TOOLS OF THE TRADE: Gibson L1, Deal with the devil
KEY ALBUMS: The Complete Recordings
SIGNATURE SONGS: "Cross Road Blues," "Come on in My Kitchen," "Sweet Home Chicago," "Rambling on My Mind," "I Believe I'll Dust My Broom"
HIDDEN GEM: "Me and the Devil Blues"
HALLMARK: Boogie patterns and fingerstyle turnarounds
Never has there been a musician surrounded by as much myth, legend, and speculation as king of the Delta blues, Robert Johnson. Did he really go down to the crossroads and sell is soul to the devil in exchange for instant guitar mastery? Maybe, maybe not. The reality is that Johnson possessed extraordinary abilities on the guitar and was an exceptionally talented songwriter, performer, and charmer, and, put all together, it was these qualities that turned him into a bona fide guitar hero.
For starters, Johnson had small hands, with very long and slender fingers, which allowed him to access some amazing chords and extended intervals. And, in the '30s, when Johnson roamed the South playing on street corners and juke joints, his ability to simultaneously play boogie patterns, chords, slide melodies and sing was simply mind-blowing. Indeed, many years later, when Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards first heard Johnson, he is quoted as inquiring, "That's two guitar players, right?" On top of all that, Johnson reportedly had the ability to hear a melody or a song and instantly reproduce it on the guitar.
Johnson's seemingly innate musical sense extended to the studio as well. During his first recording session, in a makeshift studio set up in a hotel in San Antonio, Texas, Johnson sat down on the chair facing the corner of the room. Though people dismissed it as a move that indicated shyness, it was actually a brilliant acoustic strategy, as that position simulated the acoustic booths of bigger and better-funded professional recording studios, resulting in an enhanced sound.
Whether or not he sold his soul to the devil is of little consequence now. What is important is that Johnson forever changed the landscape of blues and rock music, and that's what makes him one of the all-time greats.