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Learning Robert Johnson


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Learning to play Robert Johnson

Robert Johnson is one of the most influential delta blues guitarist or maybe just the most influential blues guitarist. It is arguable how much influnece he had in his own time and in the first decades after his untimely death. But there is no doubt that he has had an enormous influence on the blues playing in our time.

When I started preparing this article my plan was to go through what is available, and maybe come to a conclusion and a recommendation at the end. I will do that. But there is a clear winner, and I can jump to the conclusion: The question is what you should have in addition to Rory Block's two DVDs and a set of Robert Johnson's original recordings. You will get the reasons for this conclusion if you read on.

The music on CD

To learn the style of any blues player (or any player in general) you have to listen to their playing. So the first thing to do is to get some CDs with his music - if you do not already have them. Robert Johnson died young and did only record 29 songs. With alternate takes he left us 41 (or maybe 42) recordings. His alternate takes are often very different and sometimes better than the issued takes, so you have to have them all.

There is a complete set on 2 CDs issued by CBS (now Sony). This is the one I used to recommend. But according to some of the reviews at Amazon.com, the sound is better on the reissues of the two volumes of "King of Delta Blues Singers". As I have them only as LPs (and the complete set on CD), I cannot add any comments to that. In one of the reviews is also says that King of the Delta Blues Singers includes a version of Traveling Riverside Blues that is not on the Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings set -- which is the reason why I say that there may be 42 recordings. Whatever you choose, you will get all his songs and almost all of his recordings on two CDs.

It may be a good idea to get Rory Block's CD The Lady and Mr. Johnson. On this CD with 13 of Robert Johnson's songs, her intent has been to play the songs exactly as Robert Johnson played them. As far as I can judge, she is successful in doing that. One can of course argue whether this is a good way of approaching this music or not. Usually I will say learn from the music, but do not try to copy. But when you do it as good as Rory Block does, she is making the music her own and being very faithful to Robert Johnson at the same time. From a learning perspective it is a very useful approach. When the music is played as Robert Johnson did and recorded in a 21th century studio, we here much better what is going on compared to Robert Johnson's recordings.

Choice of medium

You have to make a few choices - or go for it all. Do you go for video (DVD) or book/CD?

I still have not made up my mind about DVD vs book/CD. It helps to see what they are doing. There are details that are difficult to explain, but not too difficult to show and demonstrate. Many of the details Rory Block explains on her DVDs would be very hard to explain if she could not show you what she is doing. But if you are working with a DVD you have to sit in front of a screen. But the situation is far better than it was in the days of the VHS cassettes. You do not have to wind and rewind the DVD. And today it is common to have DVD-players in every computer, including lap-tops. You do not have to annoy your family by occupying the living room for your guitar studies. But sometimes it is nice to transfer the audio to an iPod or to another portable player. You do not have to watch to listen. As DVDs usually come with printed material you may just bring the booklet if you are going to sit down and practice or play. But a book will generally have a better format than a booklet. There are pros and cons. I tend to go for the both-and solution, but this is of course a more expensive option.

The DVDs

If you go for DVD there are two options. There is one DVD by Scott Ainslie in Hal Leonard's "Signature Licks" series and a two DVD-set by Rory Block from Homespun Tapes (DVDs are sold separately and as a set). Their approaches are different. Scott Ainslie uses 66 minutes to teach 7 songs, Rory Block uses 3 hours and 45 minutes on six songs. Scott Ainslie stays close to the original and teach "how to play these songs as Robert Johnson played them". Rory Block is more free in her approach. She stays close to the orginal and present them as precise as possible. But at the same time she realizes that he did not play a song the same way twice. It is more about understanding rather than copying the style of Robert Johnson. She stays close to the original, but she teaches us to find our own voice based on the style of Robert Johnson. Despite the names, it is Rory Block who teaches the signature licks of Robert Johnson in the context of his recordings.

The choice of songs are different, with only two songs common for the two sets. If you go for both sets you will get 11 songs. If you really want to learn Robert Johnson and like DVDs, get them all.

If I should teach the playing of Robert Johnson, I would have started with the two first tunes on the Scott Ainslie DVD, two songs that are not covered by Rory Block: Yes and Juan Martin, both in standard tuning. But further down the road I would have  included the most sophisticated of Robert Johnson's slide tunes, Preachin' Blues (Up Jumped The Devil), which is covered by Rory Block, but not by Scott Ainslie.

