Guitar Lesson: How To Play The Blues Like RL Burnside


Extract from the book and video guide Play the Blues like … | By PETE MADSEN

The late Mississippi Hill Country blues artist RL Burnside was relatively unknown until the 1990s, when he signed with Fat Possum Records and began touring both nationwide and in Europe. Its sound was heavily influenced by neighbor Mississippi Fred McDowell, as well as contemporary blues artists of the day, such as Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, and Lightnin ‘Hopkins. Burnside’s raw single-chord, percussive sound was emblematic of groove-oriented Hill-Country players.

If you like your blues with a funky ride (think Gary Clark Jr.), listening to and learning Burnside’s riffs and licks will make your mojo work. Be sure to check out Burnside’s play on YouTube, or on his many recordings, where you’ll find good examples of how he approached music.

Open G-grooves

Burnside played many of his tracks in open G tuning (bottom to top: DGDGBD) with a funky vibe and punchy attack. Guitarists tend to look to his version of “Poor Black Mattie,” an infectious one-chord groove that keeps the foot tapping.

Burnside relied heavily on single chord grooves, and all of the examples in this lesson explore the possibilities of a single chord groove in G. Ex. 1 is inspired by the main groove of “Poor Black Mattie”. The key to playing is to nail the percussive “chucks” – like the snare hits of a rock drummer – to the second and fourth beats of each bar.

Burnside played with his finger, using mainly his thumb. To copy its sound in Ex. 1, use your thumb to brush the strings while simultaneously muffling the bass strings – remember, let the palm of your picking hand rest gently on the strings near the bridge. As for your fretting hand, play the notes on strings 1 and 2 with your index finger.

Ex. 2 is a slight variation on the “Poor Black Mattie” groove, which, after sliding from the first to the third fret, causes your third finger to reach the fifth fret, G. Both Exs. 1 and 2 are faster grooves (around 160 bpm) and the sound is best played this way. It may take a while to nail these examples with the proper attack, but you should be able to groove them with a little practice.

In contrast, Ex. 3, similar to “Peach Tree Blues”, is a much slower groove at around 100 bpm. This relaxed tempo is an invitation to play a few more notes, and that’s exactly what Burnside does. Slide the second string with your third finger and play the notes of the fifth fret with your first finger.

Ex. 4, inspired by “Skinny Woman”, is also a slower groove that emphasizes the bass notes. Burnside, a master of transitions, would often transform a motif like Ex. 4 into a riff like Ex. 3, before moving on to a muted percussion section like Ex. 5. On beats 1 through 3 of Ex. 5, use a down / down / up scratch pattern – your thumb on the down strokes and your index finger on the up strokes – while silencing the palm of your hand.

You can hear an influence of John Lee Hooker in Ex. 6, which is inspired by “Jumper on the Line”. Burnside plays a boogie style groove in his percussive way. Check the notation for the correct strum direction – again, use your thumb for the strums down and your index finger for the strums up.

Another great slow groove is “Rollin ‘and Tumblin'”, which Burnside may have picked up from McDowell. For the slide, Burnside placed the bottleneck on his ring finger. Syncope of slide sentences in Ex. Seven is important. The first slide of the double play on strings 3 and 4 is a bit longer than the other notes on the slide. It gets a full eighth note, as opposed to a triplet eighth note, so be sure to lengthen the first double stop on the slide.

In Ex. 8, insert the opening sentence of “Rollin ‘and Tumblin’”: a double game played on the first and second strings, which then switches to the midrange groove of Ex. 7. Keep your slide low and evenly tilted on both ropes, as it is easy to misjudge the angle of your slide and not have good contact with the ropes.

Now put it all together

In my original composition “Burnside’s Brush” (Ex. 9), I borrow a few riffs and phrasing from Burnside, while keeping the groove strong. I wanted the transitions to sound natural, in keeping with Burnside’s fluidity.


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Start with the “Peach Tree Blues” pattern, keeping a slow and steady pace. Play the slide notes with your third finger, not the bottleneck. In measure 4, introduce the bottleneck to play a phrase similar to the bass-focused “Skinny Woman” licking, but with a bass / treble / bass triplet to punctuate the line. Use your thumb on the sixth string and grab the first and second strings respectively with your middle and ring fingers.

After repeating the first six bars, pull your neck up a bit to create a phrase that can be interpreted as an extension of the I (G) chord or as a movement to the IV (C) chord. It might be a bit of a stretch, but use your third finger to reach the eighth fret.

In the next section, starting at bar 13, play a phrase based on percussive triplets / mute palms that is punctuated by the same slide line from the second section. Then make a series of double stops on the third and fourth strings which are similar to the groove of “Rollin ‘and Tumblin”.

If you are a fan of RL Burnside, you are already familiar with his great rhythmic prowess. Equally important is its picking hand dynamics, and you can learn to copy it through careful listening. But most importantly, never forget to stomp your foot and stay in the groove!

How To Play Blues Like RL Burnside Musical Notation Examples From Guitar Lessons 1-8
How To Play Blues Like RL Burnside Musical Notation Example From Guitar Lesson 9

Pete Madsen is a San Francisco Bay Area-based guitarist, author, and educator specializing in acoustic blues, ragtime, and slide guitar.

This lesson is taken from Play the Blues like … written by Pete Madsen and published by Acoustic guitar.


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