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The artist should have his own voice. Everyone tells a story differently and that story should be told compellingly and spontaneously. If it is not compelling and convincing, it is without value. The most important thing is to play. "Enjoy" is not the word, but to be able to feel that I give something genuine of myself. Then I might be satisfied. - Radu Lupu

Author Topic: Tommy Johnson's Guitar Style--Queries and Tips  (Read 14490 times)

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Offline GerryC

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Tommy Johnson's Guitar Style--Queries and Tips
« on: March 28, 2005, 02:52:01 AM »
Hi everyone! This is my first post on Weenie Campbell, though I recognise some of the names from The Woodshed...Thanks to JohnM for putting me through to this forum.
I've been a great admirer of Tommy Johnson for years and have tried out some of his songs on an unsuspecting public, notably Big Road Blues and Maggie Campbell, the former being the title track of my current CD. However, the TJ song that really presses all my buttons is Cool Drink of Water - great lyrics, fab singing and the guitar part...!! There's the rub. I can play it after a fashion but not well enough to inflict it on an unsuspecting public. I've tried many times to find tab on the web with no luck. The nearest I've come is watching Houston Stackhouse perform it on video; Steve Phillips [who performs it very well] showed me part of it a while back but I need the detail. Anybody out there able to help - I'd be grateful for pretty much anything.

Cheerily

Gerry C
I done seen better days, but I'm puttin' up with these...

Offline uncle bud

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Re: Tommy Johnson's Cool Drink
« Reply #1 on: March 28, 2005, 05:54:36 AM »
Hi Gerry - Welcome to Weenie Campbell. I don't have any tab on this or anything, but I guess the first tricky part is separating out Charlie McCoy's (very cool) 2nd guitar part. Are you trying to do a solo arrangement that incorporates bits of each?

uncle bud

Offline GerryC

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Re: Tommy Johnson's Cool Drink
« Reply #2 on: March 29, 2005, 05:58:28 AM »
Hi Uncle Bud! Yes, I'm trying to work up a version that I can play solo and bringing in some of the second guitar part if possible; what I'm trying to get is the spirit of the original and the guitar part is so fundamental to that. At present I start with a slide on the A string 2--7 with ring finger, top E open, bend the G on Bstring at 8, then slide back to A 4 and pinch open B and hammer on B2 with index,play both Es open and then pinch a partial G chord (A2, top E3) and end with two open Es. The other parts around the A and B7 chords are pretty OK but I still have the feeling I'm missing something! Good to hear from you.

Cheerily,

GerryC
I done seen better days, but I'm puttin' up with these...

crawley

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canned heat blues
« Reply #3 on: April 01, 2005, 09:29:08 PM »
Kinda curious,
I've been playing Canned Heat Blues in D, but capo'd at the 5th fret in the A position. I know this is pretty well known song, so I was wondering if any one has a different way of playing it.
Thanks,
Aaron

Yves

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Re: canned heat blues
« Reply #4 on: April 02, 2005, 08:22:45 AM »
I began playing this song in E STD tuning after decryting a video of Houston Stackhouse... and it works
But the original Tommy Johnson is played in D STD tuning. You can even play in Drop D but TJ didn't play the 6th D string.... so at the end of the day it's up to you.

Hope that would help

Yves

Offline Buzz

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Re: canned heat blues
« Reply #5 on: April 02, 2005, 10:20:26 AM »
Few years back, Paul Rishell taught this tune by TJ at PT blues camp: Drop D Standard, and used his thumb over, Country D on the low E.
Also Big Road Blues: The intro and verse base runs on D (dropped E) and D strings, running up from fret 1or 2 a few frets--I can't recall at this moment---sound cool in that tuning. ..and used his thumb over, Country D on the low E at times, I think. ;D

All best,
Miller.
Do good, be nice, eat well, smile, treat the ladies well, and ignore all news reports--which  can't be believed anyway,

Buzz

crawley

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Re: canned heat blues
« Reply #6 on: April 05, 2005, 01:49:41 PM »
Thanks guys, I've got it now. It makes more sense that TJ would have played it in the 1st D position. I'm not sure what I was thinking. The capo really sacrificed the my guitars tone too.

Aaron

Offline Johnm

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Re: canned heat blues
« Reply #7 on: April 27, 2009, 06:05:43 PM »
Hi all,
I know there has been an ongoing sort of minor question left hanging as to whether Tommy Johnson played "Canned Heat Blues" our of D position, standard tuning, Dropped-D tuning, or E position in standard tuning, as Houston Stackhouse performed it.  I was listening to the most recent Tefteller calendar disc, to "Alcohol And Jake Blues", which bears the same relationship to "Canned Heat Blues" as "Ridin' Horse" does to "Maggie Campbell Blues", which is to say, a musically identical piece with a different title and at least some different lyrics. 

