Robert Johnson L-1

If there is one singer/guitarist who encapsulates the hoodoo of the blues, it is Robert Johnson. His basic recordings bore many followers. And his early demise, at just 27 years of age, birthed a legend that just won’t go away…

Who Was He?

“The King of the Delta Blues Singers”. Not only his nickname, but the title of the 1960s posthumous “debut” album that ignited mainstream interest in one of music's most fascinating figures.

Johnson casts a massive shadow of the history of blues and rock, because of both his musical innovations and the mythology that grew up around his brief life.

Johnson’s whole life and death remain shrouded in mystery. His birth date still remains questioned. His cause of death is, officially, unknown. His “real” grave has been the subject of debate. The strongest myth is of his guitar skills. Johnson is the lifeblood of the story of a “Faustian pact” with the devil.

Red Hot!

Robert Johnson stamp
Of all the artists who have covered Robert Johnson, who's done it best? The Stones, Eric Clapton? Fleetwood Mac? Red Hot Chili Peppers? Led Zeppelin? Or someone else?

He was a poor guitarist at first, said his peers. Son House recalled in Living Blues how he played with Johnson. House wrote: “And such a racket you never heard! It'd make the people mad, you know. They'd come out and say, 'Why don't y'all go in and get that guitar away from that boy! He's running people crazy with it!” But after only a few months away, Johnson returned to Delta jukes playing like no other. Even Muddy Waters admitted he was astounded when he saw Johnson playing a street corner.

Did Johnson meet the devil at the crossroads? Did the devil “tune” his guitar in return for his soul? Myth says, yes.

I interviewed the late David “Honeyboy” Edwards, himself a delta blues great, in the mid-‘90s. Honeyboy was a friend of Johnson and the last to play a juke joint with him, a few days before Johnson died.

Of Johnson’s “pact with the devil”, Honeyboy said, “Aww, I don't know about that. He told me a story but… I don’t know.” Honeyboy paused for a while at this point, and declined to elaborate, but possibly because he’d been asked the “devil” question too many times before.

“Robert was a good guitar player, that’s sure,” Honeyboy added. “He liked a drink, too. I used to go down and play the crossroads, in the country. Robert did too. We were all learning chords – eventually I got a chord book – but we all learned from other blues players: ‘how you do that? Where do I put my fingers? But, yeah, Robert was good at guitar.”

Myth also says Johnson died after being poisoned by a jealous husband, whose wife Johnson had been wooing… or more. “Robert liked women. I like women, too,” Honeyboy laughed. “I dunno. He was just gone one day… but he’d just turn up somedays, so it wasn’t no mystery to me.”

The notion of Johnson’s pact with evil is embellished by one of his most haunting songs. “Me and the Devil Blues” has lyrics of “Me and the devil walking side by side” and “hello Satan, I believe it’s time to go.” Add “Cross Road Blues”, “Hellhound on My Trail” and others, and it’s plain to see why some still believe the myth of Robert Johnson’s pact with the devil.

Robert Johnson L-1

Signature Sounds

First off, there was Johnson's voice – an eerie moan that you can either emulate or not! Johnson's guitar stylings are more achievable, though tricky.

Like jazz blues pioneer guitarist Lonnie Johnson (no relation), whose early recordings Robert had heard, RJ occasionally used dropped D (examples, “Drunken Hearted Man” and “Malted Milk”) with the notorious couplet “I’m gonna beat my woman/Until I’m satisfied,” also sounds like it’s in dropped D tuning (D-A-D-G-B-E).

Johnson also used open G (D-G-D-G-B-D), inspiring Keith Richards favorite 5-string tuning (G-D-G-B-D). The Rolling Stones’ cover of Robert’s “Love in Vain” hews close to the bones of Johnson’s performance in open G. “Walking Blues” is also in open G.

Johnson also used the more typical Delta tunings of open D (D-A-D-F#-A-D) and open E (E-B-E-G#-B-E) which are great jump-in points for slide guitar, as well as open E minor, providing the eerie sounds accompanying his wailing vocal on “Hellhound on My Trail.” Indeed, open E minor (B-E-B-E-G#-D) has been called “the Devil’s tuning” by many Johnson aficionados for its haunting tone and menacing tri-tones. Open A can be heard on “Come On in My Kitchen,” “Crossroads Blues” and “Terraplane Blues.”

