Monday, October 23, 2017

Blues Blast Magazine DVD Review: The Guitar of Robert Johnson and The Guitar of Skip James

Good day!

This DVD review was originally published in the January 7, 2016 edition of Blues Blast Magazine. Be sure to check out the rest of the magazine at

The Guitar of Robert Johnson and The Guitar of Skip James

Stan Grossman’s Guitar Workshop

If you have always wanted to learn to play the blues guitar but do not know where to start, pick up a decent acoustic 6-string and head on over to Stefan Grossman’s Guitar Workshop website and start looking around. For the price of one lesson you can pick up a 3+ hour DVD set that will get you headed in the right direction.

Stefan Grossman is not just a publisher, he is first and foremost a real-deal guitar player with serious credentials. He hails from Brooklyn, and was taught by the esteemed Reverend Gary Davis as well as other legends that include Son House, Skip James, and Mississippi John Hurt. Though he was touring extensively, in the late 1960s he saw the opportunity to reach guitarists with albums that included tablature so they could be played along with, which is how we got his fabulous 1967 LP, How to Play Blues Guitar. As time went on, he added many titles and eventually got into CDs, videocassettes, and DVDs.

Today there are dozens of titles available from Stefan Grossman’s Guitar Workshop, with different artists providing instruction. One of these folks is Tom Feldman, a blues preservationist and talented guitarist who has the uncanny ability to play amazing reproductions of works as originally done by the masters of the blues guitar. He has produced videos on bottleneck slide, Delta blues, and Mississippi hill country blues, as well as a series of videos that can show guitarists how to play like their favorite guitarist, including Son House, Frank Stokes, Charlie Patton, Blind Willie Johnson, Bukka White, and many others. I recently had the opportunity to go through two of these DVD lessons: The Guitar of Robert Johnson and The Guitar of Skip James, and came away very impressed.

The Guitar of Robert Johnson is quite an undertaking, with three discs and almost six hours of material included. Johnson’s discography includes only 29 songs that were recorded in 1936 and 1937, and Feldman’s lessons include nearly all of them. Unlike some other releases from Stefan Grossman the original artist recordings are not included in the lessons (due to licensing issues), so you will need to buy your own. Of course, if you are a Robert Johnson fan that wants to learn how to play like him, you certainly already own his complete catalogue. Tom groups the songs by type (standard and open tunings, then by position) then plays each of the tunes as he sings along. Feldman has a pleasant demeanor, and he is an excellent teacher who goes through the nuances of each the songs in the proper amount of detail, slowing down and explaining the structure as necessary. As an added bonus, there is a .pdf booklet on each of the disks that includes tablature and lyrics for each song. This document does not come up on the DVD menu, but you can find it with Internet Explorer (PC) or Finder (Mac).

The Guitar of Skip James has the same features as the Robert Johnson lessons, including the .pdf documentation and Tom Feldman’s excellent instruction. But it takes a slightly different tack, as its two disks (234 minutes) include bonus material of original audio performances by James, as well as some of his performance at the 1966 Newport Folk Festival. The fifteen songs that are covered are divided into standard, crossnote, and Spanish tuning.

Both of these DVD-based lessons are well produced, with clear cinematography that is lit properly and numerous camera angles (including a very helpful split-screen mode). The sound is clear and the guitar cuts through nicely, even on laptop speakers, though it would be optimal to put the sound through a decent set of speakers. From an instructional perspective, this is a sound learning method that allows the student to work at his or her own pace and to be immediately rewarded by hearing the results, which is a wonderful motivational factor. But it should be kept in mind that these are not beginner lessons, and they are recommended for intermediate or advanced players.

So, these video lessons from Stefan Grossman’s Guitar Workshop are not going to make a novice player sound like either one of these esteemed artists, but an intermediate or advanced player will definitely get their money’s worth in a hurry. If you go to a guitar teacher and tell them you want to learn Robert Johnson or Skip James songs, what they will be able to do for you will not even begin to approach what Mr. Feldman has put together here. These DVDs are worth every penny ($49.95 for Robert Johnson or $39.95 for Skip James), and even if you are not aspiring to be just like one of these artists be sure to see what else the website has to offer. Surely something will strike your fancy as there is a little something for anyone who wants to get started playing, or who is interested in taking his or her guitar skills to the next level.

1 comment:

  1. Stefan Grossman has been at this for a very long time and can hang with the best, even now in his 70s. Glad to read that his guitar workshop output is changing with the times and adding features.