Blues You Can Use: John Lee Hooker's Unconventional Phrasing

Since we’ve been looking at blues forms other than the ubiquitous 12-bar blues, examining the music of John Lee Hooker is a must.
Image placeholder title

Since we’ve been looking at blues forms other than the ubiquitous 12-bar blues, examining the music of John Lee Hooker is a must. While regarded as one of the prime post-war electric bluesmen, Hooker’s music always had raw Mississippi undertones, in both his rustic guitar style and his penchant for inconsistent vocal phrasing. Hooker seemingly changed when he wanted to change, but careful listening reveals that his sense of phrasing has purpose. In his early recordings as a solo performer, you can feel the natural ebb and flow of his phrasing as he effortlessly accompanies himself. However, after coming to Vee-Jay records in the mid 1950s, Hooker’s recordings began to include backup musicians, and that’s when the fun started. Even in the rough-hewn world of blues, playing over standard forms is usually a given, particularly in ensemble playing. But any session player trying to fit John Lee’s music into a predictable format quickly learned that the only form was Hooker Form. On virtually any full-band recording, you will eventually hear the sidemen lose their grip . Even the top-flight Motown rhythm section of James Jamerson on bass and Benny Benjamin on drums got thrown off while recording “Boom, Boom,” Hooker’s best-known tune. Hooker wanted to ad-lib and hold on the I chord (for five bars!) before starting the second chorus, but the band had already gone to the IV. Somehow, they keep it together, and the resulting slop has become the stuff we love. If you ever join a band of full-blown blues fascists, be prepared to play it just like the record, mistakes and all.

This month’s example is based on “Dimples,” a Hooker classic that has been re-interpreted in eight-bar (the Allman Brothers) and 12-bar (the Animals) versions, but the original 1956 recording for Vee-Jay record finds the author pounding it out in a ten-bar form (which occasionally goes to 11). While a ten-bar blues may seem bizarre, the truncation is brilliant in its efficiency, and it sounds completely natural.

The initial four bars of the I chord make the natural transition to the IV in bars 5 and 6, but instead of returning to the I chord, the harmony jumps right to the V for a V–V–I–I cadence. Example 1 follows the form that the band plays for the opening instrumental chorus, but true-to-form, Hooker injects one bar of breathing room in between both vocal choruses, as seen in Ex. 2. When listening, realize that the vocal line “I love the way you …” is the pickup bar, and the downbeat of bar 1 is the word “walk.” While the lyrics change for each verse, it’s a small consistency in Hooker’s phrasing that session bassist George Washington grabs onto, and he saves the day. On upright bass, Washington’s bouncy feel gives this track a distinct Paul Chambers influence, a rare display of rhythmic articulation for a blues record.

Image placeholder title

In Ex. 1, Washington starts with a two-bar pattern—a root–5 movement in bar one, and the main guitar riff in the bar 2. On the IV chord, he sets up a “mini-cadence” in bar 5 with the C on beat three moving to the F, which resolves to the Bb in bar 6. Bar 6 is a typical chromatic movement from the IV to the V that implies a #IVdim chord. In bar 7, he plays up the V chord triad—take note of the R–R–3–5 pattern that Washington uses throughout the entire performance as a way to ground this important milestone in the form. In the first chorus, he moves from the V to the IV in bar 8, but based on the second half of the measure (where he returns to a C), I suspect he got the “look” from Hook to skip the IV, as subsequent choruses stay on the V for two bars.

Example 2 is similar to what Washington plays in the first vocal chorus, and now the two-bar phrase flips—the main guitar riff is in the first bar, and as the guitar does not double it, the bass sticks out significantly. He balances it in the second bar with a little walking quarter-notes. On the IV chord, Washington sticks with the triad, using the R–R–3–5 pattern to anchor the movement, and then returns to the two-bar pattern from the I chord. However, that two-bar pattern becomes a three-bar pattern when Hooker waits a measure to start his vocal pickup.

As I listen through the rest of the track, I create a story in my mind about the session. I imagine the band made several attempts to get a consistent form together for the recording, only to find that Hooker does something different every take. After he adds that first extra bar between the first and second vocal chorus, it sounds as if Washington stages a protest and starts filling the line with odd syncopations that frankly do not suit the tune. You can feel the relief when Washington forcefully walks through a swinging 12-bar guitar solo, only to be cut off at the pass by Hooker not coming in at the end. Instead they vamp on the I chord for six bars, in which you can hear the second guitar player quietly change to the IV by mistake. Hooker uses the vocal pickup to get everyone on track again, but not for long. He adds a bar to the V chord in what turns out to be the final chorus. Washington catches it, and lays into the stock blues ending lick with what strikes me as an audible level of frustration. Another possibility is this was a first take, and you are hearing the stunned response of seasoned players trying to make sense of John Lee Hooker. By today’s perfection-obsessed standards, this track never would have seen the light of day—it’s sloppy, out of tune, the singer throws the band off course several times, and it falls apart at the end. And yet, it’s a recording that has captivated generations of blues and rock musicians.



Ed Friedland plays, writes, and teaches out of his bass base in Austin, Texas.