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Robert Pete Williams--Playing Positions and Tunings

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Yes, that is right.  Thanks for the catch, Harry.
All best,


i'm new here to the forum (first post here, actually)  but a huge robert pete williams admirer. i'm also a beginner level guitar player.

i've been reading these notes about williams' tunings, but i'm confused about the designations.

for example, for "free again" a tuning of:
d position, standard tuning, key of b
is given.

what does "d position" refer to? does this mean the lowest string is tuned to d instead of standard e?

and i guess the given "key" is referring more or less to his tonal center on any particular song?

and in regards to vestapol tuning (which is what i usually play in) a song like
"graveyard blues" is given the following tuning:
vestapol, key of Eb+ (does this mean the lowest string is tuned to Eb+ instead of D? and what does the "+" here refer to?).

sorry for all the newbie questions and thanks for your help!


Hi Jason,
Playing position refers to the position that he plays out of in standard tuning, regardless of the pitch of where it sounds, capo placement, etc.  So, D position means his I chord is fingered 0-2-3-2, ascending from the fourth string to the first string.  Key is the pitch at which the rendition sounds.  So, if he is playing in D position, but sounding in B, as in "Free Again", it means he is in standard tuning, but tuned a minor third low, C#-F#-B-E-G#-C#.  You can see by doing that, you ended up with a B note on the open fourth string, and since he's playing out of D position he sounds in B.
For "Graveyard Blues", Vestapol at Eb means his sixth string is tuned to Eb, which in Vestapol would make his tuning Eb-Bb-Eb-G-Bb-Eb.  The + following the key means that he is actually tuned slightly sharp of Eb.  Two plus signs would mean he was tuned markedly sharp of the key pitch.  A minus sign following the key would mean he was tuned slightly flat of the key pitch, and two minus signs would mean he was markedly flat of the key pitch.

In terms of figuring out how to play what Robert Pete Williams played, playing position and tuning are the most important factors.  I think of those factors as how he played and fingered the song.  I think of key as where he sang the song.  So it is that he is matching up the position or tuning in which he wishes to play a song with his vocal range.  Depending on how the song's melody sits, this may require him to tune quite low, as in "Free Again" or "Louise", and sometimes it may require him to tune higher than normal.  Because the best singing key for a singer often ends up being awkward to play in, like Eb, Ab, Bb, or various other "closed-position" keys, is the reason you so often find players in this style tuning high or low or using a capo.  I hope this helps.  And welcome to Weenie Campbell!

All best,


--- Quote from: Johnm on July 14, 2016, 11:59:10 AM ---Hi all,
I have long wanted to study Robert Pete Williams' music more deeply than I have in the past, and to that end, thought I would post the playing positions/tunings of the songs he recorded that are currently available on Arhoolie Records.  Many or most of these recordings were originally issued on Dr. Harry Oster's Folk Lyric Records.  I will post notes about the recordings later.  Where the keys at which renditions sound are slightly flat of pitch, a minus sign (-) will indicate that; multiple minus signs indicate intensified flatness.  Where the keys at which renditions sound are sharp of pitch, a plus sign (+) will indicate that, and multiple plus signs indicate intensified sharpness.

Angola Prisoners' Blues--Arhoolie CD 419
Song TitlePlaying position/tuningKeyPrisoner's Talking BluesD position, standard tuningEb--Some Got Six MonthsD position, dropped-D tuningDI'm Lonesome BluesA position, standard tuningA-
These three songs were probably many people's first exposure to Robert Pete Williams' music.  What was different or distinctive about his music?  In conversation with Frank Basile about Robert Pete, Frank pointed out that Robert Pete was unusual among blues players in the number of minor blues he played, and as soon as Frank said it, I realized it was so.  It is a commonplace among blues players to accompany a sung minor third with the major third played in the accompanying chord.  Robert Pete most often did not do that; if he was singing minor thirds, he accompanied them with minor thirds in the guitar accompaniment.  Taken in combination with the fact that Robert Pete most often did not work out of chordal positions in his guitar accompaniments, you arrive at the very dark sound that characterized much of his material.  For the three songs from "Angola Prisoners' Blues", Robert Pete plays no major thirds in his I chords.  For the two songs played out of D position, (one in standard tuning and one in dropped-D) he plays a dominant seventh chord for his IV chord, which suggests the Dorian Mode.  "I'm Lonesome Blues" is the earliest version recorded of Robert Pete's funky sound.  When playing with that rhythmic feel, whether working out of A or D positions in standard tuning, he would alternate his bass between the I note and minor III note, both played on the same string in the bass.

