In this lesson, I'll be sharing with you how to play the groove to one of John Lee Hooker's best-known songs, "Boogie Chillen." To play this song, we'll be tuning to an open A tuning, and we'll be using a capo on the 2nd fret to move it up to B concert pitch.
Hailing from a Mississippi sharecropping family, Hooker learned to play blues guitar from his stepfather, and he rose to fame performing an electric style heavily influenced by Delta blues.
Now, you may be thinking what style of music is Boogie Chillen? Well this song has that exact deep Delta-style blues groove to it, and it's pretty tough to emulate, but I'll break down a number of the techniques and riffs you can use to get the sound.
Let's first talk about what tuning Boogie Chillen is in. The tuning is open A tuning. To get to an open A tuning from standard tuning, we'll need to adjust strings 4, 3, and 2 from our typical standard guitar tuning. The notes from low to high for open A tuning go like this:
So in comparison to standard tuning, these should be your adjustments:
Here is a fretboard diagram below showing the strings you need to tune up 1 whole step in red.
So if we total up all those notes, essentially they all boil down to A, C#, and E. These three notes make up the notes of an A major triad, and that's why this tuning is called open A tuning. So when you strum all the strings, you are actually playing an A major chord. From there, you'll want to put a capo on the 2nd fret, and then when you play the open strings, you'll be playing that open A tuning moved up two frets, so it will be a B chord now.
This is going to come in handy to get it to sound right, as you'll see when we dive into some riffs in this style.
At the core of this song is a blues groove all based around one chord, which is often referred to as the "One Chord Blues". YES! You can play a whole song with just one chord, and legendary guitarists like Jimi Hendrix, Muddy Waters, and Howlin’ Wolf/Hubert Sumlin have all used this technique to create cool jams.
With the capo on the 2nd fret this tuning will line up with the version on YouTube titled, “John Lee Hooker Boogie Chillen original 1948 version”
Many early blues guitarists played fingerstyle or with a thumbpick. For these examples, I’m going to play with a fingerstyle approach, using just the flesh of my fingers instead of a pick.
Example 1 kicks off by playing the open 5th and 4th strings together, creating a strong foundation to base this groove off. I’ll be primarily using an eighth note rhythm with a shuffle feel. This is one of the most common types of grooves in this style.
With the fingerpicking hand I’ll be using my thumb and index in more of a brushing style as opposed to a typical classical or fingerpicking approach, where each string is delicately and individually plucked. In this brushing style it is much more rough and gritty sounding. This approach on an electric guitar creates some of the most unique and amazing sounds I’ve ever heard possible.
Also notice the triplet rhythm on beat 4 and the use of a double hammer-on.
Example 2 starts with a similar approach but here we are going to blend in some double stops on the top 2 strings. So still start the same way using that 2 string open 5th interval at the top, but this time we are going to adjust the rhythm just slightly, and add a slide into the 3rd fret on the top 2 strings. This adds a nice variation and flavor to the riff ending on beat 4. This showcases how blues guitarists can use double-stops in their music, and here it replaces the double hammer-on with the triplet rhythm that was used in Example 1.
Example 3 combines the previous two examples, starting with eighth notes, adding a double stop on the top 2 strings, and ending the bar with the double hammer-on triplet for a combination-style riff. This demonstrates how individual blues riffs can be mixed and matched to create unique blues jams and grooves.
This final example showcases how Hooker would mix up the primarily one-chord song. The new chord functions similarly to a IV chord in a typical 12-bar blues progression, providing relief before bouncing back to the main riff for a fresh sound.
A huge part of the sound you hear on the recording is Hooker's thumb and index fingers brushing the strings in a down and up pattern, creating an alternating strum motion.
This is the magic of playing fingerstyle. By bypassing the pick and playing the guitar this way, you automatically get a unique sound. I've also found that playing this way deepens your connection with the instrument and makes you feel more like a guitar player because your fingers are directly plucking the strings.
The thumb produces a warm, big sound, while the index finger adds a nice little snap to the groove. Using a classic Fender amp turned up just enough to break up the tone, or a light overdrive pedal, can help achieve this sound.
It's important to keep in mind that many of these classic blues players played their songs differently every time. So don't worry if you hear another version of this song that has a slightly different feel or key. This is all part of the genre. Also, by combining all of these elements - from the guitar parts to the groove to the sound - you can get in the ballpark of this electric Delta blues style. Once the riffs start feeling comfortable, try mixing them up and have fun jamming in open A tuning!