No less an authority on blues than the Rev. William F. Gibbons considers Sam “Lightnin’ ” Hopkins one of the genre’s essential figures. Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys concurs, as does Jimmie Vaughan. And departed giants including Stevie Ray Vaughan, T-Bone Walker and Albert Collins held the same perspective on the lean, laconic, dark sunglasses sporting Texas bluesman who emerged out of the Houston ghetto to tour the world and stake his place in six-string history, earning the number 71 slot on Rolling Stone’s haphazard list of the “Greatest Guitarists of All Time.”
Why is Hopkins — who was born 101 years go, on March 15, 1912 — so damn cool? The guy was a hipster, always dressed in sharp suits or cardigans, a pressed shirt, shined shoes and slick hats or a pompadour.
And his voice… Well, if a coyote could sing, it might sound like Hopkins, who also possessed the kind of slyness often assigned to that critter’s canine cousin the fox. As a boy, Hopkins used to lead Blind Lemon Jefferson around the streets of Houston, which accounts for his early foundation in blues at its most fundamental. Essentially Hopkins, who died in 1982 at age 69, was a link between country blues and the electric urban form of the music. He was also a master of the kind of simplicity that many players never get a grip on, where spare, raw-boned guitar and heartfelt singing align to cut to the core of what it means to be human.
Listen to his notes stab the air in “Down Baby” and feel how perfectly they underline the song’s abject sadness, or dig on the furiously banging chords he snaps out in his “Let Me Play With Your Poodle,” which has nothing to do with dogs of the four-legged variety. Hopkins and his guitar were a perfect pair — trim and plainspoken, so their combined message carried maximum impact.
Here are some suggestions for playing blues like “Po’ Lightnin’,” as he often referred to himself in song. Following in his musical footsteps will help lead you right to the core of what the blues is about:
• Add some dirt: If you’re playing electric guitar, let the speaker break up a little. Hopkins liked a tone that was nasty enough to leak venom, but still let his notes be defined. And if you’re playing acoustic guitar, don’t be afraid to let the strings snap, rattle and buzz against the neck. That’s not poor technique; that’s character.
• Get in the box: Know the basic minor pentatonic scale, especially in E and A, Hopkins’s favorite keys. Remember, there was nothing fancy in his blues — just a primal elegance that can’t be underestimated. Hopkins’ preference for the key of E is a gift for new players, since that’s often the first minor blues scale they approach. And that makes his music a great entry point to the genre for anybody with a six-string.
• Pick how you pick: Hopkins was a finger picker, but his slow, simmering style punctuated by quickly tossed off runs for drama is perfect for plectrum as well. There’s a lot of space between his notes, even the fast runs and accents. Just be sure every note you pick is clearly defined, and don’t be afraid to throw in the occasional random bass note or chordal “clang” for character.
• Worry the changes: Ostensibly Hopkins composed and performed most of his songs in the basic 12-bar, I-IV-V blues progression, but he often ignored the places where the changes would normally fall, extending the time some chords were held or cutting others short. His maxim was, “Lightnin’ change when Lightnin’ want to change.” And that subjectivity is something all of us can learn from. If that’s what a lyric or a particular passage seems to need to enrich its emotional content, go for it! Subjectivity in a performance is a beautiful thing. It creates character.
• Make an introduction: Hopkins often gave his songs intros. Sometimes there were based on a melody line from the tune he was setting up. Often they seem entirely random. His “Come Back Baby” features a classic Lightnin’ intro as well as several of the hard stabbing solos that were his signature. The song is a good entry point to his plain yet wildly idiosyncratic music.
• Make it up: If you’re trying to copy Hopkins note-for-note, relax. The man himself rarely played the same solo twice and often took entirely different approaches to songs he frequently played. In short, he was an improviser, so his music points followers down that path as well. And in blues the ability to improvise is what marks good players from hacks.
• Say it again: Hopkins’ solos are full of joyful repetition. “Worrying” notes like that adds expression to the blues. Try it out. Pick any box position in the pentatonic scale and focus on the high strings. Now build a short run out of maybe a half-dozen notes. Start by repeating the same note three to five times. The root, or, if you’re daring, a note that’s a full step away from the root, is a good choice. Return to that note after a few bars, park there, and repeat it again. Then play a few more notes on your way to resolving the run, which you’ll do on the root or wherever it sounds right. Take risks and be radical. That’s the gambit that earned Hopkins his place in history.