Learn to play fingerstyle blues, with a bottleneck slide and without, through songs from blues legends Mississippi John Hurt, Big Bill Broonzy, Lightnin' Hopkins, Tampa Red, Blind Willie Johnson, and more.
Orville Johnson is a Seattle-based singer, instrumentalist, record producer, songwriter, session player, teacher, and, above all, instinctive and sensitive musician.
As his entry in the Encyclopedia of Northwest Music states, Orville “has become a vital figure on the NW music scene in the 30-some years he’s lived there, appearing on over 400 CDs, movie and video soundtracks, commercials, producing 22 CDs for other artists, hosting a roots music radio show, and appearing in the 1997 film Georgia with Jennifer Jason-Leigh and Mare Winningham, on the Prairie Home Companion radio show and on Jay Leno’s Tonight Show.
Born and raised in the southern Illinois heartland, Orville acquired his love of singing as a youth in the fundamentalist Pentecostal church he attended and, when he later began playing guitar and dobro, responded to the roots music that surrounded him by learning to play the blues, bluegrass, rockabilly, and country music that are all part of the mosaic that characterizes his own mongrel music.
Orville is also known as a patient and insightful teacher of music and has taught often at the Puget Sound Guitar Workshop as well as the International Guitar Seminar, Pt. Townsend Blues Workshop, Euro-Blues Workshop, B.C. Bluegrass Workshop and others. orvillejohnson.com
Fingerstyle Blues Guitar Course Overview
Latest Fingerstyle Blues Guitar Lesson
Some of These Days
One of the earliest recorded fingerstyle blues guitarists was Mississippi guitarist/singer Charley Patton, whose song “Some of These Days” you’ll learn in this lesson. Patton recorded in the 1920s and influenced Robert Johnson, Son House, and others. “Some of These Days” is in open-D tuning and is one of Patton’s sweeter songs. With Notation/Tab
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Fingerstyle Blues Guitar Lessons
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Fingerpicking Basics, Part 1: Simple Patterns Get started with country blues fingerpicking with some simple fingerpicking patterns. Learn to play the alternating thumb pattern on C and G chords, and combine that with a pinch pattern.
Fingerpicking Basics, Part 2: Note Values Learn to play different note values with your fingers on the treble strings while keeping up a steady alternating bass.
Fingerpicking Basics, Part 3: Thumb Things In addition to playing an alternating bass, the thumb can also play a single-note shuffle rhythm on one string or a melody independently of the fingers for a contrapuntal sound.
Fingerpicking Basics, Part 4: Syncopation Learn a couple of simple exercises that show how to add syncopation to your melodies and give them a natural feel.
“Heavy Time” Fingerpicking - Sample Lesson! “Heavy time” is a style of blues fingerpicking that is more driving and forceful than the somewhat bouncy feel of alternating bass fingerpicking, as played by Mississippi John Hurt, Willie McTell, and others. Orville shows you a tune that illustrates the “heavy time” feel.
SLIDE GUITAR BASICS
Slide Guitar Basics, Part 1 Learn everything you need to know to get started with slide, including advice about choosing and fitting a slide and deciding which finger to put it on. You’ll also learn to play major scale and minor scales on the first string.
Slide Guitar Basics, Part 2: Damping To control or reduce the noise created by rubbing a metal slide against metal strings, slide guitarists use a technique called damping, or blocking, which you’ll learn in this lesson.
Slide Guitar Basics, Part 3: Your First Slide Tune Learn a simple but cool slow blues shuffle in E that combines slide licks in the bass with single-note slide melodies on the high E string.
FINGERSTYLE BLUES SONGS
When He Calls Me
When He Calls Me, Part 1 Learn a fingerstyle arrangement of the gospel song “When He Calls Me,” which Orville learned from the old-time country blues singer Howard Armstrong.
When He Calls Me, Part 2 In the second part of this fingerstyle blues lesson, you’ll learn to play the chorus of “When He Calls Me.”
Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor
Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor, Part 1 Learn a fingerstyle arrangement of the folk-blues classic “Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor” inspired by the playing of Mississippi John Hurt. Orville plays the song through and then explains the guitar part phrase by phrase.
Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor, Part 2: Variations After you’ve learned the basic version of “Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor” try these variations that Orville plays either behind his singing or as part of the instrumental.
Nobody’s Fault But Mine
Blind Willie Johnson–Style Slide, “Nobody’s Fault but Mine” Blues slide guitar great Blind Willie Johnson recorded in the early 1930s and played exclusively in open-D tuning. Learn his great song “Nobody’s Fault but Mine.”
Bottleneck Blues in A
Slide in Standard Tuning, Part 1 Bottleneck slide is often played in open tunings, but in this lesson you’ll learn to play slide in standard tuning, using an eight-bar blues in A.
Slide in Standard Tuning, Part 2 Orville shows you the accompaniment pattern he plays with his thumb on this blues, a shuffle rhythm on the open strings: A, D, and E.
