and re-launched his career.

Quickly, Hopkins was performing before white audiences on college schools and touring tall over the States. TV appearances and an early 1960s gig at New York City's prominent Carnegie Hall, together with Pete Seeger and Joan Baez, raised his profile substantially and his profession really took off. 

He recorded prolifically throughout the next years, releasing highly prominent releases for World Pacific, Vee-Jay, Honest, Arhoolie, Status, and Verve record companies. Changing back to acoustic guitar, Hopkins had actually become one of the shining lights of the folk-blues revival of the 1960s.

A frequent entertainer at Los Angeles' legendary Ash Grove, this recording captures Lightnin' Hopkins headlining a 1967 bill that also included the contemporary jugband styilngs of the Lydia E. Pinkham Superior Orchestra (also readily available here in the Show Vault), carrying out before an intimate and appreciative audience. 

This efficiency not only records Hopkins' significant powers as a guitarist and blues stylist however likewise discovers him in an especially chatty mood that communicates his personality and subtle laid back sense of humor.

This first set of the evening begins with Hopkins' ruminations on the trials and tribulations of marrying too young in "I Hate I Married." This is a prime example of Hopkins laid back singing shipment and irregular guitar lines producing a distinct form of rough poetry that bridges the space in between rural and urban blues styles. 

Following a short, however humorous monologue about minding one's own business, he follows with "You're Going to Miss Me When I'm Gone," a similarly easygoing piece that matches the previous number by continuing the story-line to its inevitable conclusion.

A lengthy monologue follows about a stuttering youth friend of Hopkins that motivates the lyrics to "Mr. Charlie." Hopkins' uninhibited design of singing and unquestionably expressive voice is a key active ingredient at instilling his character into every tune he sings. 

Hopkins' cover of Richard Jones' classic "Trouble In Mind" is another fine example, where he not only shows to be a master of dynamics, but also owns this commonly covered song.

Up up until this point, all the tunes have had a laid-back feel, however that changes throughout a romp through "Ain't It Crazy," including among his most contagious lyrics. Here Hopkins accelerates the tempo, takes extraordinarily nuanced solos, and never loses the rhythmic pulse.

The last four songs of this set may be the most intriguing, as they all better communicate Hopkins distinct fun-loving character, starting with "California Mudslide," which would become the title tune of an album the following year. Here Hopkins contemplates faith. 

This likewise includes another fantastic example of Hopkins' easy, yet extremely nuanced solos. The tune intro that follows is specific funny leading into the not-so-charming, yet musically infectious Slim Harpo seduction tune, "Baby, Scratch My Back." For the last 2 numbers "Help Me On My Way" and "High Heeled Sneakers," Hopkins is  on stage with Bernie Pearl, who adds lead guitar to the proceedings. 

The previous is a fine example of pure country blues, while one can plainly hear the roots of rock 'n' roll, ala Chuck Berry, who would utilize comparable rhythmic riffs to much broader acclaim.

Taped in 1967, this is exactly what many folk and blues guitarist coming of age in mid-1960s heard when they caught Hopkins' live shows. As such, one need not look far to hear Hopkins influence. From 1960s guitar icons like Johnny Winter, Mike Bloomfield, Jorma Kaukonen, and Duane Allman, up to Nirvana's Kurt Cobain and beyond, Hopkins' roots sound continues.

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