What really puts Rory Block's two DVDs ahead of the rest, and I would say ahead of any other instructional DVD I have seen so far, is that she teach a lot more than just how to play these songs. Rory Block was one of the key figures in the blues revivals in the 60s. She learned directly from Son House, Skip James and others. And for those of you who do not know the blues history: Robert Johnsonstarted by copying the playing of Son House and others, and Skip James was one of those who inspired him. Rory Block has spent her life trying to get as deeply into this music as possible. As a teenager she travelled from her native New York City down south to track down old bluesmen. There are few, if any who knows this music better than her. Robert Johnson is her passion. Her deep understanding combined with her passion and enthusiasm make her DVDs a must. She is inspiring. I can second what Dave Rubin, author of two of the books I will come to in a moment,  wrote in his review in Play Blues Guitar:

"Her love and passion for the music comes through from the very beginning of her excellent, two-hour tutorial on the blues styles of Robert Johnson…. Her sincere, enthusiastic manner invites the student into her world of blues guitar and made this veteran picker want to grab his axe and play along."

There are many books and DVDs that concentrate on the left hand. But what you do with your left hand determines which notes you play. It is the right hand that determines how these notes are played. I am sure that I am not the only one who has been sitting with a tab without being able to get the sound. Rory Block demontrates and explains a lot of her right hand techniques. This is what gives the music attack, a funky rhythm, etc.

It can be intimidating sitting with an expert, even on the screen, when you are struggeling to play what seems so easy when the expert does it. It is reassuring and comforting when the expert instructor tells us "I had so spend a looong time before I could get this right". Rory Block does that. She is a kind hearted woman caring for her students.

Many great guitar players are lousy vocalists. They sing only because a set of accoustic guitar instrumentals tend to be a bit boring. They – or should I say we – concentrate on the guitar and sing into the soundhole while looking at our left hand. Rory Block is a brilliant guitar player. But she is also a great singer and performer. She discusses how to play and sing. And it is interesting to notice that she says we should first learn the song without the guitar, and then fill in with the guitar. The guitar is there to support the singing and not get in the way, it is not the singing that should be fill-ins for the guitar.

You should of course listen to all songs recorded by Robert Johnson. If some of your favourites are included on one of the DVDs and not the other, it should make your choice. For the two tunes included on both, Cross Road Blues and Ramblin' On My Mind, I would go for Rory Block.

Books

If you go for books and CDs, there are again several options. You can get a book with transcriptions of all songs. I thinkt that a set of transcriptions is useful. There are at least three books available, but I only know one. I have The New Transcriptions as well as a book by Scott Ainslie that is no longer available. The two other books are by Dave Rubin (who has also done The New Transcriptions and Woody Mann. My apporach to guitar playing is that I do not work too hard to sound exactly like someone else. I will learn from them and mix it into my own way of playing (or maybe it is just an excuse for being lazy). This means that I do not make detalied studies to see if the transcriptions are exactly as the original (and in the original, not two verses are played exactly the same way). So I cannot tell which one is more accurate if there are differences.

For instructions more than just transcriptions, one option is Signature Licks by Dave Rubin. The Signature Licks series breaks down the tunes and explains the style and technique. Woody Mann's book is an audio lesson more than a book. The Signature Licks will give you a 64 page book and a 20-30 min CD covering 15 songs. It was featured as "Book of the month December 2002". Go to the description of the book for more information. The Woody Mannset is a 24 page book with 3 CDs covering 6 songs. Woody Mann will talk you through the songs and explain the songs. The book is a printed supplement to the audio, while the CD is more like a supplement to the book in the Signature Licks set.

I like the audio lessons. Music is an aural art. You should first and foremost learn by using your ears, not your eyes. You can transfer the Woody Mann set to your iPod and forget about the book. But again it is a matter of choice. One of the songs in the Woody Mann set is not included in the Signature Licks set (Me And The Devil Blues).

Beyond Robert Johnson

What Robert Johnson really did was to listen to and absorb the playing of others and make it his own. It is nothing wrong in doing that. Shakespeare wrote his dramas the same way. If you want to dig into the soil of music on which Robert Johnson was standing, you will find musicians like Johnny Temple, Lonnie Johnson, Blind Blake, Big Bill Broonzy, Scrapper Blackwell, Kokomo Arnold, Son House, Charley Patton, Willie Brown, Skip James and others. We can trace Robert Johnson's songs and playing back to these musicians.