Little Boy Blue
Slide in Open G, Part 1: “Little Boy Blue” Learn some great ideas for playing slide in open-G tuning using the blues song “Little Boy Blue.”
Slide in Open G, Part 2: Damping and Pick Blocking To play “Little Boy Blue” cleanly and suppress unwanted slide noise, you’ll need to work on damping and pick blocking.
Slide in Open G, Part 3: “Little Boy Blue” Accompaniment Orville shows you what he plays behind his singing, using a monotonic shuffle bass and some nice fills between his vocal lines.
Slide in Open G, Part 4: “Little Boy Blue” Solo Orville walks you through the ideas he used in his solo, including a cool series of double stops that walk down chromatically from the 15th fret to the tenth fret.
Blue Monk, Part 1 The jazz blues “Blue Monk,” written by Thelonious Monk, is a great vehicle for looking at different ways to use the thumb in fingerstyle blues. Instead of playing alternating bass or a steady pulse of any sort, you’ll use the thumb to play a harmony line with the melody.
Blue Monk, Part 2 Learn a version of “Blue Monk” played up the neck, with the melody harmonized in sixths and played with the index and middle fingers, while the thumb plays drone bass notes.
The Glory of Love
The Glory of Love, Part 1 Orville’s arrangement of the pop tune “The Glory of Love” is based on the version recorded by Big Bill Broonzy. It’s in the key of C played with alternating bass in the Piedmont style, a la Mississippi John Hurt, Reverend Gary Davis, etc. You’ll learn how he plays the first verse in this video.
The Glory of Love, Part 2 The second time Orville plays the verse he changes the timing of the melody to add some variety to the arrangement. He walks you through that section as well as the bridge in this video. Orville also talks about how he simplifies the guitar part when he’s singing.
You’ll Work Down to Me Someday
You’ll Work Down to Me Someday, Part 1: Chords and Accompaniment The song “You’ll Work Down to Me Someday” was recorded by Memphis bluesman John Henry Barbee in the late 1920s. It’s played in dropped-D tuning. In this video you'll learn how Orville plays the accompaniment to “You’ll Work Down to Me Someday,” which includes some nice call-and response-licks.
You’ll Work Down to Me Someday, Part 2: Solos Learn two solos to “You’ll Work Down to Me Someday” in this lesson. The first solo is similar to the accompaniment you learned, but fleshed out a bit, since you don’t have to leave room for the vocal. The second solo moves up the neck and starts with the chord position you used for the A7 chord.
Let the Mermaids Flirt with Me
Mississippi John Hurt’s “Let the Mermaids Flirt with Me” Mississippi John Hurt’s “Let the Mermaids Flirt with Me” is a classic of fingerstyle blues guitar. Orville plays it all the way through and then summarizes what he’s playing: alternating bass on simple C, G7, and F chords, with the melody played on the treble strings. Then he walks you through the entire arrangement of the melody, showing you how the bass notes fit with the melody, even when the melody takes you slightly out of position.
“John Henry” in Open-D, Part 1: Melody In this lesson, you’ll learn to play the traditional favorite “John Henry” with a slide in open-D tuning. Orville shows you open-D tuning and then plays the tune through a few times instrumentally. There are no chord changes in this version of “John Henry.” It has an alternating bass on the sixth and fourth strings throughout the tune while you play the melody up high.
“John Henry” in Open-D, Part 2: Variations Once you’ve learned the basic melody to “John Henry,” you can learn some variations, including two-string harmonies, playing the melody an octave lower, and adding strums played with the middle finger between melody notes.
Boogie Woogie Dance
Tampa Red’s “Boogie Woogie Dance,” Part 1 This subject of this slide lesson, “Boogie Woogie Dance,” comes from the great Tampa Red, who recorded from the 1920s all the way into the 1960s, but his greatest recordings were made in the late ’20s and early-to-mid ’30s. He mostly played in open-D tuning, and his instrumental tune “Boogie Woogie Dance” is in that tuning.
Tampa Red’s “Boogie Woogie Dance,” Part 2 You’ll learn three more variations to the melody of “Boogie Woogie Dance” in this video. You’ll learn a slide variation and a cool “rake” on the V chord. Orville also gives you advice on using pick blocking on the slide sections.
Baby Let Me Follow You Down
Baby, Let Me Follow You Down, Part 1 The traditional blues song “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down” was originally recorded in the 1930s by Big Bill Broonzy, and in the 1960s Eric Von Schmidt rewrote some of the lyrics. Orville plays it in open-D tuning (D A D F# A D), and he starts by reminding you of the notes of open D and then shows you some of the unusual chord voicings he uses to play “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down” in open D.
Baby, Let Me Follow You Down, Part 2 After learning the basic structure and chords, you’ll learn some of the things Orville plays on his guitar solos for “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down,” including some cool parallel-sixths harmony lines. He also talks about how to come up with different ideas and variations in alternate tunings.