The jury may still be out on "Canned Heat Blues", I suppose, but "Alcohol And Jake Blues" is clearly played out of D position in standard tuning, NOT Dropped-D, or E position in standard tuning.  The very first time Tommy Johnson goes to the IV chord, you can very clearly hear him playing the root of the G chord on the sixth string and the third of the chord on the fifth string.  This is not physically impossible in Dropped-D but is so impractical for the left hand that it may be dismissed as a possibility.  And given Tommy Johnson's predeliction for set piece arrangements, it would seem extremely doubtful that he would play the otherwise identical accompaniment for "Canned Heat Blues" out of a different tuning or position than the one he used for "Alcohol And Jake Blues".  I reckon he played "Canned Heat blues of D position, standard tuning, too.
All best,
Johnm   
« Last Edit: April 27, 2009, 06:10:02 PM by Johnm »

Offline waxwing

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Re: canned heat blues
« Reply #8 on: June 07, 2009, 01:06:22 AM »
Hey Johnm,

Reading Gayle Dean Wardlow's account of his interviews with Ishmon Bracey regarding the 1929 Paramount recording session in Chasin' That Devil Music, there is a strong possibility that Bracey was playing the guitar backing in order for the drunken Johnson to concentrate on the singing on at least a couple songs. Could Bracey have imitated Johnson's arrangement so well, and, perhaps not bothering to tune to Drop D, didn't mind hitting the G bass? Who knows. You can hear someone coaxing Tommy through the lyrics. Tommy certainly must have been pretty drunk for Bracey to remember the incident, including Art Laibley's anger at several spoiled waxes, a few decades later. At the session Johnson only recorded 6 sides, Bracey 18 (GDW), at a session that was meant to feature Tommy. And Jake and Alcohol Blues was very late in the session and Johnson's last extant recording (B&GR). Certainly all testimony should be taken with a grain of salt, but I'm not sure the tuning on this recording would be strong evidence of anything that Johnson recorded almost two years earlier.

He certainly was a sad soul.

Wax
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George Bernard Shaw

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Offline blueshome

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Re: canned heat blues
« Reply #9 on: June 07, 2009, 02:54:06 AM »
If the guitar part is an imitation by Bracey it's a damn good one. In which case you expect him to also have the tuning down as well. Personally I think it sounds like TJ, but we'll never know.

Offline Johnm

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Re: canned heat blues
« Reply #10 on: June 07, 2009, 11:35:08 AM »
I agree with Phil, John C.  It sounds like Tommy Johnson's playing all the way to me.  Bracey had a pretty different touch than Tommy, viz. "Woman, Woman", "Trouble Hearted Blues" and the rest.
All best,
Johnm

Offline uncle bud

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Tommy Johnson tuning
« Reply #11 on: October 14, 2010, 11:20:18 AM »
I've been fooling around with some more Tommy Johnson material and think I may figured out something that's bugged me for years. In fact, I thought we had started discussing it somewhere here but can't find it, so may be imagining things. I think Tommy Johnson is using an altered tuning for 3 songs recorded for Paramount in Dec. 1929: "Morning Prayer," "Boogaloosa Woman," and "I Want Someone to Love Me." The tuning is EGDGBE, dropping the 5th string from an A to a G, to play out of C position without fretting the tonic in the bass.

First to sort out a little title confusion:

There are two Paramount tests that were unissued, found in the 90s (?), and released somewhat confusingly as "Untitled Song - take 1 Morning Prayer Blues" and "Untitled Song - take 2 Boogaloosa Woman" on Tommy Johnson DOCD 5001. B&GR has the first title as "Morning Prayer" (no Blues), but listed in the same order as the Document disc. Listening to the lyrics, however, it's clear that the first song/take is Boogaloosa Woman, since it has a verse to that effect, and the second is Morning Prayer, which likewise has a "morning prayer" verse. To add to the confusion, Yazoo titled "Morning Prayer" as "Button Up Shoes" on the Friends of Charlie Patton CD.

Later, another test surfaced, the occasionally maligned waltz "I Want Someone to Love Me", which I think is pretty cool actually, and which was also recorded c. December 1929. The matrix numbers show these songs were likely done at the same session, or at least the same round of sessions for Paramount in December.

I Want Someone To Love Me (L-227-1)  (L-227-2)
I Wonder to Myself (L-228-1)
Slidin' Delta (L229-2)
Lonesome Home Blues (L-230-2)
Morning Prayer (L-231-1)
Bogaloosa Woman L-231-2)

All three of the unissued tests seem to be using this EGDGBE tuning. It would be slightly more helpful to my theory if "I Want Someone to Love Me" had a matrix of 232, i.e. was played in order with Morning Prayer and Boogaloosa Woman, but it's not a dealbreaker IMO.

My reasoning for proposing this tuning:

a) Tommy very rarely hits the tonic in the bass, only occasionally to end the form of these songs. Mostly he is using the third in the bass (E at the 2nd fret of the 4th string) and the fifth (G, in this case at the open 5th string). To get the tonic bass note in this tuning on the rare occasions he does hit it, it is available at the 5th fret of the 5th string, right on top of the other notes of a C chord at the 5th fret.

b) The G bass occurring throughout these songs sounds like a lot like an open string.

c) There is a riff after the V chord in the intro to Boogaloosa Woman and Morning Prayer that is similar to the riff in Charley Patton's Down the Dirt Road Blues, on the top three strings. Johnson then uses the riff in the verses to get from the IV chord to the I chord after the second line of each verse. The most telling difference in his version of the riff is that the G bass rings throughout. It is possible through some finger acrobatics to get this in standard tuning, but the G note really rings, suggesting an open string to me. This riff with the bass is the main reason one would use this tuning, IMO.

