Did Charley Patton play that way?

copyright Blues ImagesOver the past seven years, I've had the outlandishly talented country blues singer and guitarist Charley Patton looking over me. (Don't know Charley Patton? Hear him here and then buy what may be the greatest CD box set ever.) For many years, a photo of Patton was as hard to come by as a pic of Robert Johnson, and -- as with Johnson -- the legitimacy of the image has been challenged. For our purposes today, let's assume that this is Patton. I draw your attention to his left hand, how it is posed over the frets like crab legs. Patton's style has always felt a bit eccentric compared to other country blues purveyors, and I wonder whether he might have fingered the frets in an unusual way, too. Now I know there are plenty of other guitarists from the 1920s and 1930s who have posed in similar ways, but I wonder: does this photo reveal something about Patton's style. I know there are a lot of guitarists here (hey, the guy who let me in here builds 'em), so I'm eager to hear any theories, no matter how dubious. And to learn more about the fellow in the photograph, see R. Crumb's comix history of Patton. (The Patton pic above belongs to Blues Images.)


    1. I think it’s safe to say that this wasn’t his playing style.
      1.) Some players do actually play with an “overhand” grip, Jeff Healy has been previously mentioned. Most players that use this style (incl. Healy) are blind, however. Not sure why that position is preferable, but perhaps it’s because the players have never seen the “right” way to hold the instrument?
      2.) Dobro players who use this grip are usually using a tonebar from a pedal or lap steel guitar, whereas Patton is shown apparently fretting notes, and I don’t know Patton to be a slide player.
      3.) I think showmanship is the best conclusion. There’s no real advantage to playing like this, other than the fact that it looks cool. Just like behind-the-back or over-the-head playing, it’s for flash. The guys from Dragonforce do it all the time.

  1. Unless he was using a non-standard tuning, it’d be extremely surprising. Standard chord and scale patterns would be almost unplayable with that “crab legs” stance; forget about playing any kind of barred chord.

    Plus the strength required to hold notes would make his fretboard wobble up and down as he’s playing (a regular stance lets you hold the guitar while playing).

  2. I know dobro players sometimes do that grip. Maybe it was a style that favored a lead in a non-electric, san-pick Texas/Mephis style that some of these old recordings had.
    From what I’ve read, prior to this particular time the guitar wasn’t a lead instrument and the icon of a Hendrix style stand-up posture wasn’t imbedded in a learners mindset. Man… that’s all I got. Great link.

  3. I just finished Ted Gioia’s “Delta Blues”, and there was a chapter more or less dedicated to Charley Patton. While he was a great guitarist, it sounds like he was also a great showman, playing the guitar between his legs and behind his back (influencing other performers like Howlin’ Wolf, Johnny Guitar Watson, Jimi Hendrix, etc.). Maybe this was another technique he used to show off his guitar skill?

  4. It’s possible to play with a knife in that way. See Bukka White playing with a round metal bar here. Some of Patton’s “slide” playing goes so far up the neck that he must’ve been using a knife (I think).

    There’s a great bio of Patton by Stephen Calt and Gayle Dean Wardlow that draws on many interviews with Patton’s musical cronies. I don’t think anyone mentions Patton playing non-slide music with this sort of hand position.

  5. I’ve been playing a long time (20+ years) and I can reach over the top of the fret board and play if I try. It’s not particularly comfortable, and I’m not particularly fluid doing it, but with practice, it’d be totally do-able. I’ve seen a number of guitarists do it as a party-trick during shows, so I suspect it’s as Hector Spencer (#4) suggests.

    @ #2- barre chords are hardly a requirement for playing guitar – they’re merely convenient. The major and minor triads, and seventh and diminished chords that make up blues progressions are all three and four notes. Playing this way doesn’t make the fretboard wobble up and down— you shouldn’t be supporting the guitar with your fretting hand.

  6. Seems plausible. While doing some research on musicians who happen to be dis-abled, I rediscovered a guitarist, Tony Melendez, who plays with his feet (never had arms). Since feet don’t bend the way hands do (and no opposable..er..big toe anyway), you’d have to play like this. So I would say it’s well within the realm of possibility for someone to adapt that as their main playing style.

  7. An image search provides some versions of the photo with a closer view. It is clear that he is fretting notes on possibly the second and fourth frets. It certainly is an awkward way to fret notes, so I would think there is some intention behind it rather than him simply placing his hand randomly for a photo.

