Lightnin’ Hopkins and His Blues Guitar Style

Lightnin' Hopkins promo photo from

Lightnin’ Hopkins promo photo from

Learning to finger pick the guitar is an adventure, and I look back with great memories on some of those turning points that led me closer and closer to the logic of fingerpicking. There is a logical approach to it all, and in a future article I’ll try to get into that logic. But for now, let me relate to you a story that truly set me off on the path of Blues fingerpicking. In the 60s, when I began my quest for the perfect finger picking style to emulate, I found what I was looking for. One day I was in a variety store where all kinds of stuff/junk was sold, including vinyl records. There was no cassette tape technology yet. It would still be a few years before we could punch cassettes into boom boxes and car decks. After that would come CDs, something we couldn’t conceive of then since the only affordable technology was a continuous physical groove cut into a big black (usually black) plastic platter bigger than a dinner plate. (Digital music, as I learned later, was in the very early experimental stages.) As I stood and looked at this store’s selection of “platters,” I saw a record by Lightnin’ Hopkins, someone I’d never heard of. On the front I read that Lightnin’ (Sam) Hopkins played the blues. Was it just him and his guitar, which I wanted, or did he have a distracting backing band? I wanted to learn a guitar solo style, not a style that required a band to back me up. I read every word on the big paper envelope these records were in, and I just couldn’t decide if it was what I wanted. (There was no way to sample the tunes in most shops including reputable record stores.) Worse, could I even afford it? It was in the budget album section and the price was two bucks! I sweat bullets in front of that display, trying to decide if I could afford a mere two bucks. It was 1964, I was in my first year of teaching in a public school system, and the annual salary for a starting teacher at that dark time was $4100 bucks, (oh, no, boys and girls, I’m not kidding!), while monthly take home was a stinkin’ 300 bucks. You can probably see why I was carefully watching my pennies. But irrationality won over and eventually I caved and bought it. I took my record home to my little one room Taj Mahal and played it on my cheap stereo. I was amazed at what I heard because it was so complicated I knew it was impossible for just one man to play it. But I listened to every tune on that budget record over and over and over until I thought my ears would fall off! And finally I perceived both a pattern and a technique. Hopkins was steadily thumbing the 6th string, the E string, (thickest and lowest string), to accompany the complex melody and harmony lines he was playing with his 1st and 2nd fingers on the higher strings. This makes it possible to play the guitar in a complete style by actually accompanying the melody and harmony with a steady bass line. It’s equivalent to having a little piano on your lap; this was the sound I was looking for. And this was my first big finger picking revelation. A door had been opened, and I can honestly say that Lightnin’ Hopkins was the doorman to that secret door and he generously let me in. Playing like him didn’t happen in a flash, though. I had to practice. First I worked out some simple tunes, and from there I slowly but surely began to emulate his style. It was fun, it was inspiring, and before I knew it, I was on my way.

There is an informative video of Hopkins playing, “Baby Please Don’t Go,” on YouTube,com (of course). You can watch it here–

Hopkins plays “Baby Please Don’t Go”

Hopkins usually played in the key of E, a favorite blues key for several reasons. If you fire up the tuner app on your smart phone and hum the tonic note as he plays, you’ll find it’s an F, not an E. So you might think he’s playing in the key of F. He’s not. F is a terrible key for folk blues finger pickers. Only classical guitarists play in the key of F. The reason it seems like he’s playing in the key of F is because Hopkins has all his strings tuned a half step higher, either deliberately or accidentally. I only mention this because many of you who have tuner apps need not email me to tell me he’s tuned a half step above standard tuning. I already know that. But this isn’t what’s important. RELATIVELY he’s playing in the key of E, where the three main blues chords in this key are E/E7, A7, and B7 and are fingered that way. If you watch his left hand, (chording hand), play through it, you’ll see these three chords fretted. I didn’t have access to this video when I bought the Hopkins budget record. It probably hadn’t even been made yet. I had the record and could listen, only. I had to figure everything out with my ears, not my eyes. Through sound alone I had to visualize how he was playing it. Now that I can see the video, I notice that he’s playing a wide shouldered Gibson, a model favored back then and now because of its outstanding volume. He’s also using what appears to be a de Armond add-on pickup where there are six separate pickups in the plate, one for each string. The pickup plate is fastened across the sound hole and under the strings. The de Armond was a popular add-on pickup back then and I remember owning one myself. He also used a white plastic thumb pick to give his bass strings more penetration. I used this same type of thumb pick for years on my Gibson acoustic. (When I took up the classical guitar, I dispensed with using a thumb pick, but I still use it when playing my banjo.)

Hopkins had a good career. Sometimes he used a light band backing, the most effective, in my view, when he had just a skilled drummer behind him and a savvy bass player where neither played to overwhelm, but to support. A great example of this can be seen here, at an Austin City Limits performance–

Partial performance of Lightnin’ Hopkins at Austin City Limits

If you want just Hopkins and his guitar, with no instruments backing him, there are still plenty of albums out there to pick from. Go to iTunes. There are so many Hopkins albums in the iTunes stable that it staggers the imagination!

I’ve always treated this cheap budget album like pure gold. There is not a nick, not a blip, not a scratch, and not one wobbly wowie on my album. I’ve carefully, carefully played it over and over for years because I knew what a jewel I had. Eventually my good friend, Brian White, a master with audio and everything related to it, who in the late 90s had audio equipment most of us didn’t yet have, made a quality recording of my whole album on tape. From that tape Brian made me a high quality CD where he tracked and separated the tunes as individual MP3s. When the iPod became a reality, this budget album was the first MP3 playlist I imported to my new 2nd gen iPod. Three iPods later it’s still on my iPods. When I play this album today, I needn’t worry about wearing out the delicate grooves on an acetate record. That record is safely packed away in my office closet. My daughter, who is a classical cellist as well as a folk/blues aficionado, will enjoy playing that album some day.

This album is valuable to me for reasons already stated. But this particular album also has a few tunes on it I’ve not heard on the other albums Hopkins has released. (Of course, I don’t have all of them!) That alone makes this album more valuable than I can say. Every once in awhile, when I want to hear some innovative and soulful blues finger picking I never grow tired of, I crank up my iPod. “I’ve got a dog in my backyard….howls every time my baby’s gone….” It’s a honey of an album, and it goes without saying the album is no longer available, not even in reprints. And why is that? Well, because after all, it’s just a budget album! 🙂

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