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Killing Floor Guitar Lesson (Howlin' Wolf)

I’ve noticed some of the most unbelievable guitar sounds come from guitarists who play without a pick.

There is just something about fingerstyle that automatically creates a unique tone.

So today I want to share with you an example of that in this Howlin’ Wolf “Killing Floor” guitar lesson.

Plus we’ll also unpack some of Hubert Sumlin's (Wolf’s guitarist) go-to chord shapes, how he used double-stops, and also the blues scale. 

So make sure you’re in tune and let’s dive in! 

Who wrote Killing Floor? 

"Killing Floor" is a classic blues song that has become an influential and widely covered track in the history of blues and rock music. It was written and originally recorded by Howlin' Wolf, the legendary blues singer and guitarist, in 1964. 

The song is a powerful and intense representation of the Chicago blues style, which Wolf was known for.

Wolf's commanding and soulful vocals, combined with his distinctive growling sound, give the song a raw and raspy quality. His powerful delivery perfectly captures the pain, anguish, and determination expressed in the blues, making it a standout performance in his discography.

The band and arrangement showcase a driving and relentless rhythm. 

"Killing Floor" quickly gained popularity and went on to influence a wide range of artists across various genres. It has been covered by numerous musicians, including The Electric Flag, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, and many others. Hendrix's electrifying rendition of the song at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 further solidified its status as a classic in the world of blues and rock music.

Killing Floor Chords

To play "Killing Floor" you’ll only need 3 chords A7, D7, and E7. The song follows a classic 12-bar blues progression in the key of A.

Here are the shapes Sumlin’ used. 

A7 can be played at the 5th position like this:

D7 can be played with the same grip just shift it up to the 10th position like this:

Finally, E7 can be played by shifting the same shape up yet another 2 frets to the 12th position like this:

So just one shape shifted around the neck can get you all the chords you need.

These chords make up what we call the I, IV, and V chords in the key of A.

Let's next take a look at the theory and function of these in a blues progression in the key of A.

A7 Chord:

In a blues in the key of A, the A7 chord is the I (first) chord. It serves as the home or tonic chord and establishes the key of the song. As the primary chord in the key of A, the A7 chord provides a sense of resolution.

When playing a basic 12-bar blues progression in A, the A7 chord is typically the first chord of the progression, starting on the 1st bar and lasting for four bars. It anchors the beginning of the progression and sets the tone for the rest of the blues sequence.

D7 Chord:

The D7 chord is the IV (fourth) chord in the key of A. This chord is the subdominant chord and creates tension that eventually resolves back to the I chord (A7).

In a standard 12-bar blues progression, the D7 chord appears in the 5th bar and is held for two bars. Its function is to introduce a harmonic change and add variety to the progression. This gives the music a sense of movement. 

E7 Chord:

As the V (fifth) chord in the key of A, the E7 chord is the dominant chord. It is the most tension-building chord in the blues progression and plays a crucial role in leading back to the I chord (A7). 

In a 12-bar blues in A, the E7 chord typically appears on the 9th bar and lasts for one bar, followed by the D7 chord in the 10th bar. And then back home to A7 in the 11th bar. This movement back to A7 creates a strong sense of resolution and is often what we call the “turnaround” progression.

Overall, the A7, D7, and E7 chords form the backbone of a classic 12-bar blues progression in the key of A. 

Altogether the 12-bar blues in A would look like this: 

A7    | A7    | A7    | A7    |

D7    | D7    | A7    | A7    |

E7    | D7    | A7    | E7    | 

But one unique thing about “Killing Floor” is Sumlin kicks the whole tune off by starting on the turnaround progression. He begins in bar 9. This sets up the band to come in at the top of the 12-bar form.

E7    | D7    | A7    | E7    |

Another move in the style of Sumlin is to play the above dominant 7th chord shape but create a simple melody by taking the pinkie finger on and off and barring in the chord like this:

 

This next example shows how Sumlin would use double-stops over the A7 (I chord). A double-stop is where two strings are played simultaneously, producing two notes that harmonize with each other. These double-stops are “6ths”. This means they are six diatonic scale steps apart. 

This same type of approach can be taken over the D7 (IV chord) as well.

Killing Floor Scales

The primary scale for soloing over this song would be the A minor blues scale. This scale would be the following notes: A, C, D, Eb, E, and G.  Here is how to play it at the 5th fret:

Conclusion

"Killing Floor" remains an iconic blues masterpiece that has had a lasting impact on the history of blues and rock music. Howlin' Wolf's powerful performance, combined with the driving rhythm and funky guitar work, continues to resonate with audiences across generations.

For guitarists, jamming "Killing Floor" will give their playing an edge, and also reinforce timeless blues concepts. Concepts like 12-bar blues progressions, double-stops, the blues scale, and a lot more.

So…remember to take it one step at a time and when you’re ready try to play it along with the recording. And for more great blues guitar lessons check out this post on 101 best blues songs to learn on guitar next.

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