Watch the Day 38 online guitar lesson by Chris Buono from 40 Day Rhythm SWAT Camp
John Lee Hooker is the last of the great "transition" blues men. Like his contemporaries Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, Hooker left his native South and settled in the urban north, taking his brand of Mississippi Delta blues with him. His unique music worked its way into the sound of practically every blues and rock band of the last 40 years. He has not only survived, but flourished, with recent commercially successful releases (The Healer and Mr. Lucky) and a steady concert schedule.
Yet the blues John Lee Hooker records and performs in 1992 with such unabated vigor is the same blues he learned from his stepfather, Will Moore, 60 years ago. "I'm still doin' what I do, they just build it around me," says Hooker of his current style. "I haven't changed, I ain't doin' nothin' different. If I changed, then it wouldn't be me."
The first lesson anyone learns from hearing John Lee Hooker is that his guitar playing cannot be considered apart from his voice and foot. The three elements weave together, with the guitar harmonizing the beat and supporting and answering his voice. As is the case with every player blessed with an exceptionally distinctive style, to play his way would require stepping inside his skin. Hooker is sensitive to this: "I wouldn't never tell nobody to play like me; just play as you can, and play the blues. If you got my style, you ain't you - you me."
In 1948 Hooker released his first record, "Boogie Chillen'." (Though Hooker's discography is vast, the definitive versions of most of the songs mentioned in this lesson, are available on Rhino's excellent anthology, John Lee Hooker, the Ultimate Collection.) This marked the debut of a style that was to inspire blues men from and notes and hunker down to the feeling, the funk, the dirt.
Hooker recalls Miles Davis, the trendsetter's trend-setter, telling him, "I never seen a man so funky - you got mud up to your neck. You play the funkiest blues I ever seen in my life." To watch John Lee play "Boogie Chillen'" is to watch a guitarist who understands the work "clean" strictly in terms of personal hygiene. Figure 1 depicts the basic rhythm pattern he plays. His right hand pounds rather than picks the strings, with the bare thumb playing the bassline on the 5th string and the index finger, using all upstrokes, plucking the upper strings.
"Picks," say John disdainfully, "is synthetic... you get a muddy, dirty, funky sound with your hands, and I have found that, with the blues, that's what people want; that's the way the blues is supposed to be played."
In the left hand, John's middle finger slides from note to note to play the triplet fills; the chord figure is all on open strings (the tablature is written for open A tuning). Keep in mind that the written example is a "clean" version, and that John Lee's actual performance can depart considerably from what is transcribed. He doesn't copy his own records too closely, so there's no reason you should have to either.
There is a break in "Boogie Chillen'," in which John Lee goes up the neck to play a solo figure, which is really more a fancy rhythm part than anything else (Fig. 2). Due to the open A tuning, the notes can be strummed rather than cleanly picked; the open strings can freely ring out. The left-hand index finger plays the notes at the 3rd and 5th frets, and the pinky catches the high ones at the 8th fret.
John Lee performs a number of more traditional, Delta-style tunes with a shuffle feel. Some, like "Sally Mae" are also in open A tuning. Figure 3 depicts a series of phrases John Lee played. The left-and right-hand approaches are similar to those used on both "Boogie Chillen'" and "Crawlin' King Snake." He picks the top three strings with his index finger and the bottom three with his thumb. As for his left hand, the index and middle fingers do almost all the work, with the ring finger fretting the occasional G note on the 1st string.
In this example, Hooker doesn't really change chords as one would in an ordinary 12-bar blues. The structure is determined by the vocal, around which the guitar slithers and weaves. Since the phrasing does not conform to a standard 4/4 time signature, I've included a broken bar line at the end of each phrase to help you keep your place. It may be difficult, at first, to keep the shuffle going with the thumb while playing a slightly different rhythm with your index finger, but the open tuning and lack of chord changes make this exercise a good vehicle for developing finger independence.
Though Hooker has often played unaccompanied, most of his biggest hits were recorded with backing musicians. The challenge to his sidemen has always been to anticipate the chord changes, since John Lee does not always restrict himself to a traditional 12-bar format. In a few cases, however, the arrangements were tightened up into a more typically commercial sound, and some of these songs - "I'm Bad Like Jesse James," "Dimples," and "Boom Boom," among others - were covered with great success by rock groups. All are based around simple, rhythmic guitar figures, which alternate with his voice. Unlike typical blues arrangements, which feature lots of instrumental solos, these tunes depend solely on voice and rhythm to sustain interest; their lack of variety has a hypnotic effect. Although John expresses great admiration for Albert King and Stevie Ray Vaughan, his "solos" usually take the form of upper-register chordal figures and double-stops rather than single-note lines.
"I'm Bad Like Jesse James" is a one-chord slow shuffle, similar to Bo Diddley's "I'm A Man." John uses a couple of different licks to alternate with his voice, and, as usual, plays variations on the arrangement as the mood strikes him. All three licks are shown here consecutively for convenience (Figure 4)."Dimples" is built around a lick that can either be played on guitar or sung. Figure 5 shows the basic idea. To get a gutsy tone, John Lee "pops" the low E note by hooking his thumb underneath the string, lifting it and snapping it back hard against the fretboard. For variety, a rhythm figure (Fig. 6) can be used in place of the lick. John uses his index and middle fingers to play the E chord, his ring finger frets the low G, and his middle finger lays flat and then pulls off to get the last part. Remember to keep the right hand loose; feel counts more than precision.
"Boom Boom," perhaps Hooker's most oft-covered song, is a 12-bar shuffle in E. A variation on the intro is shown in Figure 7. When John starts singing, the licks alternate with the vocals.
It must be noted that for the kind of deep, intuitive blues played by John Lee Hooker, standard written instruction can be helpful only up to a point. That point is where technique ends and soul begins. As much as any living blues man, John understands this: "Ain't but the one way to do the blues: you got to do it with a feeling, not from a book. If you get it from a book, you've lost the feeling, lost the soul. A lotta guitar players, they play 90-mile-an-hour notes, but they got no real feeling to it."
Trends have come and gone by the dozen since he left Mississippi, but John Lee Hooker remains, as he says, the real McCoy. A voice, a guitar and a beat - the rough, raw core of blues.