What is the Robert Johnson Progression?

Robert Johnson (1911–1938) is universally recognized as the King of the Delta Blues, and for good reason. Robert Johnson's playing style, which is called the Robert Johnson Progression, has influenced all the blues guitarists that followed.

Johnson influenced so many aspects of the blues — through his playing, his songwriting, and his aura. No performer has led — or was alleged to have led — a more mythic or legendary blues life. Some people believe that Johnson gained his talent in a deal with the devil; he died young and under mysterious circumstances, and his songs are haunting with chilling themes about the devil and death.

Johnson played his brand of blues in many keys and in many different tunings, but he’s known for his work in the key of open A. This example shows a passage in standard tuning that Johnson frequently used for intros, turnarounds, and endings.

Notice that the lick is similar to others that are in the key of E. This example uses a device called oblique motion — a fancy term for when one voice stays the same (the top) and another moves (the lower, descending).

A lick in the key of A in the style of Robert Johnson.
A lick in the key of A in the style of Robert Johnson.

Johnson’s style was complex and hard to pin down. Some of his stylistic hallmarks include the following:

  • An insistent bass in quarters and shuffle-eighths

  • Up-the-neck chords

  • Chromatic movement

  • Melodic fills in between vocal phrases

  • Classic turnaround figures

    A 12-bar blues in the style of Robert Johnson.
    A 12-bar blues in the style of Robert Johnson.

Click here to download and print this guitar tab.

If you’ve grown up with blues as interpreted by B.B. King, Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and other modern electric-blues masters, hearing the scratchy, raw recordings of Johnson can be quite startling at first. Johnson’s thin, keening voice, his twangy guitar, and his sometimes irregular meter and quirky phrasing are definitely an acquired taste. But when you make the adjustment, the genius of him in these stark settings is awe-inspiring.

A 12-bar blues in the Delta blues style.
A 12-bar blues in the Delta blues style.

Click here to download and print this guitar tab.

Robert Johnson’s music embodied the Delta blues in its finished state. And there was no end to Johnson’s innovation. He played with a slide and without, in altered tunings as well as standard, and he shifted from accompaniment to a featured guitar style effortlessly. Actually, only one solo break of Johnson’s talent is even on recording. To hear Robert Johnson play his only known recorded solo break, check out “Kind Hearted Woman Blues.”

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