But the his long fingers, Johnson managed to simultaneously cover both bass notes and fingerpicked higher parts all in complex rhythms: Keith Richards admits that when Brian Jones first played him King of the Delta Blues Singers, “I said to Brian... 'who's the other guy playing with him?' Richards genuinely thought there were two playing.

“Robert Johnson was like an orchestra by himself,” reckons Richards.” Some of his best stuff is almost Bach-like in its construction... a brilliant burst of inspiration.”

Legend has it that Johnson recorded all his music facing the corner of the hotel rooms where his songs were cut. The cover art of 2004's King Of The Delta Blues Singers Vol II even recreates the scene.

Robert Johnson

Ry Cooder has speculated he was enhancing the sound of his Gibson, a technique Cooder calls “corner loading.” Others speculate Johnson was simply hiding to everyone what his hands were actually doing. It all adds to the legend.

The influences continues. As Jack White concedes on his love affair with the blues, “I dabbled in things like Howlin' Wolf, Cream and Led Zeppelin, but when I heard Son House and Robert Johnson, it blew my mind. It was something I'd been missing my whole life. That music made me discard everything else and just get down to the soul and honesty of the blues.”

Johnson clearly used a variety of alt tunings, but his fingers sometimes sound incredibly nimble for a 1930s delta blues player. But again, maybe it’s not accurate?

In The Guardian newspaper from May 2010, music writer Jon Wilde states that “the common consensus among musicologists is that we've been listening to [Robert] Johnson at least 20% too fast, that the recordings were accidentally speeded up when first committed to 78 [rpm records], or else were deliberately speeded up to make them sound more exciting."

Former Sony music executive Lawrence Cohn, who won a Grammy for the label's 1991 reissue of Johnson's works, acknowledged: “there's a possibility Johnson's 1936-37 recordings were sped up,” since the OKeh/Vocalion family of labels, which originally issued the material, was “notorious” for altering the speed of its releases. “Sometimes it was 78rpms, sometimes it was 81rpms,” Cohn said.

Original Robert Johnson masters are long gone, so who will now ever know?

Robert Johnson and Gibson Guitars

There's no extensive rig-rundown for Johnson – heck, there are only two verified photos of him! – but he played a Gibson L-1, the flat-top version introduced in 1926. Ninety years on, go for 2016's Gibson L-1 Blues Tribute with its many improvements.

Robert Johnson L-1

It boasts a Thermally Cured Adirondack red spruce top and mahogany back and sides. The faded vintage sunburst is an elegant addition to the period correct detailing. A softened fingerboard edge adds improved playability. But there are state-of-art additions, such as Plek technology set-up and an LR Baggs Lyric pickup to make that classic small body sound big!

There's no doubting the L-1 Blues Tribute's heritage though, with its smooth VOS finish and “The Gibson” headstock inlay. History repeating? No, history improving...

Essential Listening

The 2xCD sets Robert Johnson The Complete Recordings (1990) or the 'Centennial Edition' (2011) with extra out-takes and cleaner audio. Half the fun with Johnson's music, is how other artists have extrapolated his original recordings.

Cream's mighty “Crossroads” is a long way from “Crossroad Blues”, but did much much to cement Eric Clapton's rep as a tour-de-force soloist. Clapton's Me and Mr Johnson album is more faithful to the originals, if rather sanitized. But there's no doubting EC's sincerity when he says, “Robert Johnson is the most important blues musician who ever lived. I have never found anything more deeply soulful. His music remains the most powerful cry that I think you can find in the human voice.” Peter Green's The Robert Johnson Songbook is decent. As for individual Johnson songs, check out covers by Led Zeppelin (“Traveling Riverside Blues”), The White Stripes (“Stop Breaking Down Blues”), Fleetwood Mac (“Hellhound On My Trail”), Muddy Waters (“Walkin' Blues”), Keb Mo (“Come On In My Kitchen”) and many more.

And here's The Stones riffing on “Love In Vain” in the '70s, with brilliant Les Paul slide from Mick Taylor aged just 23.

For Keith Richards, the appeal of Robert Johnson is simple. “You want to know how good the blues can get? Well, this is it.”