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Robert Johnson


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#1 glasmax11

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Posted 28 April 2008 - 07:12 PM

I was just watching the Eric Clapton- Robert Johnson sessions on youtube and I was really interested to hear that even the uber-talented Clapton had struggles playing some of his work because it is so technically proficient. I was wondering if dadfad could give his two cents on the matter as he seems to know alot about the delta blues?


Edited by glasmax11, 28 April 2008 - 07:50 PM.


#2 HeteroBoy

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Posted 28 April 2008 - 09:22 PM

Just curious, what did you want him to talk about?
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#3 dadfad

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Posted 29 April 2008 - 04:21 AM

QUOTE (glasmax11 @ Apr 28 2008, 11:12 PM) <{POST_SNAPBACK}>
I was just watching the Eric Clapton- Robert Johnson sessions on youtube and I was really interested to hear that even the uber-talented Clapton had struggles playing some of his work because it is so technically proficient. I was wondering if dadfad could give his two cents on the matter as he seems to know alot about the delta blues?



Like HeteroBoy said, I'm not exactly sure what you're asking. To me, learning to play Robert Johnson's tunes is best approached not exactly on a tune by tune basis. I think it's better approached by becoming familiar with trying to play his style authentically first (which is generally how I approach most old bluesguys' work, and others as well) and then apply it to his tunes as you do them.

As you listen to his body of work you'll find a lot of commonalities. Certain phrases and licks, turnarounds, rhythmic nuances and such that are similar in many or most of his tunes. When you put them all together you have sort of defined his "style." You can bet Johnson played his tunes a bit differently every time he played them. His recordings, and the re-discovered alternate takes for some of them, just happen to be the versions that are now "written in stone" that we hear. But in his life he probably did them a little differently every time he played them, but always in his own style.

As you listen to his tunes, certain stylistic things become apparent right away. For example his use of a moveable A7 on most of his A-tunes. His walking turnaround that he uses so frequently it has actually come to be know as a "Robert Johnson turnaround." His sot of "floating" diminished chord fragments. Some of these things are pretty apparent right off. And then there are other things... less apparent, like rhythmic nuances, but that become apparent the more you listen to and take apart and work with his stuff.

Even with just the more easily identified things, as you begin to apply them it starts to make your playing "sound like Robert Johnson" (to those more or less familiar with his stuff). Even if applied to non-Johnson tunes, using some of his stylistic things can make it sound like a Johnson tune. Take a common blues like... whatever... "Red House." Jimi applied a bit of Johnson-esque stuff already, but even more can be applied until you could get to the point where it could be virtually... (thinks of one of several tunes)... "Kind Hearted Woman" but with different lyrics. (I think things like that are a good exercise... taking another tune, even one that's not at all related, and then "translating" it into a Johnson-esque piece.)

And so that's kind of how I think his stuff should be approached. Not in a note-for-note kind of way, but more in what I often call "style-for-style." And the more you listen and get into his style, the more little licks, phrases, timing nuances and things that you pick up and learn and then apply to his tunes, the more "authentic" they begin to sound.

Some "note-for-note guys" might say something like "Oh, that doesn't go in "Kind Hearted Woman." That's a "When You've Got a Good Friend" lick." or some such blather. Wrong. They're all Robert Johnson licks, and you can bet Robert might've used any one of them in any tune at any particular time he might have done it.

So I'm not one of these guys that thinks you should learn evey note in perfect sequence to the recordings when you play one of his tunes. And, conversely, I don't think not doing so should be an excuse for playing it poorly either. But I think one should approach his stuff stylistically instead of as tunes taken one at a time. And the more you work with them and become familiar with his stuff and how he played it, the more "authentic" it will begin to sound.

Of course, you might never play it "exactly like Robert" because every one brings some of his own personal collective style to anything he plays. And that's not a bad thing either. If someone wants to hear a "perfect" Robert Johnson tune, that's what RJ CDs are for! So applying his style as authentically as possible while at the same time putting a bit of yourself into it is how I'd approach playing Robert's tunes (or anyone elses for that matter.)




