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Forgotten Heroes: Sister Rosetta Tharpe

Forgotten Heroes: Sister Rosetta Tharpe

Hallmarks of Tharpe’s Style
Thanks to the miracle of YouTube, it’s easy to see why Sister Rosetta Tharpe is so important to the history of electric guitar. Enter her name and “Down By the Riverside” in the site’s search engine, and the top hit (which had nearly 600,000 views at press time) opens on a shot of Tharpe performing on TV Gospel Time in a flower-print dress and a short, blonde wig. She stands in front of a men’s gospel choir and wears a white, circa-1961 Gibson SG/Les Paul with a rare side-pull vibrato strapped around her neck, acoustic-style, with the strap attaching at the headstock. As she launches into what can only be called a rocking, authoritative version of the gospel standard, fat tube distortion emanates from her amplifier. Her powerful voice rings through the choir’s joyful din with an infectious, awe-inspiring soulfulness. The camera zooms in on the guitar’s three humbuckers, and you see that she’s wielding a thumbpick. When the camera pulls back moments later, you see what appears to be an early- 1960s Gibson GA-19RVT combo at the other end of her white cable.

Following the second chorus, Tharpe launches into a jaw dropping solo that begins with a double-stop and then leads into a series of seething, impeccably timed chromatic runs, a wild bend, and a series of sliding doublestops that bristle with energy, vocal-like phrasing, and a raw, powerful tone that would’ve given Chuck Berry a complex. At one point, she slams a chord and waves her arm back and forth in a move that’s simultaneously testifying and directing the chord’s repeatedly bent notes like a choir-director’s baton—it’s supreme showmanship that presages Keith Richards’ and Pete Townshend’s trademark “windmill” move. Through it all, Tharpe struts the stage, juts her head out in rock-star fashion, and generally commands undivided attention.

Tharpe’s guitar work during her performance of “Up Above My Head” on the same television show is slightly less distorted, but the performance is no less rocking. Note how she delays the beginning of her solo until part of the verse has gone by, then comes in confidently at exactly the right spot. Though Tharpe’s sound was primal and pure in its appeal, her approach was not primitive (she also played piano and was well schooled in music). At the beginning of the solo on this rendition, she effortlessly—and in perfect time—slides into chords up nearly the full length of the neck. She then hollers, “Let’s do that again,” upping the ante by sliding into single notes up near the end of the fretboard. For the G chord in the middle of the verse (the V chord in the key of C), she pounds the G string, bending it back and forth between the 9 and the minor 3rd. Like Wes Montgomery, she increases the excitement by switching from single notes back into chords. She finishes off with the classic Chuck Berry-style lick—alternating between slides up to a C# on the G string and fingering the same note on the B string.

In addition to Tharpe’s complete command of song via voice and instrument, as well as the passion she radiated from her body and soul, her rhythm guitar playing and solos (as evidenced by the aforementioned performances) weren’t merely great “for the time” or “for a woman”—they’re masterpieces of the ages that are worth studying as exemplars of tone, phrasing, fervor, and showmanship.

Make a Joyful Noise
By Jason Shadrick

Figure 1
This is a typical intro that Sister Rosetta Tharpe would play to kick off a gospel tune in the key of C. Check out the cool use of the 9 (G) over the F7 chord in the second measure. During the last two measures, Tharpe creates a bluesy sound by using the b3rd (Eb) over the C7 chord. The sound of the 3 of C7 (E) and the Eb, creates a nice, tension-filled rub.

Figure 2
A common element Tharpe’s style was the use of open strings. Here, we begin with an open-string phrase that wouldn’t sound out of place in a Freddie King tune. Make sure to give the D on beat 3 a nice quarter-step bend. In the second measure, there are some ferocious triple stops and then the lick ends with some open string pull offs that are based out of the E blues scale (E–G–A–Bb–B–D).

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