If your primary interest is to explore the playing of these musicians, there are one book by Woody Mann and Stefan Grossman called The Roots Of Robert Johnson, and another book (or audio lessons with book and 3 CDs) by Woody Mann called Early Roots of Robert Johnson. The were featured together as "Book of the Month August 2002", and you will find more information if  you go to the detail page of any of these two books.

A lot of the music is also presented in books and videos on delta blues in general. Stefan Grossman's classic book Delta Blues Guitar - Book, a book which still is one of the bestselling books through my site, covers several of the artistst that inspired Robert Johnson. And we can choose Rory Block's audiolesson Classics of Country Blues Guitar (book and 6 CDs) or her DVDs The Power Of The Delta Blues Guitar Volume 1 and The Power Of The Delta Blues Guitar Volume 2. (I do not have these DVDs and have no opinion on them).

For a more historical approach you can get Edward Komara's The Road to Robert Johnson and/or Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues by Elijah Wald. You will find more on guitar playing in Edward Komara's book. This book comes with a CD. There is a CD to go with Elijah Wald's book as well, but you have to buy it separately. Let me also add that there is a 4 CD set by JSP records with the recordings by Robert Johnson (but not the alternate takes), as well as many other musicians who influenced Robert Johnson. As all box sets from JSP, it is sold at a budget price.

Lessons

In my series on Blues Guitar I have no lessons dedicated to Robert Johnson. But you will find some lessons covering tehcniques and styles we often associate with Robert Johnson.

Summary and conclusions

As I have already said in the introduction, there is a clear winner: Rory Block. Get her two DVDs and a complete set of Robert Johnson's recordings, including alternate takes. I would have added a book with transcriptions to the package, and my choice will be The New Transcriptions. Add Rory Block's CD The Lady and Mr. Johnson too. It is a great record and it will help you understand Robert Johnson's playing.

If you want more on the songs not covered by Rory Block, you have to decide on book/CD or DVD. If you prefer DVD, there is only one option: Scott Ainslie's Robert Johnson - Signature licks. If you go for a book/CD set, which is what I would have done, get the Robert Johnson Signature Licks by Dave Rubin.

DVDs mentioned:

Rory Block Teaches the Guitar of Robert Johnson

Artist: Robert Johnson

Authored by Rory Block

On this jam-packed DVD lesson, the award-winning contemporary blues singer and guitarist Rory Block completely demystifies the licks, runs, strums, bass lines, turnarounds and other important guitar elements that combine to make up the unique Robert Johnson sound.

More information >>

Order From:
SheetmusicPlus
MusicRoom
Amazon UK
Amazon US

RefNr: HT641810
Level: 3
Minutes: 120
Format: Method
Medium: DVD

Rory Block Teaches the Guitar of Robert Johnson Vol 2

Authored by Rory Block

Artist: Robert Johnson

On Rory Block's second installment into the great blues artist's legacy, she provides complete note-by-note, lick-by-lick instruction for three of his most powerful songs: Cross Road Blues * Ramblin' on My Mind * and Hellhound on My Trail.

More information >>

Order From:
SheetmusicPlus
MusicRoom
Amazon UK
Amazon US

RefNr: HT642021
Minutes: 105
Format: Method
Medium: DVD

Robert Johnson - Signature licks

Artist: Robert Johnson

Authored by Scott Ainslie

This lesson demonstrates the techniques Johnson used to create his remarkable guitar parts for 7 songs.

More information >>

Order From:
SheetmusicPlus
MusicRoom
Amazon UK
Amazon US

RefNr: HL320500
Minutes: 66
Format: Method
Medium: DVD

The Power Of The Delta Blues Guitar Volume 1

Authored by Rory Block

Rory Block dissects and teaches a breathtaking set of key Delta Blues performances, including the rhythmic pounding of Charlie Patton, the fingerpicking style of Tommy Johnson and the slide/open-tuning sounds of the great Robert Johnson.

More information >>

Order From:
MusicRoom
Amazon UK
Amazon US

RefNr: HT641886
Minutes: 60
Format: Method
Medium: DVD

The Power Of The Delta Blues Guitar Volume 2

Authored by Rory Block

In this edition, Block concentrates upon the unusual and diverse styles of Bukka White, Mississippi John Hurt, Charlie Spann and Robert Johnson.

