An Insider’s Guide to Muddy Waters’ Guitar Sound
By The cliché runs that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but trying to “flatter” the greatest of the great is no easy task. Especially when Muddy Waters, arguably the finest of the first generation of electric bluesmen, is the subject.
Muddy’s early hits for Chess Records like “I Can’t Be Satisfied,” “Rollin’ and Tumblin’,” “Louisiana Blues,” “Walkin’ Blues,” “Long Distance Call,” and “Honey Bee,” defined the recorded sound of early electric blues: dirty, gritty, stinging, growling, sweet and supremely emotive. It’s nearly impossible to get to that sound without vintage gear and a touch developed playing an acoustic guitar loud ‘n’ strong enough to cut the din of a Saturday night fish fry on a cotton plantation.
To celebrate the April 4, 1913 birthday of McKinley Morganfield, who was given the nickname Muddy Waters by his grandmother, let’s take a look at some of the basics required to start dialing in his classic, monstrously soulful guitar sound.
Early on Muddy played an acoustic archtop guitar, like a Gibson L-5, with a screw-on D’Armond “Rhythm Chief” pickup, through a small amp, such as a five-watt Gibson GA5 Les Paul Junior Combo. That gear would be close to a carbon copy of the equipment Waters first used in the Chess studios in 1946.
Less than a decade later, however, Waters was famously photographed brandishing a 1952 Gibson Les Paul Gold Top. That historic solid body model set on the rhythm pickup cuts right into the same territory thanks to the superb sound of its P-90 pickups, which were standard issue in the early and mid-1950s. With a small amp like the GA5 and some volume, the result is super-rich harmonic distortion.
Here’s a tip: don’t use a pick; use your fingers. If you don’t finger pick and you’re looking for the early Muddy sound, well, now’s the time to start.
On songs like “Louisiana Blues,” where Muddy played nasty, keening slide, he’d shift the D’Armond pickup up to about 25-percent of the distance between the bridge and neck, up from the bridge. On a solid body, try the middle pickup setting to get into the same zone.
Besides his dark, rolling, Delta-born finger picking single-note style, slide remained an essential and highly influential part of Muddy’s bag throughout his career from his Chess years to the final trio of albums he made with Gibson Firebird legend Johnny Winter: 1977’s Hard Again, ’78’s I’m Ready, and ’81’s King Bee. When it comes to slide, Winter, Eric Clapton, Billy Gibbons and Keith Richards are among Muddy’s high-profile disciples, although the two players who play closest to his keening attack were men who stood next to him on stage for years: former Muddy Waters Band members Bob Margolin and Paul Oscher.
“I can’t think of anybody heavier and deeper,” Margolin says. “A lot of his guitar style comes from the fact that he transformed Delta blues from acoustic to electric guitar. He played simpler than a lot of Delta players. He liked a very distorted sound, and he’d dampen it with his hand a little and use the volume control on the guitar. His slide playing in standard turning, or open A or G, was just devastatingly powerful.”
Muddy used a small metal slide on the pinky of his left hand, similar to the pinky slide and signature Johnny Winter slides made by Dunlop. A small slide offers more control including more efficient deployment of effects like hammering and fretting, although those weren’t a big part of Waters’ repertoire.
Unlike his fellow blues great Elmore James, Waters employed single note slide lines almost exclusively. To get that real Delta-via-Chicago sound, you’ll need to try open A
(E-A-E-A-C#-E) or open G (D-G-D-G-B-D). Both permit searingly bright lines in the middle and lead pickup positions. A perfect example from Muddy’s songbook is “Honey Bee.” On the many versions of this classic that Muddy recorded live and in the studio, he typically started the tune with bold, deep lines and built solos around screaming notes.
Try this: place your slide on the 10th fret of the high B and D strings in open G and sliding – sharp and fast with some serious pressure on the strings — up to the 12th fret, and when the sound you hear coming from your amp starts to feel right, vibrate the slide over the 12th fret moving your wrist quickly left-and-right. Start with the top string at first, and then build some simple melodies by playing off both the fifth and sixth.
One last factor to consider is slide vibrato that is achieved by shaking a slide back and forth. Muddy’s slide vibrato was insane, both manic and controlled. That added to the excitement of his playing. And Waters, like his earlier Delta influences Son House and Robert Johnson, almost always slid up the neck and moved down only for radical sonic effects. Also, practice hitting notes accurately with a slide. To get deep into the Mud zone, your intonation has to be spot on. Slide is somewhat forgiving in intonation, because its fluidity is similar to that of the human voice. But Muddy was ferociously accurate, and the more accurate you are the more you’ll sound like Muddy Waters — and like a badass.