Related: This is why I don't care much for the album "Me and Mister Johnson." I think it's a collection of Robert-tunes that has almost completely had the style of Robert Johnson washed out of them. Except for the lyrics most of them could just as easily be tunes by... Muddy or Buddy or anyone. Just kind of generic-blues, with Johnson lyrics. On this particular album I think Clapton could have applied his considerable skills as a guitarist and arranger a lot more than he did.

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#4 ride85

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Posted 29 April 2008 - 05:41 AM

QUOTE (glasmax11 @ Apr 29 2008, 03:12 AM) <{POST_SNAPBACK}>
I was just watching the Eric Clapton- Robert Johnson sessions on youtube and I was really interested to hear that even the uber-talented Clapton had struggles playing some of his work because it is so technically proficient. I was wondering if dadfad could give his two cents on the matter as he seems to know alot about the delta blues?



clapton hasn't really evolved at all in 20 years. i'm not a huge fan to be honest...there's much better blues guitarist out there. flame me for all eternity!!! although i respect him greatly as a man....alot!
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#5 ninjato

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Posted 29 April 2008 - 06:17 AM

QUOTE (ride85 @ Apr 29 2008, 09:41 AM) <{POST_SNAPBACK}>
clapton hasn't really evolved at all in 20 years.



Neither has BB King or many other guitar players. Watching the Crossroads Festival, it was apparent that none of the older blues guys "evolved" either and Clapton sounded more evolved than those blues guys. JMO.

#6 glasmax11

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Posted 29 April 2008 - 06:41 AM

QUOTE (HeteroBoy @ Apr 29 2008, 12:22 AM) <{POST_SNAPBACK}>
Just curious, what did you want him to talk about?


Musically, like in life, I am a novice player but an avid listener. I have nothing but respect for Dadfad and his always informative posts, and I understand that I asked a very vague question (maybe not even a question at all laugh.gif ).

I always thought of Robert Johnson (along with Son House) as the player with the most soul of that era (ironic with the stories of him selling his soul biggrin.gif), not as such a skilled guitarist. Hearing another great artist rave about his playing ability made me go back and look at the few recordings that he made. His work is so gritty and powerful it really amazes me.

People always talk about pre and post Jimi, Clapton, Beck etc., when it should really be pre and post Johnson, King and Waters!

#7 Hobs911

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Posted 29 April 2008 - 06:55 AM

Eric Clapton ,in my opinion, has improved greatly since his days in Cream and with John Mayall. He is a blues player and just Like SRV,Gary Moore,Warren Haynes,Derek Trucks,Santana,etc. It's the feeling they put it into their music not the diversity of their licks and phrases,although all of them are very diverse. SRV once said"When I follow my heart and let it flow out I always play better. Its when I start thinking about where I am on the fretboard and what phrases im playing thats when I start to mess up." I believe most of all great guitarist play like this weather they know it or not. Notice the "LOST" face on many of the blues greats-Clapton,SRV,Hendrix,Warren Hayens, they almost always seem to be "lost" in their music and its just pouring out of them. The years of excessive drug use (dont think Warren did this)may give them this lost look, but I belive its them playing from their heart not their hands.

As for Robert Johnson he is a true inspiration. I just hate his ability to play so well at such a young age is covered up by myth and folklore.

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#8 rob295

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Posted 29 April 2008 - 08:20 AM

Clapton was great, because he popularised the blues and he showed it to the mainstream audience. He wasn't a particually amazing player and he would admit that himself.

Robert Johnson's playing is a style. And Dadfad is right. Learn that style and you learn how to play his songs. It's not music you can learn note for note, but the techniques are easy to learn. If you play a lot of that style, replicating his songs aren't too hard, but its about the style and about the timings.