More information >>

Order From:
MusicRoom
Amazon UK
Amazon US

RefNr: HT641887
Minutes: 60
Format: Method
Medium: DVD

Books mentioned:

The New Transcriptions

Artist: Robert Johnson

29 Songs From The Legendary Bluesman. A must-have for all blues guitarists, this exciting publication is the most complete Robert Johnson collection ever!

More information >>

Order From:
SheetmusicPlus
MusicRoom
Amazon UK
Amazon US

RefNr: HL690271
Pages: 200
Format: Transcription (TAB)
Medium: Book (paperback)

Robert Johnson Signature Licks

Artist: Robert Johnson
Written by Dave Rubin
Book of the Month 2002-12

Explore the music of one of the greatest acoustic bluesmen of all time with this fascinating book/CD pack. A Step-by-Step Breakdown of the Legendary Guitarist's Style and Technique.

More information >>

Order From:
SheetmusicPlus
MusicRoom
Amazon UK
Amazon US

RefNr: HL695264
Pages: 63
Format: Method
Medium: Book/CD

The Guitar of Robert Johnson

Artist: Robert Johnson
Written by Woody Mann

Here, Woody Mann has carefully prepared this three CD series to describe and illustrate many of Robert Johnson!s amazing guitar techniques and musical ideas.

More information >>

Order From:
SheetmusicPlus
Amazon UK
Amazon US

RefNr: SG20911BCD
Pages: 24
Format: Method
Medium: Book/3CD

The Roots Of Robert Johnson

Written by Stefan Grossman
Artist: Robert Johnson
Written by Woody Mann
Book of the Month 2002-08

The playing of the legendary Delta bluesman, Robert Johnson was firmly rooted in the blues of the 1920s.

More information >>

Order From:
Amazon UK
Amazon US

RefNr: MB95074BCD
Pages:
Format: Method
Medium: Book/CD

Early Roots of Robert Johnson

Written by Stefan Grossman
Artist: Robert Johnson
Written by Woody Mann
Book of the Month 2002-08

Learn essential exercises and tips as they are presented in this compilation of tunes that influenced the legendary Robert Johnson.

More information >>

Order From:
SheetmusicPlus
Amazon UK
Amazon US

RefNr: MB98510BCD
Pages: 32
Format: Method
Medium: Book/3CD

Delta Blues Guitar - Book

Written by Stefan Grossman
Book of the Month 2003-03

The second volume in Stefan's classic series. Feature music by Charley Patton, Son House, Willie Brown, Tommy Johnson, Ichman Bracey, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Robert Johnson, Skip James and others.

More information >>

Order From:
SheetmusicPlus
MusicRoom
Amazon UK
Amazon US

RefNr: OK64683
Pages: 112
Format: Method
Medium: Book (paperback)

Classics of Country Blues Guitar

Written by Rory Block
Book of the Month 2003-01

Youll learn the sounds and styles of great artists such as Robert Johnson, Willie Moore, Tommy Johnson, Mississippi John Hurt, Willie Brown, Skip James, Blind Blake and the Reverend Robert Wilkins.

More information >>

Order From:
SheetmusicPlus
Amazon UK
Amazon US

RefNr: HL841708
Pages: 42
Format: Method
Medium: Book/6CD

Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues

About Robert Johnson
Written by Elijah Wald

A close-up look at the life and music of Robert Johnson and his contributions to the evolution of blues music.

More information >>

Order From:
Amazon UK
Amazon US

RefNr: 0060524278
Pages: 368
Format: Biography
Medium: Book (paperback)

The Road to Robert Johnson

Artist: Robert Johnson
Written by Edward Komara
Artist: Various Artists

The Genesis and Evolution of Blues in the Delta from the Late 1800s Through 1938.

More information >>

Order From:
SheetmusicPlus
Amazon UK
Amazon US

RefNr: HL695388
Pages: 176
Format: Method
Medium: Book/CD

CDs mentioned:

Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings
This two-CD box contains all 41 recordings Johnson
RefNr: B000026EG9
Order From:
Amazon UK
Amazon US

King of the Delta Blues Singers
If there is a recording that is required listening
RefNr: B00000AG6X
Order From:
Amazon US

Amazon UK

King of the Delta Blues Singers, Vol. 2
RefNr: B0002MHEK0
Order From:
Amazon US

Amazon UK

The Lady and Mr. Johnson
The spirit of Robert Johnson and the Delta Blues t
RefNr: B000F5GKO0
Order From:
Amazon US

Amazon UK

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