    The Wikipedia article states:
    “At Dockery, Charlie fell under the tutelage of Henry Sloan, who had a new, unusual style of playing music which today would be considered very early blues.”

    Since he was taught to play, I would imagine that he was shown the proper position. If he had stumbled across the instrument and figured it out on his own, then I wouldn’t be surprised if that was his primary playing style.

    I agree that it is most likely a flashy move used during performances. He is posing for a picture after all. He may have also played slide with the guitar across his lap. So this playing style could have also stemmed from that.

  8. #6
    I was assuming he’d be playing standing up, or at least not with the guitar laying on his lap. It’s obviously possible to play with that stance if the guitar’s on your lap, but it would be rather inconvenient while standing up or sitting down like on the picture.
    I didn’t want to imply that you’re holding the guitar with your fret hand, but you’re definitely stabilizing it, or at least not destabilizing it by pushing the fretboard back like it’d do with that crab-leg stance.

  9. Listen to his recordings. IF he is fretting an actual chord in that photo (and not just posing), then he would have to use an alternate tuning for it to make any musical sense (at least from what I can see– magnifying the image doesn’t clarify much). And IF he were using an alternate tuning his songs would have very different voicings than other guitarists of the era. I don’t hear that in his recordings. In fact his slide playing is right in line with other Delta slide players of the era, and is not lap-steel-style at all.

    IF he played that way in regular tuning (and the photo is an anomaly) then he would still end up sounding very different than a regular position player, and the recordings don’t sound that way to me– I hear regular style playing.

    Furthermore other blues legends cite him as an influence (John Lee Hooker, Howlin Wolf), and they never played that way.

    Those Botswana videos are really great, but again the style and sound of the music is very different, plus they are all playing with missing strings (which certainly makes it easier.)

  10. From my listening (and playing) of Patton’s music I see no practical reason he would use that as a regular style – it doesn’t really seem to add any technical benefit to the kind of stuff he played.
    We must remember though that according to most people that knew him (particularly Son House), Patton was famed for ‘clowning’, and it seems highly plausible that he could have incorporated the crab-leg style into open-tuning songs for show (as so masterfully performed by the Botswanian lady) – but perhaps not the particular position shown in the picture . I think a similar blues example of this style is shown by Furry Lewis (at around 2:13) – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yoJnW-2iuiQ
    This topic is an interesting coincidence as I emailed John Tefteller (the owner of the image) last year about this very subject – not being a guitarist he wasn’t sure, though he was certain that Patton was clowning or showing some kind of unique style…

  11. My cousin, the wonderfully gifted late Jeff Healy played this way by choice, saying that it was easier for him as a child to reach across the frets. Without this method, he wouldn’t have been as adept. With his thumb free, he could play things that no one else could. His father gave Jeff a guitar soon after he lost his sight as a small child, and Jeff learned to play it by laying it on a bed because it was too large for him to hold on his lap.

  12. The New Brunswick singer Fred McKenna (1934-1977), who appeared on CBC television in the 1960’s, played guitar, mandolin, and fiddle this way, as seen in these videos:

    He was born blind, and apparently started to play this way because no one told him otherwise.

  13. I wonder if his hands were scarred. Mine are, and I find it very difficult to hold a guitar the “normal” way. Usually I get somebody to show me which strings to press, then I figure out how to do it the way he’s doing it in the photo. I get painful hand cramps if I try to play the way everyone else does.

  14. I saw a blind guitarist once, playing in a pub band, using a very similar technique. If memory serves, the guy didn’t have the usual compliment of fingers either – didn’t stop him playing up a storm!

  15. Feedback from a very skilled guitarist friend of mine is this: he doesn’t think Patton could have played this way. The overhand ‘claw’ style is not conducive to playing chords nor is he playing it upside down (i.e. the bass strings are not on ‘top’ like most claw players). Maybe he did this for brief bits and bursts of flashy speed but he doubt his overall style was based on this technique.

  16. When I was young my father used to play at local fiddle playing contests and I would accompany him on the guitar. There was a fellow who had his top finger joints on his left hand cut off in a lathe accident. He went by the name of Johnny Nubs From Abilene. He played using the lap style. I also remember reading that Patton played slide using a pocket knife and not a bottle neck. Some of Pattons songs are using standard chords and others are open tuned. I would say it’s quite possible that Patton played the guitar both ways, i.e., across the chest for standard tunings and across the lap for slide or open tuning.

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