A lot of his songs are just the old:

B|-2-4-5-4
E|-0-0-0-0

But harmonised to form chords which are:

D|-1-2-3-2
G|-0-0-0-0
B|-2-4-5-4
E|-0-0-0-0

Then filling in all the gaps between lyrics with some fills.

#9 caprico

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Posted 29 April 2008 - 10:15 AM

in reply to the original topic...(without reading other posts)

nothing to take away from...robert johnson was a great guitarist... but his greatness was that he didnt have to make an conscious effort to get there... it just came naturally to him,, that was just the way he played.. (after all he did sell his soul to.. you know the story,, j/k)
what i'm trying to say is i dont think he sat down and said alright lets write some bad-ass technically prolific blues rhythm... when he played he imagined a song in certain way and played it..

but due to his immense talent they came out to be the painfully difficult licks and rhythm and almost impossible to sing at the same time...
do a little read up on him and you'll see how quickly he learnt to play the guitar and how soon he rose to fame... (although his original work was never too appreciated at the time due to him playing mostly famous covers at bars and clubs..)

the reason eric (or anyone) finds it difficult to play is due to the style, phrasing, emotions and of course the complicated parts... and eric wants to play and sound exactly like robert johnson did... thats the tricky part

if you write a song and ask a fellow guitarist of equal calibre to cover it exactly the way yours has come out.. not only note-to-note but also the feel and emotion, i'm sure he would find it quite difficult... i hope you are getting what i'm trying to say here,,,

anyway robert johnson is still up there.. one of the greatest.. and so is eric...

Fabulous! ... sorry for the long post... ph34r.gif

wtf is that noise?

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#10 cam_zim

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Posted 29 April 2008 - 11:45 AM

QUOTE (caprico @ Apr 29 2008, 07:15 PM) <{POST_SNAPBACK}>
Fabulous! ... sorry for the long post... ph34r.gif


I laughed alot at that.... sorry
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#11 SmashySmashy

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Posted 29 April 2008 - 12:27 PM

I have been studying the life of Robert Johnson and his guitar playing the last few days and even over the last couple of years. I am reading an interesting book written by author and blues guitarist Elijah Wald. The book is called Escaping the Delta and talks about the life of Robert Johnson, the various theories surrounding him selling his soul to the devil and other tricks that supposedly made some blues players better. There is a lot of stuff in the book from other blues musicians who talk about him and various figures who lived in the Delta of Mississippi over the last 80 odd years or so. His playing is quite interesting though, I have actually been working on his songs on an off over the last couple of years and his style bugs me to master, you really gotta work at it to get his patterns down.

Edited by AcousticSmash, 29 April 2008 - 12:29 PM.


#12 dadfad

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Posted 29 April 2008 - 01:08 PM

That's interesting. I know Elijah Wald (I expect to see him this summer). He's pretty knowledgeable on the subject and is a kind of "ethnomusicologist" on roots-music and their origins and stuff like that. I would say (just i/m/o) the foremost authority on Johnson is probably Scott Ainsley, who's sort of made Johnson specifically his... life's passion so to speak. Scott plays Johnson virtually flawlessly (almost to a fault!) and has written extensively on the subject (and gives lectures, etc). I first met Scott at a guitar workshop in North Carolina about fifteen years ago. Woody Mann is another authority, especially on the playing aspect of RJ. It was Woody who showed me that "Hellhound" could be played perfectly in regular DADF#AD tuning instead of some "mythical secret tuning" or DADFAD-Dm some people insist Robert used to do it.


The whole "Robert Johnson Thing" is very easy to get caught up in. (Almost like some obsessive "Trekkie" mind-set or something!) I was kind of myself many years ago. (I even spent a whole night once waaaay back in my mis-spent youth sitting on his grave playing his tunes in the moonlight and sharing a bottle of whiskey with him. (Maybe hoping somebody would show up and make me an offer?) I don't know if old Robert got drunk but I sure did. laugh.gif Anyway, now I just look at it like he did what he did... made some great music, and try to play a few of his tunes once in awhile.

