Robert Johnson – how he may have tuned his guitar

Legend has it that Robert Johnson wandered down to the cross-roads one night, handed his guitar to the Devil – who tuned it for him and handed it back. And in this way, he went from a guitar player who his mentor, Son House described as “noising” to one of the most delicate, lyrical bluesmen recorded. When you hear Robert Johnson’s recordings from 1936/7, you can hear the fundamentals of jazz and rag-time; and old Scotty Moore’s guitar work in the 1950s on those first Elvis Sun Session recordings is essentially just an electrified Robert Johnson.

There’s two things with Robert Johnson’s guitar playing. One is that he plays pretty fast, and the other that it’s really difficult to play if you tune your guitar in the normal style (E, A, D, G, B, E). There’s another interesting thing though: the released tracks are generally a semi-tone sharp. If you visit the Wikipedia page which lists all his recording dates, you’ll see that in some cases there was a second “take” recorded. Now, his recorded songs were generally released as 78s by his record company, and what seems to have happened is that the versions that were released were all speeded up slightly, while the un-released takes where left alone. Here’s an analysis of the key of each of the songs as released in the wonderful “Centennial Collection” (which manages to get rid of all the hisses and pops – you see, computers can be useful for some things!). So, I’ve used this release as a reference, and simply noted down the released key of each recording (in parentheses) and in [square brackets] is what I reckon is the correct key:

Session: 1936, November 23rd:
Kind Hearted Woman (B) [Bb]
** 2nd take in (Bb)
Dust my Broom (E) [Eb]
Sweet Home Chicago (F#) [F]
Ramblin’ on my mind (F#) [F}
** in (F) 2nd take
When You Got A Good Friend (F#) [F]
Come On In My Kitchen (B) [Bb]
** in (Bb) 2nd take

What’s interesting about this session is that the second take is always a half step lower than the first. It’s possible that he just decided to down-tune on the second take of each song – but pretty unlikely! And there has been a rumor for years that his record company sped up the recordings for the release – whether by accident or to make the recordings more “exciting”. It seems clear to me based on the 2nd takes above, that the original recordings were a half-step lower. e.g. Kind Hearted Woman was released on 78 in the key of B, but the 2nd take on the Centennial Collection, which was not released on 78, is in Bb. Similarly, Ramblin’ On My Mind was released in F#, but the second take is in F.

As it happens, lots of people have attempted to slow Robert Johnson recordings down to the “corrected speed”. What I’ve done is create a YouTube playlist of all the Robert Johnson songs, but adjusted to what I think is the right key – per the tables above and below. Have a listen. One thing I think you’ll notice is that his voice just sounds more natural in these recordings, slowed down essentially just a semi-tone for the early sessions, and the final session recordings all left as-is.

So, if RJ is playing a low Eb, he’d have to be tuned down to Eb, even if he was in regular tuning. Now, anyone who plays guitar knows that the blues is a starting chord (the 1), a second chord (the 4th harmonic), and a turn-around chord (the 5th above, or the 4th below). So, with a regularly tuned guitar you can start on the A-string, then play a D-chord a 4th above, and then play the turn-around E-chord a 4th below – all using open strings. We guitarists try to keep it simple – using the open strings where possible. So, if Robert Johnson was playing in Eb concert tuning, then the easy open chords to play would be Ab (1), Db (IV) and Eb (V) – and while there’s quite a lot of Eb in his recordings – there’s only five songs in Ab. So I think this also suggests we may have been tuned to an Open-Eb chord. A lot of blues players in the Delta were tuned to open-D and open-E. I think Robert Johnson just tuned to Open-Eb like his mentor, Son House in this video of “Death Letter Blues”.

But there’s more: There’s an excellent documentary about Robert Johnson on Netflix called “Devil at the The Crossroads” (where would we be without these kinds of sensationalist titles for our media?!). The documentary is excellent because it includes first-hand accounts by people who knew him – including Son House who says, “yeah, he had a 7th string on his guitar”. A 7th string eh? Old Robert just tied another string on and voila, he’s a guitar genius? Well, you can’t just tie another string onto a six string guitar and turn the tuning peg and expect the two strings to go into tune. And if he had a 7th tuning peg on his guitar, you’d think other people would have commented on it – and when he lost his guitar in a fire, he wouldn’t have just been able to replace it – even if there was such a thing as a “luthier” in any of the towns RJ visited – who could have added a seventh notch to his nut, another string insert on his bridge, moved all the strings around a bit – and managed to conceal all this in the photo above! So, what I reckon is that Robert J tuned his guitar according to the harmonic series, in open tuning – but, here’s the thing: Instead of making the top string another Eb (the tonic), I think he tuned it to the 7th harmonic – i.e. a C# (a whole-tone below Eb), like this:

6th string (lowest): Eb (harmonic = 2)
5th string: Bb (harmonic = 3)
4th string: Eb (harmonic = 4)
3rd string: G (harmonic = 5)
2nd string: Bb (harmonic = 6)
1st string (highest): C# (harmonic = 7)

This is pure pythagorean tuning – meaning that he’s tuning each string according to the 2nd harmonic, 3rd harmonic, 4th harmonic, etc, as shown above. Similar to Keith Richards with his 5-string, open-G tuning (GDGBD – which, by the way is based on a 5-string banjo tuning, an instrument introduced into the delta by Africans). This Open-Eb tuning is the same sequence of harmonics, except it starts with an Eb, and because Robert Johnson has 6 strings instead of Keith’s five, the next harmonic in the series is the 7th harmonic.

