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- The Blues According To Lightnin’ Hopkins
- List Of Most Popular Lightnin’ Hopkins Songs
- Lightnin’s Picking Style – The Monotonic Bass Pattern
- Guitar Lesson Complete – Baby Please Don’t Go
- Mance Lipscombe
Sam Lightnin’ Hopkins The Texas Blues Man
There’s some great guitar pickers came from Texas (and still do!) but none quite like Lightnin’. Often imitated, never equaled, his legacy for generations of aspiring acoustic blues guitar fingerpickers is huge and can’t be overestimated. He was influenced by Blind Lemon Jefferson, and his cousin played with the blind blues guitarist from time to time. He probably learned that a sparse fingerstyle punctuated with fast and unexpected licks were a powerful way to engage an audience, particularly if your lyrics tell a good story at the same time – he was a master story teller.
From all accounts, his early days were pretty typical of a young brash blue guitar picker of those times – hard drinking and womanizing were just the beginning. He spent some time in jail, was married for a time, but always came back to the blues for his living, in fact it was his life. He was very popular with small dance crowds in the rural areas and could play for hours with no backing, just him and his guitar. It’s a testimony to his skill that he could innovate for long periods without boring his listeners.
Many modern rock and blues guitar players list Hopkins as one of their major influences, men like Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan among them, and many Lightnin’ Hopkins songs have been covered again and again by diverse musicians. He produced 85 albums throughout his career and Lightnin’ Hopkins blues songs were often near the top of the Billboard Charts in the late 40s and 50s.
In later years he toured Europe, and even put on a command performance for Queen Elizabeth in the UK! He was Mr Cool of Texas acoustic blues and could captivate audiences at all levels. Perhaps a good way to get into the man’s style is to watch the video below, which is a great little documentary filmed in Texas and shows him playing, singing and also philosophizing about life and blues.
Here’s a good biography I found:
Lightnin’ Hopkins embodied the blues. His singing, guitar playing, his physical appearance, personality, and demeanor, were the blues. One of the most recognizable bluesmen to come out of Texas, Lightnin’ Hopkins went on to stake out an enduring and productive career with his own spontaneous and eclectic style of haunting vocals and accompanying guitar.
Sam Lightnin’ Hopkins was born in Centerville, Texas, on March 15, 1912. After his father died in 1915, the family (Sam, his mother and five brothers and sisters) moved to Leona. At age eight he made his first instrument, a cigar-box guitar with chicken-wire strings. By ten he was playing music with his cousin, Texas Alexander, and Blind Lemon Jefferson, who encouraged him to continue. Hopkins also played with his brothers, blues musicians John Henry and Joel.
By the mid-1920s Sam had started jumping trains, shooting dice, and playing the blues anywhere he could. He married sometime in the 1920s, and had several children, but by the mid-1930s his wife, frustrated by his wandering lifestyle, took the children and left Hopkins. He served time at the Houston County Prison Farm in the mid-1930s, and after his release he returned to the blues-club circuit. In 1946 he had his big break and first recording in Los Angeles for Aladdin Recordings. On the record was a piano player named Wilson (Thunder) Smith; by chance he combined well with Sam to give him his nickname, Lightnin’. The album has been described as “downbeat solo blues” characteristic of Hopkins’s style. Aladdin was so impressed with Hopkins that the company invited him back for a second session in 1947. He eventually made forty-three recordings for the label, which are highly regarded and available as “The Complete Aladdin Recordings.”
Over his career Hopkins recorded for nearly twenty different labels, including Gold Star Records in Houston. These were reissued under Arhoolie as “The Gold Star Sessions.” On occasion he would record for one label while under contract to another. In 1950 he settled in Houston, but he continued to tour the country periodically. Though he recorded prolifically between 1946 and 1954, his records for the most part were not big outside the black community, and buried by the onslaught of rock and roll. It was not until 1959, when Hopkins began working with legendary producer Sam Chambers that his music began to reach a mainstream audience. Hopkins switched to an acoustic guitar and became a hit in the folk-blues revival of the 1960s. He was signed by Chris Strachwitz for his new Arhoolie label in this period, which really propelled his popularity in the genre.
