Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Why You Can't Sound Like Leadbelly

Why can't you sound like Leadbelly? Or at least play the guitar the way he did? I learned to play the guitar, sort of, in High School, and really got into it when I attended Cuyahoga Community College and worked at a music store (LaBash Music in Berea), where I hung out with some truly awesome musicians. Anyway I made some clumsy attempts to play old transcriptions of music from guys like Leadbelly (famous for the boogie woogie walking bass line), Missississippi John Hurt, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Big Bill Broonzy. But Leadbelly was the most mysterious. Very few recordings even existed of this man, who everyone from the Beatles and Bob Dylan credited with being a link between blues and modern rock 'n roll.

On the one hand, one reason why a modern musician can not duplicate the Leadbelly sound, is simply that YOU ain't Leadbelly. Leadbelly lived in a very different world than we do. Leadbelly, let it not be forgot, was a killer who was sent to prison twice for killing people. He himself was left for dead at least once, and if you look at some ot his pictures you can see the horrific scar which goes from ear to ear. Part of Leadbelly's experience comes from the violent world of night life in the segregated South, and it just isn't going to translate for most of us. His performing got him sprung from the joint twice.  In other words, most of us lack authenticity if we try to sing his songs, or even copy his playing style. 

Imagine trying to sing the lyrics of Black Snake Moan for a modern audience:

Oh, I ain't got no mammy now.

I ain't got no mammy now.

Ya told me late last night,

ya didn't need no mammy no how!

Leadbelly is singing about being rejected by his lover. It is actually a very painful song, punctuated by Leadbelly's incredible bass runs. But there is no way we could use those lyrics for a modern audience. They would laugh you off the stage.

It always sounds terrible if you try to tell someone else's story. Music is kind of the same way. And one of the rules of the blues is that you need to put some of yourself into it. If you will search on youtube, you will find that there are an amazing number of muscians, many of them young, who are interested in Leadbelly songs and trying to bring them forward. The best ones, in my opinions, are the ones who don't try to imitate him, but maybe incorporate a few licks into their own sound.

There is also a secret to the Leadbelly sound, however. The best lecture on Leadbelly's guitar that I have ever heard is from a fellow named Harry Lewman. What you need to know is that Leadbelly's guitar is made differently than the conventional style. Leadbelly used very heavy gauge strings, and here's the kicker: the rascal actually tuned his guitar five half-steps lower than a conventional guitar. In other words, his guitar is tuned B-E-A-D-F#-B.  Sometimes this is referred to as a "baritone" tuning or a BEAD tuning.  Although many people have never heard of such a thing, Martin and other manufacturers actually make guitars designed for this tuning, with a little bit longer scale length.  Stella used to make a 12 string jumbo designed for baritone tuning, and that was one of the guitars that Leadbelly played.  So you play the same chord forms, but they are lower than a standard guitar. Harry does the best job of anyone in getting the Leadbelly sound from the instrument: check this out:

It's also very hard to sing when you're playing these bass runs, by the way.   It sounds easy, but it is not, at least not for me.  You just have to just practice 10,000 times until you get the knack for singing one melody while playing another on the guitar.  

I have been keeping my own 12 string at Leadbelly tuning for about two years now. I don't sound much like Leadbelly and mostly I play Old Time which is far different from Leadbelly's music. But every once in a while I work in a bass run that might sound just a little bit like him.  


  1. Hi Elliott, I just discovered your blog while researching chords and lyrics of "Wreck of the Old 97," and just wanted to send a holler your way from Arizona, and let you know that I really enjoy your blog. I always wonder about the stories behind many of those old songs, and your write-ups are a treasure trove.

  2. Back in those days guys like Leadbelly and Robert Johnson were true originals and they wrote and sung what they felt. Check out 32-20 Blues.