Henry Thomas--Guitar Playing Positions/Keys

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Henry Thomas--Guitar Playing Positions/Keys

Compiled by John Miller
I thought it would be interesting to take a look at the playing positions/tunings/keys employed by Henry Thomas on his recordings. I have loved and admired the music he recorded for decades, and the sound that he had on his songs on which he played quills is one of the most unforgettable in American traditional music. Add to that an unusual repertoire delivered in a beautifully clear singing voice with powerful, always-in-tune rhythm guitar and you have a formidable musical combination.
Except as indicated otherwise in the tables below, he played in standard tuning. He had five recording sessions over a period of a little over two years, and the tables will be sorted by session. "Key" indicates the key in which the various performances sounded. Sharpness relative to concert pitch is indicated with a plus sign, +, and flatness with a minus sign, -. Intensified sharpness or flatness is shown by using more than one of such signs.

Chicago, July 7, 1927

1John HenryD position, with quillsA
2Cottonfield BluesG positionD
3ArkansasC positionG

Chicago, October 5, 1927

1The Fox And The HoundsD position, G positon, quillsAb, Db
2The Little Red CabooseD position, quillsAb
3Bob McKinneyC positionGb
4Red River BluesD position, quillsAb

Chicago, October 7, 1927

1Honey, Won't You Allow Me One More ChanceC positionGb
2Run, Mollie, RunC positionGb
3Shanty BluesVestapol tuning, slideF#
4Woodhouse BluesG positionDb
5Jonah In the WildernessC positionGb
6When The Train Comes AlongC positionGb

Chicago, June 13, 1928

1Bull Doze BluesD position, quillsAb
2Don't Ease Me InG positionEb
3Texas Easy StreetE positionBb
4Texas Worried BluesG positionD
5Fishing BluesD position, quillsAb
6Old Country StompD position, quillsAb

Chicago, October 7, 1929

1Charmin' BetsyD position, quillsAb
2Lovin' BabeD positionAb
3Railroadin' SomeG position, quillsDb++
4Don't Leave Me HereG positionDb++


  • One of the things that gave Henry Thomas such a distinctive sound in his chordal accompaniments was the way he utilized open strings. When playing out of the C position, if he had occasion to go to his IV chord, F, he would not fret the first fret of the first string, so that the major third of the scale droned right through the I and the IV chord. Similarly, when playing out of the D position, when he went to his IV chord, G, he would often fret only the second fret of his fifth string, and strum open strings in the treble.
  • One of the mysteries of Henry Thomas' playing is why he chose to capo as high as he did. He characteristically capoed to have D position sound at Ab, which requires having the capo at the sixth fret. He could have capoed to the first fret and played out of G position to play in Ab. Probably the reason for his capoing choices is the most obvious one: he wanted the sound that he got from capoing very high.
  • To figure out where you would have to place a capo on a guitar in standard tuning at EADGBE to have Henry Thomas's playing position for a given song match up with the key in which it sounded, envision playing the song without a capo in the listed playing position. Walk up the chromatic scale from the playing position, raising a capo one fret for every half-step you ascend the chromatic scale. When you reach the key listed for the song, you will have determined the capo placement.
  • Henry Thomas tuned his quills to a pentatonic scale that he always used to play with a major key center. His rangiest tunes were "John Henry" and "Bull Doze Blues". For them, the range of his quills, expressed as scale tones was V-VI-I-II-III-V-VI-I. At his first session, his quills were in tune to play in A. For his three other sessions on which he recorded with quills, his "go to" key for the quills was Ab. For two of his tunes with quills, there were either sections in Db, as in "The Fox and the Hounds", or the entire song was in Db, as in "Railroadin' Some".
  • Henry Thomas' quills were probably best in tune on "John Henry", at his first session. For his second session, when playing in Ab, as on portions of "The Fox and the Hounds", and all of "The Little Red Caboose" and "Red River Blues", his high octave I note, Ab, was well in tune, but his lower Ab note was notably sharp. In the second section of "The Fox and the Hounds", which modulates to Db, his Ab quills would only have had to have the lower range extended by one low IV note to accommodate the melody of the Db section. That having been said, the timbre of his quills in the Db section is altogether different than the timbre of the quills in the Ab section of the tune. Moreover, the III note in the Db section, which is the same as the VI note in the Ab section is really sharp, and the same note was in tune in Ab. It seems possible that he had three extra pipes on his quill set to accommodate the movement from Ab to Db. Two of the notes would have duplicated notes he already had on his Ab set, but the difference of timbre makes it seem likely that this was his solution.
  • It's interesting that his third session, held two days after his second session, was his only session not to include at least one tune with quills. It may be possible, though there is no way of knowing, that Thomas or someone else involved with the sessions was bothered by the intonation of the quills at the session two days earlier, and thus decided to avoid tunes that used the quills.
  • For his last two sessions, the quills were in better tune on the low Ab note, so it seems likely that Thomas either doctored that particular quill, or carved another, or figured out how to finesse the pitch with his embouchure.

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