While I don't think it has much bearing on the tuning, it's worth noting that in the 3rd verse of "Morning Prayer," Johnson hits a C bass but it's on the IV chord at the 8th fret, using the C-shaped IV chord that again is found in Patton's Down the Dirt Road: 8x7x68. He then goes into a little bit of the "Canned Heat" riff, done easily enough in the partial C formation being used as the home chord.

Johnson uses this 8th-fret IV chord more elaborately in "I Want Someone to Love Me" -- in the last line of the verses as the basis for a really nifty little sequence. He goes up to the 8th-fret chord, drops the whole form down one fret, then walks the form down fret by fret to the C position using a little syncopated riff that alternates between the 6th and 4th strings. It's a pretty nice move.

I don't think there is any real advantage to playing "I Want Someone to Love Me" in the EGDGBE tuning the way there is in the other two songs, but it does allow for that ringing bass with a bit more ease. I think all three tunes have the same "sound".
« Last Edit: October 14, 2010, 01:52:55 PM by uncle bud »

Offline Johnm

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Re: Tommy Johnson tuning
« Reply #12 on: October 14, 2010, 11:37:09 AM »
Thanks for working through this so thoroughly and posting it, uncle bud.  I find this kind of thing fascinating.  The songs you cite are the least familiar portion of Tommy Johnson's repertoire for me, so I look forward to listening to the songs in question again with the points you've made in mind. 
I'm beginning to think that slight customizations of standard tuning, like Alec Seward's tuning for playing in C, where he raised the B string to C, or Precious Bryant's "Georgia Buck" tuning, where she raises the low E to F, may have been far more common than we present-day players of and listeners to this music have thought up to this point.  Often these minute tweakings of the commonly played tunings end up giving the player either a distinctively different timbre or selection of note choices, or free up the left hand in ways that make the execution of the piece easier, and thus more possible to play expressively.  I look forward to hearing what Tommy Johnson did on the pieces you cite.
All best,
Johnm

Offline CF

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Re: Tommy Johnson tuning
« Reply #13 on: October 14, 2010, 02:08:54 PM »
Andrew I think this came up in the past when I covered 'Morning Prayer/Boogaloosa Woman' on the Back Porch. I could always hear that bass ringing throughout those licks & wondered exactly what I was doing wrong. Sounds like you may have it with that G-tuned 'A' string, I gave it a strum here & it sure works . . . now have to get used to the partial chords.
I'm going to try to sit down with this in the next couple days & get back. You know I love playing me some Tommy Johnson, any excuse really.
I would probably have been trying to figure that out for the rest of my life, good job UB!
« Last Edit: October 14, 2010, 04:30:50 PM by cheapfeet »
Stand By If You Wanna Hear It Again . . .

Offline Pan

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Re: Tommy Johnson tuning
« Reply #14 on: October 14, 2010, 04:03:04 PM »
Hi Uncle Bud.

Listening to "Boogaloosa Woman" and "Morning Prayer" I think you may just be right! The low G note rings pretty much throughout the song, and has a twangy sound of an possible open string tuned low. The tonic bass note is seldom heard.

On "Morning Prayers"' 3rd chorus the "Canned Heat" type of riff never ends up in the tonic bass note either, as one might expect. After that it sounds to me that instead of the usual V chord Johnson plays here a II9 chord with no third. It sounds to me that this chord then has the 5th or A on bass, before going to a C7/G chord. In this instance the A note would have to be fretted, but it would be very easy to do, and result in a quite logical bass line. In your tuning these chords would be:

D9(om.3):

x-x-0-2-1-0

D9(om.3)/A:

x-2-0-2-1-0

C7/G:

x-0-2-3-1-0

What do you think?


Anyway, I remebered that we briefly discussed this while figuring out Patton and Johnson licks in C on this thread: http://weeniecampbell.com/yabbse/index.php?amp;Itemid=128&topic=2139.0
This thread has our transcriptions of the signature lick in question, and it certainly would be much easier to play with your suggested tuning. Maybe we should edit the Johnson lick tabs, if the verdict is favourable to your theory?


Most unfortunately I don't have "I Want Someone To Love Me", so I can't comment on that, except maybe that changing between your suggested tuning and standard tuning is so easy, that even if the matrix numbers don't exactly follow, I wouldn't consider this a dealbreaker, as you say.

Good work!!

Cheers

Pan

Edited to add: I've got the II9 and I7 chords slightly wrong; see Johnm's post below for the correct chord fingerings.
« Last Edit: October 15, 2010, 06:12:41 AM by Pan »

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