Angola Prison Spirituals--Arhoolie CD 9036
Song TitlePlaying position/tuningKeyI'm On My Way (Andy Mosely, vocal)G position, standard tuningEbChurch On Fire With the Word of GodD position, DGDGBE tuningC-Dyin' SoulSpanish tuningFSo Much Is Happenin' In the NewsE position, standard tuningEb-I'm Goin' Back With Him When He ComesE position, standard tuningFWhen I Lay My Burden DownSpanish tuningF#-Dig My Grave With A Silver Spade (Tom Dotson, vocal)Spanish tuningF#Little School Song (Tom Dotson vocal)Spanish tuningF+
   * In many ways, Robert Pete Williams' playing on "Angola Prison Spirituals" is farther from the mainstream than his playing on "Angola Prisoners' Blues".  His accompaniment on "I'm On My Way" is unique.  The song has a perfectly clear major melody.  Robert Pete accompanies the song out of G position in standard tuning (though tuned quite low), and alternates his bass from the open sixth string, suggesting the relative minor, and intermittently hits the third fret of the sixth string (the key center of the song) in the bass.  The effect is pretty disorienting for the listener. 
   * "Church On Fire With The Word Of God" has Robert Pete accompanying himself out of DGDGBE tuning (in terms of the relative intervals--he's actually tuned considerably lower), and playing in the key center of his open sixth string.  In this respect his approach to the tuning is more like that of Lonnie Johnson, who characteristically used the open sixth string as his key center when playing that tuning, than it is like Bo Carter's or Lil' Son Jackson's playing in the tuning, for both of them used the open fifth string as their key center.  He free-hands the entire piece in his left hand (no chordal positions), and the piece has a unique, floating sort of sound that seems to be a hallmark of Robert Pete's sound and approach.
   * Robert Pete utilized Spanish tuning for his accompaniment to the two songs sung by the wonderful bass singer, Tom Dotson.  For "Dig My Grave With A Silver Spade", Robert Pete adopts an approach much like that utilized by Lonnie Johnson to accompany Texas Alexander on "Levee Camp Moan", choosing to treat the guitar as a wordless voice answering Tom Dotson's singing of the melody with responding melodic phrases.
   * For "Dyin' Soul", Robert Pete switches back and forth from a thumb lead to frailed melodic phrases in the treble, played in Spanish tuning.  "So Much Is Happenin' In The News" utilizes a similar right hand approach as "Dyin' Soul", though played out of E position in standard tuning.  The song sounds especially improvisatory, and is really wild.  Robert Pete similarly backs "I'm Goin' Back With Him When He Comes" out of E position in standard tuning, but utilizes a more conventional treatment of time, and an accompaniment that closely tracks his singing of the song's melody.  "When I Lay My Burden Down", accompanied in Spanish tuning makes a beautiful use of bends in its phrasing of the melody.   

