Blind Willie McTell Guitar Keys and Positions

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Blind Willie McTell Guitar Keys and Positions
compiled by Chris Berry
with additional notes from Andrew Mullins

Blind willie mctell2.gif

For those not familiar with playing Blind Willie McTell on a 12-string guitar, the first thing to note is that McTell tunes down from concert pitch to varying degrees: his low E or sixth string is generally tuned down anywhere from C# to A, or even lower. You can see examples of how this works in the tables below by looking for tunes played out of an E position. For instance, "Drive Away Blues" is played out of an E position, but sounds at the C# below a standard-tuned guitar - the relationship of the string intervals is the same as standard tuning but everything is tuned down 1 1/2 steps (with a 1/2 step being equal to one fret). The later prewar recordings of "Broke Down Engine" are also played out of an E position, but McTell is tuned even lower, just sharp of A. By the time of the version on the Atlantic recordings, he is at Ab.

This tuning down generally requires heavier string gauges in order to maintain enough tension on the strings. For some valuable information on 12-string gauges and setups, check out this page at Todd Cambio's Fraulini Guitars website. It has excellent examples of 12-string setups for playing McTell and other artists in your attempt to get an authentic sound.

Warning: once you start putting heavier gauge strings on a 12-string guitar, do not tune to standard concert pitch! Use of these gauges is meant for tuning the guitar low as McTell and others did. Failure to follow this advice could result in your guitar folding in half. No fun. In some of his earlier recordings, McTell does not tune down very far. If you are using heavier gauges, you'll want to be careful. In some cases you may be better off tuning lower and capoing up a bit.

The recordings used for reference in compiling this document are:

    ● Blind Willie McTell 1927-40 Classic Years box set on JSP for prewar material and Library of Congress recordings
    ● Blind Willie McTell and Curley Weaver - The Post-War Years 1949-50 on RST Documents/Document BDCD-6014 for the Regal/SIW recordings
    ● Atlanta Twelve String on Atlantic
    ● Last Session on Prestige/Bluesville (Original Blues Classics)

In the tables below, the song title is followed by playing position, then actual pitch, then Curley Weaver's playing position, if applicable. A "+" symbol means that the pitch is sharp of this key, but less than a fret.

Prewar Recordings

6-string guitar

OrderTitlePosition/tuning Pitch
1Writin' Paper Blues E D+
2Stole Rider Blues drop D C+
3Mama T'ain't Long Fo' Day Spanish F#
4Mr. McTell Got the Blues C B-flat+
5Mr. McTell Got the Blues C B-flat

12-string guitar

OrderTitlePosition/tuningPitchCurley Weaver
1Three Women Blues Vestapol E-flat
2Dark Night Blues C B
3Statesboro Blues drop D C#+
4Loving Talking Blues G F#
5Atlanta Strut C B-flat
6Travelin' Blues Vestapol D
7Come On Around to My House Mama C A
8Kind Mama C A+
9Teasing Brown C B-flat
10Drive Away Blues E C#
11This Is Not the Stove to Brown Your Bread C A
12Love Changing Blues Spanish E
13Talkin' to Myself E C#
14Razor Ball C A+
15Southern Can Is Mine C A-flat
16Broke Down Engine Blues E C
17Stomp Down Rider G E
18Scarey Day Blues E C#
19Rough Alley Blues E C#
20Experience Blues Vestapol C
21Painful Blues C A
22Low Rider's Blues C A-flat Spanish
23Georgia Rag C A-flat+
24Low Down Blues Spanish E-flatVestapol
25Rollin' Mama Blues Spanish C# Vestapol
26Lonesome Day Blues C F# Spanish
27Mama, Let Me Scoop For You G D
28Searching the Desert for the Blues E C
29Warm It Up to Me C A-flat G
30It's Your Time to Worry G D+ Vestapol
31It's a Good Little Thing G E-flat Vestapol
32You Was Born to Die Spanish D Vestapol
33Lord Have Mercy If You Please Spanish D E
34Don't You See How This World Made a Change Vestapol B E
35Savannah Mama Vestapol A
36Broke Down Engine E A+
37Broke Down Engine No. 2 E A+
38My Baby's Gone G C
39Love-Makin' Mama C F G
40Death Room Blues C F+ G
41Death Cell Blues G D+ E
42Lord, Send Me an Angel E A C
43B and O Blues No. 2 (take 1) G C#+ E
44B and O Blues No. 2 (take 2) G C#+ E
45Weary Hearted Blues A E-flat E
46Bell Street Lightnin' C F# G
47Southern Can Mama C F# almost inaudible, likely G
48Runnin' Me Crazy E B-flat C
49East St. Louis Blues (Fare You Well) E B-flat C
50Ain't It Grand to Be a Christian Vestapol A-flat
51We Got to Meet Death One Day Vestapol B
52We Got to Meet Death One Day Vestapol B
53Don't Let Nobody Turn You Around Vestapol B+
54I Got Religion, I'm So Glad Vestapol A-flat
55Dying Gambler Vestapol F#+
56God Don't Like It Vestapol G
57Bell Street Blues C F# E
58Let Me Play With Yo' Yo-Yo C F# G
59Lay Some Flowers On My Grave C F G
60Ticket Agent Blues E A-flat+
61Cold Winter Day Vestapol B Vestapol
62Your Time to Worry G C
63Cooling Board Blues E A A
64Hillbilly Willie's Blues C F


