How to Play the Blues Like Skip James

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Skip James used open D minor to create insistently repeating musical motifs, often based on just one or two chords, for hypnotic effect. I find his music challenging—not owing to any technical difficulties it presents, but because it’s hard to capture the emotive quality of the milieu in which he worked. James’ music always haunts me as I strive to articulate and understand it.

‘Devil Got My Woman’

If you’re familiar with open-D tuning (D A D FG A D), then it’s very easy to get into D minor: simply lower string 3 down a half step, to F. In general, as you tackle these examples, it’s best to dedicate your picking hand’s thumb to the bottom three strings and your index and middle fingers to the higher strings.

Once you’re in open D-minor, try Example 1, which is similar to the introduction to “Devil Got My Woman.” James often used descending patterns like this, in which double stops are anchored by a steady bass pattern, to set up his verses. Your best bet is to play this example with your first and second fingers on strings 2 and 3, respectively.

Example 2 is patterned after a move further along in the intro to “Devil Got My Woman,” where James skips strings and dispenses with the bass notes to give the triplet-based line a little more urgency. You can bar this figure with your first finger and use your third finger to grab that ninth-fret B.

For the verse of the same song, James shifts to an A minor chord, similar to the first two bars of Example 3, before moving back to D minor. Note that the second two bars provide an instrumental response to the vocal’s call.

Example 4 is similar to the ending of “Devil Got My Woman” and is a relatively cheery departure from the rest of the song. Play this by barring the first three strings with your first finger. Pay attention to the triplet feel and syncopation. 


Excerpted from a lesson by Pete Madsen in Play the Blues Like...


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