Un-plugged is not the same as never-was-plugged-in-to-begin-with.

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When the roll is called up yonder he'll be there...


#13 Grandpa FrankyZ

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Posted 29 April 2008 - 01:40 PM

A couple of years ago i watch a program about Robert Johnson, which showed quite a bit of footage on Johnson's playing style. One particular piece shown was him playing the rhythm, melody, and using the body for percussion, as well as singing. To me it looks impossible, and i was truly amazed by his playing style. I doubt any guitarist could truly recreate Johnson's playing style.
I have also watch the documentary on Clapton program on Robert Johnson, where he admitted he could not work out how to play a few of Johnson's tunes, just showing that he is truly intimitable

#14 SmashySmashy

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Posted 29 April 2008 - 01:51 PM

QUOTE (frankyz84 @ Apr 29 2008, 05:40 PM) <{POST_SNAPBACK}>
A couple of years ago i watch a program about Robert Johnson, which showed quite a bit of footage on Johnson's playing style. One particular piece shown was him playing the rhythm, melody, and using the body for percussion, as well as singing. To me it looks impossible, and i was truly amazed by his playing style. I doubt any guitarist could truly recreate Johnson's playing style.
I have also watch the documentary on Clapton program on Robert Johnson, where he admitted he could not work out how to play a few of Johnson's tunes, just showing that he is truly intimitable

I have seen a similar playing style where a guy playing an acoustic was tapping the body for a rhythmic thing on YouTube of a guy in Eastern Canada.

Edited by AcousticSmash, 29 April 2008 - 01:51 PM.


#15 Grandpa FrankyZ

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Posted 29 April 2008 - 04:19 PM

QUOTE (AcousticSmash @ Apr 29 2008, 09:51 PM) <{POST_SNAPBACK}>
QUOTE (frankyz84 @ Apr 29 2008, 05:40 PM) <{POST_SNAPBACK}>
A couple of years ago i watch a program about Robert Johnson, which showed quite a bit of footage on Johnson's playing style. One particular piece shown was him playing the rhythm, melody, and using the body for percussion, as well as singing. To me it looks impossible, and i was truly amazed by his playing style. I doubt any guitarist could truly recreate Johnson's playing style.
I have also watch the documentary on Clapton program on Robert Johnson, where he admitted he could not work out how to play a few of Johnson's tunes, just showing that he is truly intimitable

I have seen a similar playing style where a guy playing an acoustic was tapping the body for a rhythmic thing on YouTube of a guy in Eastern Canada.


You mean Sam Kerr. Not the same thing. I know the style you are talking about, but it`s very different to what Robert Johnson did. biggrin.gif

#16 HeteroBoy

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Posted 29 April 2008 - 10:01 PM

QUOTE (ride85 @ Apr 29 2008, 06:41 AM) <{POST_SNAPBACK}>
clapton hasn't really evolved at all in 20 years.

I've noticed, sadly, that I haven't seen much from... well I can't think of really anyone.

I, as well as many people here it seems, can't imagine not continuing this ever going process of creating music and being a better guitarist. To me, a huge part of that is 'evolving'. That is, 'mastering' style to style to style.

Not to say these guitarists aren't still learning and becoming better, but I want to see Jimmy put out a Flamenco album, or Clapton to release an Eastern influenced album.
Or even Steve Beck to release a classical ablum! laugh.gif

Personally, I can't imagine just being just a 'blues guitarist'.
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QUOTE (johnnynapalm @ Dec 30 2007, 09:03 AM) <{POST_SNAPBACK}>
Fck I love the thought of someone being so bad at standing that they seriously injure their beanbags.

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#17 okiejohn

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Posted 30 April 2008 - 05:52 AM

Does anyone truly know the Robert Johnson story?

Mystery man, bits and pieces filled in with speculation.