  • Along with "You Was Born to Die," McTell could be playing "Low Down Blues" and "Rollin' Mama Blues" in G standard, but I think he's probably in Spanish, and here's why. First, he constantly plays a thumb stroke that's a slide on the fifth string leading up to the open 4th string. He doesn't do this in any of the G standard tunes, but does it in Vestapol in "Experience Blues" and "Savannah Mama," which suggests he's in an open tuning. Second, he constantly walks up to the third of the IV chord, not playing the root in the bass (this would be walking up to the E note of a C chord -- if we're talking playing position, not keys) this would make sense in Spanish to play the IV without barring. Third, his V chord is even more abbreviated than normal usually in G standard he plays a brief D chord and the third is audible on the top, and I don't hear that here. Maybe someone else will hear this differently or can decide definitively.

  • "Don't You See How This World Made a Change" is a really weird one - it sounds like Weaver's tuned down as far as McTell.

  • It's really hard for me to tell who's doing what on "Cold Winter Day." I'm fairly certain the slide guitar is Curley Weaver on six-string, but McTell's guitar seems really under-recorded and Weaver is playing a lot of bass notes along with the slide lead. The chord voicing sound similar to me on each guitar, which is why I put Vestapol for McTell. I think this is one of their best sides as a duet.

Library of Congress and Postwar Recordings

Note about McTell's string setup: Frank Basile has determined that on most of McTell's recordings from 1940 on, he used not only an octave on the third course of strings, but on the second course as well. He points out the octave second course can fool your ear into thinking tunes that were actually played in a C position were in G, tunes in D sound like A. For the octave on the second course, Frank used a .012 gauge string.

Warning - please be tuned down to at least A (lower is better) before trying this string setup!

Some of the stuff with Curley Weaver from the late '40s is my best guess, because either McTell or Weaver's guitar is off-mike. That octave second string finally explains "Murderer's Home Blues" - that tune had always driven me crazy, because I knew it was in drop D, but couldn't figure out where the high tonic note was coming from. The song title is followed by playing position, then actual pitch, then Curley Weaver's playing position, if applicable. A "+" symbol means that it's sharp of this key, but less than a fret.

Library of Congress Recordings

1 You Got to Die/Climbing High Mountains Vestapol A-flat+
2 Boll Weavil G C
3 Delia C F
4 Dying Crapshooter's Blues Dm (ends on F chord) Gm
5 Will Fox C F
6 I Got to Cross the River Jordan Vestapol A-flat+
7 Old Time Religion Vestapol A-flat+
8 Amazing Grace Vestapol A-flat+
9 King Edward Blues C F
10 Murderer's Home Blues drop D G
11 Kill-It-Kid Rag G C
12 Chainey Vestapol A-flat+
13 I Got to Cross the River of Jordan

Atlantic Recordings

OrderTitlePosition/tuning Pitch
1 Kill it Kid G B
2 Razor Ball G B
3 Little Delia C E
4 Broke Down Engine E A-flat
5 Dying Crapshooter's Blues Dm (ends on F chord) F#m
6 Pinetop's Boogie Woogie G B-flat+
7 Blues Around Midnight C E-flat+ (almost E)
8 Last Dime Blues E G+
9 On the Cooling Board E G+
10 Motherless Children Vestapol G
11 I Got to Cross the River of Jordan Vestapol G
12 You Got to Die Vestapol G+
13 Ain't It Grand to Live a Christian Vestapol G+
14 Pearly Gates C E
15 Soon This Morning
drop D

Regal/SIW Recordings

OrderTitlePosition/tuning PitchCurley Weaver
1 My Baby's Gone no McTell B-flat A
2 Ticket Agent no McTell A+ A
3 Don't Forget It E A A?
4 A to Z Blues C F F
5 It's A Good Little Thing C F F
6 You Can't Get Stuff No More C F F
7 Love Changin' Blues Vestapol G G
8 Savannah Mama Vestapol G G
9 Talkin' To You E A A?
10 East St. Louis (Fare You Well)
11 Wee Midnight Hours A? E E
12 She Don't Treat Me Good
13 Brownskin Women E A A
14 I Keep On Drinking drop D G G
15 Pal of Mine C F F
16 Pal of Mine (take 2) C F F
17 Honey It Must Be Love C F F
18 Sending Up My Timber G C C
19 Sending Up My Timber (take 2) G C C
20 Lord Have Mercy C F F
21 Trying to Get Home C F F
22 It's My Desire C E+
23 Hide Me In Thy Bosom C F
24 Some Rainy Day no McTell A-flat G
25 Trixie
no McTell

"Wee Midnight Hours" and "She Don't Treat Me Good" are somewhat problematic as McTell's guitar is under-recorded and Weaver plays lead.

Last Session

OrderTitlePosition/tuning Pitch
1 Baby It Must Be Love C E+
2 Dyin' Crapshooter's Blues Dm (ends on F chord) F#m+
3 Don't Forget It E A-flat
4 Kill It Kid G B+
5 That Will Never Happen No More G B
6 Goodbye Blues G B
7 Salty Dog G B
8 Beedle Um Bum F A+
9 A Married Man's A Fool C E+
10 A to Z Blues C E+
11 Wabash Cannonball D F#+
12 Pal of Mine

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