So, I reckon our Robert’s “7th string” was just a string tuned to the 7th harmonic! If you play in open tuning, as I do, you do think of your strings as the tonic string, the 5th harmonic string, etc., and if you tune the top string to a harmonic 7th, you’re going to think of it as your “7th string”. When you tune your guitar like this, lo and behold, those tricky RJ suspended 7ths and octaves, and minor-3rd double-stopping become easy to do. Give it a try.

Did the devil teach Robert Johnson how to tune his guitar? To quote Bobby Johnson, “It must have been that old evil spirit, so deep down in the ground” – or perhaps he was just sensitive enough to feel the power of these keys resonating through the Earth, and intelligent enough to try a 7th harmonic for his 6th string – or his cousin gave him that tip when he was off re-learning guitar with him. I had wandered into this tuning several years ago based on the Pythagorean approach, and abandoned it after a few years for being too “weird” – but when I used it play along with RJ at the right speed, I realized that this was probably it. It’s certainly a more rational explanation for the “7th string” myth, and it does make it easier to sound like RJ. (Note: I know that Robert Lockwood Jr claimed he was taught to play guitar by RJ himself, and he seems to be in regular E tuning – but I’m sticking to my story. He was only a young boy when RJ was teaching him, after all.)

You’ll recall from my Home Page that Bb and F are the “magic” frequencies I found on a tone generator, which seem to resonate against some background sonic fabric of the Earth. What’s a beautiful thing is that, slowed down a semi-tone, these recordings are all now in comfortable keys for a guitar that is tuned to open Eb. Keys of Eb (open 6th string), F (2nd fret), G (4th fret), Ab (5th fret), Bb (7th fret and as a chord based on the 5th string) and C (9th fret). And we know he did use a capo, and the photo above shows it on the 2nd fret, so, if he’s tuned to Open-Eb, you’d expect to hear some songs with F chords (6th string, 2nd fret) and C chords (5th string, 2nd fret) – which we hear plenty of!

Here are the rest of Robert Johnson’s recordings, with the (key of the official recordings), [and my adjusted key in square brackets]. Again, the 2nd take is in one of the natural keys of the Eb harmonic series, and the rest are sped up, so a (B) was probably a [Bb]. What also interesting is that in the final session in June 1937, they are all in our keys – it seems that these final recordings were not sped up for release:

1936, November 23
Terraplane Blues (B) [Bb]
Phonograph Blues (B) [Bb}
** 2nd take in (Eb – an altogether different key/feel)
32-20 (Ab – perhaps not tampered with, or maybe in A)
They’re Red Hot (C) [B, but it’s OK because it’s rag-time and it hits the key chords]
Dead Shrimp Blues (B) [Bb]
Crossroads Blues (B) [Bb]
Walkin Blues (B) [Bb]
Last Fair Deal Gone Down (B) [Bb}
Preachin’ Blues (Up Jumped The Devil) (E) [Eb]
If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day (Bb) [perhaps not altered]

1936, November 27
SESSION IS SLIGHTLY MORE THAN A HALF STEP SHARP
Stones In My Passway (A) [Ab]
Steady Rollin’ Man (A) [Ab]
From four until late (C#) [C]

1937, June 20th
THIS FINAL SESSION, SEEMS RIGHT:
Hell Hound On My Trail (E) [May be sped up, Eb more likely]
Little Queen Of Spades (Bb)
**2nd take also in Bb
Malted Milk (Eb)
Drunken Hearted Man (Eb)
**2nd take also in Eb
Me And The Devil Blues (Bb)
** 2nd take also Bb
Stop Breakin’ Down Blues (Bb)
** 2nd take also Bb
Traveling Riverside Blues (Bb)
** 2nd take also Bb
Honeymoon Blues (Bb)
Love In Vain Blues (Ab)
** 2nd take also Ab
Milkcow’s Calf Blues (Bb)

So, there you have it, perhaps a couple of mysteries explained:
1. That Robert Johnson tuned his guitar to Eb.
2. That it was probably Open-Eb, not concert Eb
2. That his top (highest) string was tuned to the harmonic 7th of the Eb major chord – giving that haunting sound, and the facility for RJ to play delicate harmonies without flying about all over the fret-board. The simplest explanation is usually the right one.

Do have a listen to my hand-selected collection of “corrected speed” Robert Johnson recordings to hear the true nature of the man and his music – here on YouTube, and play along on guitar if you have one – and let me know what you think!