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How to Play Blues Like Lightnin’ Hopkins

Ted Drozdowski

With his dry-mouthed howl, rippling pentatonic licks and gut-bucket sound, Samuel “Lightnin’” Hopkins rose out of the Houston ghetto — where, as a boy, he used to guide Blind Lemon Jefferson — to become one of the most revered figures in Texas blues.

But Hopkins, who died in 1982 at age 69 after recording hundreds of sides for the influential labels Aladdin, Imperial, Bluesville, Prestige and Verve, was different from the rest of the Lone Star State’s guitar heroes. With the exception of occasional short bursts of speed, his six-stringing lacked the flash of Jefferson and the region’s lineage of electric barnburners that includes T-Bone Walker, Albert Collins, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Johnny Winter and Stevie Ray and Jimmie Vaughan.

Instead, Hopkins — who was born Mar. 15, 1912 — purveyed a unique, laconic playing style that straddled acoustic country and electric urban blues. That approach combined with his voice and his ability to spin yarns in his songs, often improvising lyrics, made for potent performances.

In a tune like “Down Baby” from The Complete Aladdin Recordings, his slow-drawn singing and the spare guitar notes that hang in the air create a feeling of staggering sadness. And just one number later in that two-disc set he steps up the tempo, starts banging out chords, and turns jubilant and saucy with his double-entendre classic “Let Me Play With Your Poodle.” Thus he covers the entire range of emotions in less than five minutes using only three chords.

That’s why Hopkins is such a great entry point for budding players who really want to sink their teeth into blues in a deep way, but are intimidated by the prospect of trying to wrangle the daredevil licks of Walker or SRV, or the idiosyncratic tunings of Collins. Lightnin’ played plain vanilla blues — but it was some of the best tasting vanilla ever!

To get started, acoustic or electric guitar will do. If you go electric, throw a little dirt on by setting your amp’s gain up a bit or adding a pedal, but go easy. If you’ve got an old amp that sounds like it’s falling apart, you might not need to do a dang thing other than turn it on to get into Hopkins’ dusty sonic zone.

The other tools you’ll need are a basic knowledge of the blues box pentatonic scales and chords. A pick is optional. Hopkins was a finger picker, but his single-note lines can be easily reproduced with a pick as long as you can toss in the occasional bass note or chord for color and presence.

Generally speaking, Hopkins wrote and played songs in basic 12-bar, I-IV-V chord progressions. Generally. The truth is that Hopkins often ignored the places where chords would typically change if he felt the lyric he was singing or the solo he was playing was more important. As he famously put it, “Lightnin’ change when Lightnin’ want to change.” And that’s great, because that gives players following his model similar license to be subjective — to really feel the music and go where it takes them.

Often it took Hopkins to the key of E, which is also a gift for newcomers. E is the easiest key in which to chase the pentatonic scale around the neck of a guitar in standard tuning. It’s typically the first scale beginners learn.

Often Hopkins would start his songs with a two-or-three bar introduction, improvising a few notes and maybe even speaking or singing a line before jumping into the song. “Come Back Baby” from The Complete Aladdin Recordings has a sterling example of this, and while Hopkins takes plenty of liberties with the song’s chord changes, there are several crisply chiseled solos that are excellent and easily digestible examples of his expressive-single note playing. And remember you don’t need to exactly duplicate Hopkins’ solos. He never played them the same way twice. It’s really all about feel. So get your hands on your guitars neck, listen to what Lightnin’ plays, and you’ll be able to sound it out yourself without too much effort.

Whenever Hopkins plays single-note fills they’re plucked from the chords he’s playing, so don’t worry about making any swooping moves on the neck. Hopkins believed in economy. And his solos are juicy with repetition, which is a good way to build tension.

To zero in on that, pick any box position in the pentatonic scale and focus on the high strings. Now build a short run out of maybe a half-dozen notes. Start by repeating the same note three to five times. The root, or, if you’re daring, a note that’s a full step away from the root, is a good choice. Return to that note after a few bars, park there, and repeat it again. Then play a few more notes on your way to resolving the run, which you’ll do on the root of wherever it sounds right. Keep listening and keep playing, and you’re on the way.

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