#18 ride85

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Posted 30 April 2008 - 06:06 AM

QUOTE (HeteroBoy @ Apr 30 2008, 06:01 AM) <{POST_SNAPBACK}>
QUOTE (ride85 @ Apr 29 2008, 06:41 AM) <{POST_SNAPBACK}>
clapton hasn't really evolved at all in 20 years.

I've noticed, sadly, that I haven't seen much from... well I can't think of really anyone.

I, as well as many people here it seems, can't imagine not continuing this ever going process of creating music and being a better guitarist. To me, a huge part of that is 'evolving'. That is, 'mastering' style to style to style.

Not to say these guitarists aren't still learning and becoming better, but I want to see Jimmy put out a Flamenco album, or Clapton to release an Eastern influenced album.
Or even Steve Beck to release a classical ablum! laugh.gif

Personally, I can't imagine just being just a 'blues guitarist'.


it just seems that some of those older players who clearly have amazing ability just never took there playing further then what they could have...i think hendrix (if he had lived) would have been an ever-evolving player...he just had so much to offer.

guys like robben ford, larry carlton, john mayer, john frusciante are constantly doing new things in there playing but they never lose that blues grounding...

i think blues can evolve just like every other style of music has...rock, pop, jazz have all constantly been re-invented yet blues is sorta stationary that whole time. i think guys like mayer are certainly bringing the style back into popularity but with their own identities within it. using blues characteristics in modern music is great! i say bring on the blues more! i'm not talking about your tired old clapton mimicks at your local bar playing straight 12 bar blues progressions all night..blues goes beyond that stereotype i think. ofcourse full respect to the fathers of blues....but to put them on a podium as the best even today as they often are is silly. if you look you can find amazing and almost unknown blues players out there that are at a whole new level then those guys on crossroads etc. i just think there's more to measure yourself against then just the well known players.

Edited by ride85, 30 April 2008 - 06:11 AM.

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#19 dadfad

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Posted 30 April 2008 - 06:27 AM

QUOTE (HeteroBoy @ Apr 30 2008, 02:01 AM) <{POST_SNAPBACK}>
QUOTE (ride85 @ Apr 29 2008, 06:41 AM) <{POST_SNAPBACK}>
clapton hasn't really evolved at all in 20 years.

I've noticed, sadly, that I haven't seen much from... well I can't think of really anyone.

I, as well as many people here it seems, can't imagine not continuing this ever going process of creating music and being a better guitarist. To me, a huge part of that is 'evolving'. That is, 'mastering' style to style to style.

Not to say these guitarists aren't still learning and becoming better, but I want to see Jimmy put out a Flamenco album, or Clapton to release an Eastern influenced album.
Or even Steve Beck to release a classical ablum! laugh.gif

Personally, I can't imagine just being just a 'blues guitarist'.


You have to take several things into consideration. First, we really don't know what Eric or anyone else does when they're sitting around in their home studio or hanging out with friends jamming over a few beers. Clapton is a rock-guitarist (largely blues-based of course). That's what he does for a living. Let's say he decides to put out an album of Hindustani folk or classical music arranged for the guitar. I doubt it would sell very well. You might have a few curious musicians or ultra-Clapton fans who'd buy it, but you'd probably never hear much air-play on mainstream stations or see it significantly make the charts. Or (probably most importantly to Eric and his labels) make any decent money.

Look at it in a "normal" (as in non-musical) situation. I'm an engineer. I design inertial displacement systems and protype set-ups for the manufacturing industry. That's what I (and my company) do to earn an income. Actually, I find it rather boring. Pretty much "been-there-done-that" after almost thirty years. But that's what my customers want to buy and that's what they expect me to do. I can't say to General Dynamics "I know you expect some designs for your National Acme 2 5/8 RB 6 multi-spindle automatics to produce bearing-retainers for your Land Systems Division's new RG-12 Tactical Security Vehicles, but instead I'm going to send you manufacturing process designs for the new Dadfad Super-Slide. It's made of 1020 low-carbon non-chromed steel so it can grip and sustain better on both nickel-wound and brass strings. It has a .050" taper for cleaner neck contact. I've hollowed it internally in specific locations to give better balance for vibrato yet retaining optimum mass to enhance the sustain. It comes with an adjustible insert to fit any finger. Hopefully you guys will like that because I was bored doing another specialty bearing-retainer process since I've already done somewhat similar designs for Timken Bearing Company, SKF Bearing and several divisions of the Big-Three auto-makers over the years and I want to evolve as an engineer."

