Some say Robert Johnson turned his back to others in order to protect his unique tunings. Is it possible those tunings have been uncovered?
There has been many speculations over the years as to how Robert Johnson tuned his guitar. Hal Leonard even released a book, claiming to show the tunings and songs of Robert Johnson. Though this book has been held in high regard, it is possible it is not entirely true.
As many musicians know, songs can be played in multiple different tunings. There is no “right” way to tune a guitar – most go with the most comfortable for them, or with the “sound” they desire. However, Robert Johnson seemed to act in a manner that others interpreted as protecting a certain tuning.
For instance, it is known that while recording, and reportedly at some performances, he would turn his back to the crowd (or other musicians) while playing. Some scholars believe, as do I, this was more of a method known as “corner loading” which helped to amplify the sounds of an acoustic guitar. So, perhaps it was nothing more than that – Robert using a corner to help amplify his sound (and change his sound).
However, “corner loading” does not apply to some other reports concerning Johnson. For instance, it is widely reported, by Johnny Shines and others, that if you asked Robert how he played a particular song, he would reply “just like you.” This unwillingness to show others is quite odd, especially since Johnson’s prowess on the guitar was taught to him by Ike Zimmerman (minus the whole devil legend). So why would Robert, who learned from another, not be willing to teach others? Was it nothing more than him trying to protect his livelihood? Was he just not into teaching others the instrument? Or was he simply protecting a unique tuning he used…
I think most scholars would agree that Robert, who mostly played unaccompanied, didn’t carry around a tuner with him. Nor did he tune to other instruments, because he played alone. So what is left? Tuning to his voice, and tuning by ear.
That being said, it is nearly impossible to decipher his exact tuning(s). However, there are some interesting tunings he may have used. First of all, I should point out the fact – for you guitar players out there – this link that provides over 100 different tunings. However, there are some hidden tunings Robert may have favored, that don’t appear on that list.
For one, try tuning to C# G# C# F G# C#. Essentially, this is like drop D tuning but lowered a half step. Give it a try, and see how much easier it is to play some of Robert’s songs. The fingering seems easier, and the sound more in line with some of his recordings. Of course, Robert more than likely also used multiple tunings.
There are also rumors flying around that is is quite possible he used another unique tuning. Going with the whole “Robert loved open G tuning” theory, try tuning it to open G, but down to E, leaving the lower string relatively slack, and with a G string in place of a B string (tuned to G#). This would turn the tuning to B E B E G# E. You could then use a capo – which we know Robert often did (one of his photos shows a capo in use) on the third fret giving you an open G. Of course, none of these tunings match Hal Leonard and his interpretation. But hey – there is more than one way to skin a cat, right?
As far as Robert’s guitar(s) is concerned, it may be time to dispel a rumor. Some have reported, including some acoustic guitar mags (which I will not name) have reported Robert played a Gibson KG-11. However, I cannot find any information to substantiate this claim. However, it is widely known (and pictured in the photo above) that Robert played a Gibson L1. Is it possible he owned more than one guitar? Sure, it is possible. But also think of the fact that he was a rambling man, often traveling light, and never really had much of a permanent home. He surely wasn’t hopping trains with multiple guitars in tow. Also, note that we have yet to see Robert’s guitar(s) turn up anywhere.
Of course, as with anything dealing with Robert Johnson and the old timers, no one will ever know for sure. The facts around Robert Johnson – most of them anyway – died with him.