During the early 1960s he played at Carnegie Hall with Pete Seeger and Joan Baez and in 1964 toured with the American Folk Blues Festival. By the end of the decade he was opening for such rock bands as the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane. During a tour of Europe in the 1970s, he played for Queen Elizabeth II at a command performance. Hopkins also performed at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. In 1972 he worked on the soundtrack to the film Sounder. He was also the subject of a documentary by filmmaker Les Blanks The Blues According to Lightnin’ Hopkins, which won the prize at the Chicago Film Festival for outstanding documentary in 1970.
Hopkins recorded and appeared on more than eighty-five albums for an incredible variety of labels, and toured around the world. But after a 1970 car crash, many of the concerts he performed were on his front porch or at a bar near his house.
He had a knack for writing songs impromptu, and frequently wove legends around a core of truth. His often autobiographical songs made him a spokesman for the southern black community that had no voice until blues attained a broader popularity through white audiences and performers.
In 1980 Lightnin’ Hopkins was inducted into The Blues Foundation Hall of Fame.
Hopkins died of cancer on January 30, 1982
Author: James Nadal
The Blues According To Lightnin’ Hopkins
Lightnin’ is accompanied from time to time by his buddy Mance Lipscombe, whose style was similar, but had if anything a broader repertoire. Mance is the subject of another article as he deserves to be discussed in some detail.
Notice how the two guitars completely complement each other in the video. Often, this is not prepared, but each guitarist feels the other’s playing and adapts to wherever his partner goes – sometimes Mance takes off and sometimes its Hopkins.
This type of blues ‘jam’ is about as good as it can get whether listening to it or taking part in it yourself, and no amount of Lightnin’ Hopkins tabs can give you that expertise. It takes a lot of work and practice.
Top Lightnin’ Hopkins Songs
Preparing a short list is a hard choice from so many great recorded tracks, but here goes:
- Katie Mae
- Shotgun Blues
- Baby Please Don’t Go
- Automobile Blues
- Give Me Central 209 (Hello Central)
- Coffee Blues
- I’m Beggin’ You
- Contrary Mary
- Moanin’ Blues
- Penitentiary Blues
- Fan It
- Conversation Blues
- Last Night Blues
- Mighty Crazy
- Mojo Hand
- Baby Don’t You Tear My Clothes
Lightnin Hopkins Guitar Picking – Monotonic Bass
Although it’s sure that the Texas blues man could play an alternating bass pattern if he wanted to, he was a master guitar player, but his preferred style incorporated the so-called ‘monotonic bass’ thumb strike to accompany his songs. With this pattern, the picking thumb didn’t move between strings, but sets up a solid rhythm on one or two bass strings – you’ll see the detail later in my Lightnin Hopkins guitar lesson video posted below.
For this this style of fingerpicking the blues, the keys of E and A work best, although some blues men have used it very successfully in C and G. ( Robert Johnson (Four ’til Late), Big Bill Broonzy (St Louis Blues, Glory of Love, Guitar Shuffle) and of course, Mance Lipscombe. Mance’s way of playing this thumb pattern is particularly interesting and is discussed separately elsewhere on this site.
Once the bass string is plucked with the thumb, it can either be damped or let ring, depending on the feel of the song and what the artists wants to get across to his listeners. The string can be muted or ‘choked off’ by simply dropping the palm of the picking hand onto the string. Normally, the palm is held very close to the strings close to the bridge, so this muting can be effected very quickly.
If the bass string isn’t fretted, as when using an E or A chord, then muting the note with the picking hand is ideal. If using a G or C chord, then the fretting hand can be used, by lifting the fingers off for a fraction of a second and choking off the note in this way. Most guitarists use a combination of these techniques to create the desire effect.
As you might guess from Lightnin’ Sam Hopkins, he went a little further in his basic bass picking pattern, and often doubled up on the timing so that the beat became heart-beat. When this is done with the right timing it speaks directly to the emotions, which is a powerful way to communicate with your audience. This ‘mojo hand’ technique of his was much more complex than many other blues guitar players and added syncopation to very simple chord progressions, no matter what the key it’s played in.
One of the best known Lightnin’ Hopkins quotes is ‘Lightnin’ changes chords when Lightnin’ wants to!” which is a way of saying that he’s not chained to any particular chord structure or traditional timing associated with it. The music is there to fit in with his lyrics and story, it’s not the other way round. This is one way he owns the blues – he just wasn’t stuck into playing it how others think it should be done.