Country Negro Jam Session--Arhoolie CD 372
Song TitlePlaying position/tuningKeyMississippi Heavy Water Blues (Guitar Welch, guitar)Spanish tuningF#-
Robert Pete Williams, Vol. 1-I'm As Blue as a Man Can Be--Arhoolie CD394
Song TitlePlaying position/tuningKeyPardon Denied AgainE position, standard tuningD+This Wild Old Life (12-string guitar)D position, standard tuningC#-Just Tippin' InD position, standard tuningC#LouiseB position, standard tuningGChurch On Fire (Take 2)D position, DGDGBE tuningD+Texas BluesA position, standard tuningG+I'm Blue As A Man Can Be (12-string guitar)E position, standard tuningDUp and Down BluesE position, standard tuningD+So Much Is Happenin' In This Wicked WorldE position, standard tuningD+Come Here BabyA position, standard tuningGLevee Camp BluesE position, standard tuningC#Two WingsC position, Spanish tuningB-Angola Special (12-string guitar)E position, standard tuningD+Motherless Children Have A Hard timeE position, standard tuningEb-Please Lord, Help Me On My WaySpanish tuningF#-
Robert Pete Williams, Vol. 2-When A Man Takes The Blues--Arhoolie CD 395
Song TitlePlaying position/tuningKeyWhen A Man Takes The BluesA minor position, standard tuningG#-I Had TroubleE position, standard tuningEbAll Night LongE position, standard tuningEbDyin' SoulSpanish tuningGI Got the Blues So BadSpanish tuningESinner Don't You KnowSpanish tuningF-Hot Springs BluesD position, dropped-D tuningC#--This Train Is Heaven BoundE position, standard tuningD+Santa Fe BluesD position, standard tuningD+Blues In MeA position, standard tuningG++Death Comes Creepin' In Your RoomE position, standard tuningD+Wife And Farm BluesA position, standard tuningG++I Want To Die EasySpanish tuningG#
Robert Pete Williams-Poor Bob's Blues--Arhoolie CD 511
Song TitlePlaying position/tuningKeyDisc A
My Mind Wandering AroundA capellaCane Cut ManE position, standard tuningC#My Daddy Was A Hoodoo ManE position, standard tuningEbNo More Sweet PotatoesSpanish, w/slideG--Poor Bob's BluesA position, standard tuningA++Cows Love MusicD position, standard tuningC#Can't Yo-Yo No MoreE position, standard tuningC#-Shake, Shake BabyE position, standard tuningE+Lord, I Done You WrongSpanish tuningBb-Been Mistreated So LongA position, standard tuningF#Disc B
Things All Wrong With MeSpanish tuning, w/slideG-Matchbox BluesD position, dropped-D tuningD+Sad News From KoreaE position, standard tuningEbWhat A Shape I'm InE position, standard tuningE+Poor Boy, Long Way From HomeSpanish tuning, w/slideFOut All Night LongE position, standard tuningC#+Crying Won't Make Me StayD position, standard tuningD-All Out And DownSpanish tuningFTom and Old MasterA position, standard tuningG#
All Best,

--- End quote ---
the very low tunings...perhaps this is because of a guitar's warped neck-issue? i don't know what brand they played on in those days ..i guess they weren't, compared to todays standards, of them quality? or did they all play on gibsons martins fenders stellas? don't think you? that's when slide guitar started..?

Hi delta57,
The extreme low tuning was to put the playing position/tuning in which Robert Pete Williams wanted to play a song in the key in which he wanted to sing it. For example, if you want to play a song in E position in standard tuning, but your best singing key for the song is B, you have to either tune the guitar a fourth low, BEADF#B, or put a capo on the seventh fret. Having a capo on the seventh fret, you lose too much of the available neck of the guitar, as well as the lower range. So you tune the guitar a fourth low.

Tuning low, and sometimes extremely low, or tuning high were not practices exclusive to Robert Pete Williams--they were a commonplace in Country Blues guitar, and Old-Time guitar, too. Maybelle Carter's favorite playing position was C position in standard tuning, but the lead singer in the Carter Family, Sara, had a low alto voice, and for many songs her best singing key was Ab. In those instances, Maybelle tuned her guitar two whole steps low, CFBbEbGC.

The tuning low had nothing to do with the condition of the guitar, its neck being warped, etc. Most of Robert Pete Williams' early recordings were played on Dr. Harry Oster's Harmony 12-string guitar, a perfectly serviceable instrument that was later owned and played by Paul Geremia. I hope this answers your question.

All best,


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