Fan It For his “fast” songs, like “Fan It,” the great guitar player, singer, and songwriter Lightnin’ Hopkins, played a moving bass line with his thumb and “upstrokes” on the offbeats with his index finger. Orville walks you through the rhythm guitar part to “Fan It” measure by measure, showing you some accents Hopkins played and one of his favorite turnarounds. For his solos, Hopkins just soloed a bit on the I chord and then came back in on the IV chord whenever he felt like it. Orville shows you a couple of solo ideas, one using some simple bends in open position, and one using a pentatonic scale up at the ninth through 12th frets.
Goin’ Down Slow
Goin’ Down Slow, Part 1 The inspiration for Orville’s arrangement of the blues song “Goin’ Down Slow” is the great Texas songster Mance Lipscomb, who plays it in the key of A, but using dropped-D tuning. Orville also capos at the second fret because that’s where he likes to sing “Goin’ Down Slow.” He plays the song through and then shows you what he played, starting with the chord positions he uses and the fills he plays while he’s singing. He also talks about Mance Lipscomb’s picking style, in which he mostly played with his thumb and index fingers.
Goin’ Down Slow, Part 2 You’ll learn Orville’s two solos on “Goin’ Down Slow” in this video. He plays them through and then walks you through each one, phrase by phrase, explaining where he bends some of the notes, and the positions and chord voicings he uses.
Salty Dog Blues
Salty Dog Blues, Part 1 In this lesson, you’ll learn a Mississippi John Hurt–inspired version of the traditional song “Salty Dog Blues,” which has more of a ragtime chord progression than the standard 12-bar blues progression. It’s in the key of G and the progression is E7–A7–D7–G. Orville starts by playing “Salty Dog Blues” Mississippi John Hurt–style and then walks you through the basic chords and fingerpicking patterns he uses in the intro and behind his singing. You’ll also learn a variation on the E7 chord that Hurt played and that Orville uses in his first solo on “Salty Dog Blues.”
Salty Dog Blues, Part 2 Orville plays two more solos on “Salty Dog Blues” using different chord voicings. You’ll learn those in this video. The first one uses the same chord voicing on the middle strings to play the E7, A7, and D7 chords, which Orville combines with a banjo-like picking pattern. The second solo combines chord shapes on the top three strings with pull-offs and some descending sixths.
Lightnin’ Hopkins–Style Blues in E
Lightnin’ Hopkins–Style Blues in E, Part 1 In this lesson on the fingerstyle playing of the great guitarist Lightnin’ Hopkins, you’ll a learn a 12-bar blues arrangement with some common and useful licks in the key of E. You’ll also learn three different turnarounds, which can be used on any blues in E. Orville plays his arrangement and then walks you through it phrase by phrase. You’ll learn the first 12-bar chorus in this video.
Lightnin’ Hopkins–Style Blues in E, Part 2 For the second 12-bar chorus of his Lightnin’ Hopkins–style tune, Orville moves up the fingerboard to chord shapes around the ninth to 12th frets. He plays the chorus through and then shows you the chord shapes he uses, as well as how he improvises licks in a chord shape at the ninth fret. He also shows you a cool final turnaround at the 12th fret using a diminished chord and some other cool chord shapes.
I Ain’t Gonna Give You None of My Jelly Roll
I Ain’t Gonna Give You None of My Jelly Roll, Part 1: Key of D In this lesson, you’ll learn an early jazz song that isn’t strictly a blues, but is deeply rooted in the blues. Orville’s arrangement of “I Ain’t Gonna Give You None of My Jelly Roll” is influenced by 1920s jazz piano. It has an alternating bass throughout most of it, as well as some chord voicings you may not have played in the blues before, and is played in two different keys (D and G). Orville plays his arrangement through and then takes it apart for you, showing you the chords first and then how the melody fits with the chords. You’ll learn the entire tune in the key of D in this video.
I Ain’t Gonna Give You None of My Jelly Roll, Part 2: Key of G In this lesson you'll learn “I Ain’t Gonna Give You None of My Jelly Roll” in the key of G, but before Orville shows it to you in G, he shows you how to modulate to G from the key of D using a D7 chord. Then he shows you the chords you’ll use in G, and how the melody fits with those chords, walking you through the arrangement, measure by measure.
Some of These Days
Some of These Days One of the earliest recorded fingerstyle blues guitarists was Mississippi guitarist/singer Charley Patton, whose song “Some of These Days” you’ll learn in this lesson. Patton recorded in the 1920s and influenced Robert Johnson, Son House, and others. “Some of These Days” is in open-D tuning and is one of Patton’s sweeter songs. Orville plays and sings it through and then shows you what he plays for the verse and bridge of “Some of These Days,” including a harmony to the melody line and some different chord voicings.
Fingerstyle Blues Guitar Source Material
Check out these tunes and artists featured in the Fingerstyle Blues Guitar course.