Lightnin’ Hopkins Country Blues – Baby Please Don’t Go Lesson
In the following Lightnin’ Hopkins lesson, complete with tabs and chords, I go into one of his most popular songs in some detail to try and capture some of that magic. It incorporates many of his trademark riffs and licks, and also some interesting thumb moves during a middle break that adds syncopation – his thumb plays on a single bass string sometimes doubling up on the temp and then striking on the off-beat while is forefinger complements the sound on the trebles. It sounds great and takes a bot of practice to get it down just right.
Written by Big Joe Williams, for me Hopkins really made it his own and many artists have recorded the song over the decades, artists like Bukka White, Muddy Waters, BB King, Them and the Doors – over 100 in total!
Before that he vamps along for a few bars on the E chord. Get the rhythm going, be careful with the finger and thumb picking position, and it starts to take shape.
Lightnin’s finger mirrors the thumb action, but alternates, so after the thumb strikes twice, the finger strikes just once and vice versa.
It’s the same pattern as he moves into the E chord, but his thumb drops down to the bass E while he slides up to 5th fret on the B string, which puts it in tune with the open high E, and lets it ring.
A short but fancy riff after a standard B7 and we’re ready to drop back to the E to finish off that phrase.
Hopkins runs down to the E chord with a standard progression in the traditional blues style, and turns it around with another B7 before starting the next verse.
This is a masterclass in using very simple chords to the best effect in a standard blues format.
Tips For Learning To Play Acoustic Blues Guitar
Most people want to try and retain the authentic feeling pf the original blues – Keep it Real, as I always say! The only way to really do this is to learn to fingerpick in the same way, it’s as simple as that. It’s easy to say, but sometimes oh so hard to do – I know this. The strange thing is that even when we KNOW that we are doing the finger movements in exactly the same way, with the same chords and everything the way we’ve studied it, often there’s still something missing.
One thing is for sure, learning to play old style acoustic blues guitar isn’t like memorizing a page of text, for example. There’s much more happening when we try to create a musical experience, and it’s as much to do with the listener’s perception of what you’re doing as your technique. To make you performances special, which is to say, better than 90% of the other guitar players, learning the physical technique is only 20% of the work – the other 80% comes from other subtle sources.
The Mechanics – most guitarists have a preference for playing fingerstyle guitar either with bare fingers or with finger picks. Now different blues artists used both, so you will need to copy what they did if you wanted to get the feel of how they did it, and also try to use the same number of fingers. Hopkins used a plastic thumb pick and his bare forefinger, for example, while Rev. Gary Davis used a pick on thumb and forefinger. Others, like Mississippi John Hurt, used his bare fingers. The best approach is to practice with or without, until comfortable with either way of playing.
Guitar Teachers – If you need a teacher, either in person or on the internet, don’t be scared to take a long time in choosing you an (or woman!) You’ll save a lot of time by working with someone you are comfortable with. It’s quite common that students chop and change, trying this instructor and then the other. Once you find the right blues guitar teacher, stick with him and soak it up like a sponge.
Who were the blues men? Take your time to explore the background of your favorite blues men, read about their lives and try to imagine what it must have been like to have to play for hours for a couple of dollars, or a meal and a place to sleep. How did this affect their music? Of course they had the blues – what are your blues and how do you get it into your music?
Using guitar tablature – it’s not uncommon for a student to come to me who really wants to play the blues in the right way, the old way, but he’s learned by ear and doesn’t have a grounding in the basics. As young men we tend to want to jump straight over to the good stuff, the flashy licks and impressive riffs. The old blues isn’t like that.Without a solid foundation, this kind of playing has little substance. The foundation I’m talking about is the one thing that all the great blues players have in common – complete control over their picking thumb. The way to get this control is by using tablature, which ensures you don’t skip things that you’ll need later on to play great blues.
Practice – we’ve got to do it, we all know that, but it shouldn’t be a drudge. If you get tired of it, then there’s something wrong. You started on this blues journey because you were passionate about the old way of playing acoustic blues, and the people who created it all. However, it does happen, particularly when you’re trying to nail a particular fingerpicking pattern and it’s just not coming. Best thing is to practice that piece for 30 mins a day, and then play something else totally unrelated with the rest of your practice time – it’ll come!
Visualization – this just may be the most important piece of the whole puzzle that many people don’t realize! Whatever you practiced that day, you need to visualize in you mind’s eye for ten minutes before going to sleep. Create a virtual video in your mind. See yourself effortlessly hitting the right strings. Really hear those perfect notes in the right order with a perfect rhythm. Make it larger than life, both sound and technicolor. This technique alone will enhance your progress in leaps and bounds.