As musicians we might not wanna think that's the case but it's very likely that it is, at least to a large degreee. If ol' Eric wants to continue to maintain three homes in several continents, use a private jet to hang out in cool-places with his buddies, buy an occasional bauble for his wife or the odd super-model here and there and be able to walk into his garage and make a choice between the Bentley, the Aston-Martin and the Range-Rover he needs to keep that guitar-string money flowing in. And a newly released Hindustani Neo-Classical album isn't gonna do it.

At the same time, ol' Eric might be sitting around in his studio at this very moment jamming with Vishwa Mohan Bhatt on some Classical Hindustani raga, or sitting by himself furiously working out some old Thelonius Monk tune arrangement for guitar on his Martin, just for kicks. Or maybe not. Maybe he's just on "cruise" and doesn't mind it at all as long as six or seven figure royalty-checks continue to post into his bank account. So we really don't know.

Just a little note on being "just a blues guitarist." For many there comes a time when you see that Life is very finite and Time is not limitless and that there is a never-ending selection of styles and genres and music. You might dabble in many styles, even becoming quite proficient in them in that "jack of all trades, master of none" kind of way. But sometimes you find that a certain form or genre appeals to you more than the others inside you. It might be classical, or jazz, or rock or blues. And so that's where you decide to devote the great majority of your time. To really be a "master" of a genre you don't dabble with it for a time and then move on. One might become very proficient even during that dabbling-period, but that's more like the "jack of all trades" thing than truly being a master at it. In Blues (but all genres really) there are artists who have devoted their entire lives to reach the level they have in just their own little specific niche.

John Jackson, the guitarist in my sig-pic who was sort of a mentor to me over many years and very widely thought of by most others in his genre as the finest traditional fingerstyle blues guitarist alive at the time of his death said to me once shortly before he died that one of the things he regretted most nearing the end of his road was that he would never be as good as he'd hoped to be and never learn or write all the tunes he'd hoped he could. And Blues (like many genres) has a lot more to it once you start digging into the nooks and crannies of it. There's more to it than tastefully phrasing minor-pent riffs over a 12-barre, or even getting proficient at doing RJ-covers. Just the term "the Blues" covers so many very different styles (like say the term Rock can cover anything from Hendrix to Dire Straits to Mothers of Invention to The Ramones). There are many sub-genres of the blues that are very different from each other, if barely related at all, but somehow became lumped into the same label of "The Blues." Bo Carter's music has no relationship to Johnny Lang's, Lonnie Johnson's has no relationship to SRV's, yet they are all called the blues.

And to truly become a master instead of a dabbler (even an extremely proficient dabbler) can, and usually does, require one to focus on that specific music-form that, for whatever reason, touches you most deeply. Whether you're Blind Lemon Jefferson or Segovia, or John Jackson, or anyone who has attained that rank of Master-hood in their genre (which is a rank bestowed by others, not given to one's self) it usually takes a lifetime. And even that is not long enough.

Un-plugged is not the same as never-was-plugged-in-to-begin-with.

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When the roll is called up yonder he'll be there...


#20 rob295

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Posted 30 April 2008 - 09:08 AM

Blues is a big style that lead to Rock and Pop. You think its a small genre because you think it's all twelve bars, but its not. You wouldnt say oh that guys just a "Rock Guitarist" would you?



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If you can spare even US$5 it would mean a lot to help pay for GZ's monthly server bill.
Thank you to all. Cheers! --Rob



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