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When Eric Clapton first heard Robert Johnson’s landmark 1930’s Blues recordings he asked: “Who’s the other guitar player on there? If Johnson is playing the lead parts, who’s playing the rhythm?” He was shocked to learn that there was no second guitarist on the record. Robert Johnson was doing the work of two musicians on one instrument.

Most people who choose to pick up the guitar do so for the same reason Robert Johnson did; to accompany themselves while they sing. You can’t sing while blowing a sax and you can’t bring a piano to the beach so it is a logical choice. Yet many guitarists underestimate what a powerful accompaniment tool they have. After all, this is the instrument Beethoven described as “a miniature orchestra in itself.”

Beginners often start by learning a few chords and strumming the rhythms that come naturally to them. With a few months of diligent practice they may find they are able to play dozens of songs. They learn more chords and keep strumming until they get to the point where they can strum “anything.” This is where many players plateau. They want to get better, but they don’t know what else there is to learn. While strumming chords is an essential part of the beginning guitarist’s development and can, in some instances, be an appropriate style to accompany a singer or soloist, it is only a scratch in the surface of what they are capable of. It is not for strumming alone that Beethoven praised the instrument’s versatility.

What impressed Clapton in Johnson’s playing was his pianistic approach. Rather than strumming all six strings at once he assigned each string a different role so he could play several parts at once. (A simple way to think of the technique he employed is that he’d play a bass line with his thumb on the 6th string while playing a melody on the 1st string with his third finger, and a rhythm part on the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th strings with his first and second fingers.) The effect is a sound that resembles two or three guitars rather than one.

In addition to this, the guitar has a nearly limitless range of tones and textures. Amplifiers and effects pedals aside, it is possible to change the sound of a guitar drastically with the hands and fingers alone. For example, you can pluck the strings near the bridge for a bright, thin sound or near the neck for a warm, dark sound. What if you try really getting your fingers or pick under the strings and pull them out from the body of the guitar as you release them? You’ll get an abrasive popping sound which is the result of the string snapping back hard against the fretboard. Slap the 6th string with the outer side of your thumb for one snare-like sound or tap your knuckles on all six strings for a different snare-like sound. Heck, you can even use the body of the guitar as a hand drum. And that’s before we’ve even gotten into palm muting, harmonics, and a myriad other techniques to create an interesting and full sounding accompaniment.

Robert Johnson wasn’t the first player to discover the guitar’s versatility, nor was he the last. In the same way that he learned by listening to players before him, today’s players learn from him as they continue pushing the sonic limits of this six string box.

Suggested Listening: Robert Johnson “Preaching Blues”, Tommy Emmanuel “Day Tripper/Lady Madonna”, Mary Flower “Farewell My Bluebell”

Submitted by GBarresi

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