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Dr. Molly’s Guitar Lab: The Badass Riffs of Sister Rosetta Tharpe

One of rock guitar’s pioneers could tear through double-stops, chromatic riffs, and fiery triplets with grace and attitude.

Chops: Intermediate
Theory: Intermediate
Lesson Overview:
• Discover the roots of rock ’n’ roll guitar.
• Learn how to play through changes.
• Create raucous double-stop licks. Click here to download a printable PDF of this lesson's notation.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe: It’s hard to overstate the impact of this supremely badass musician. Born in Arkansas in 1915 to cotton-picking parents, this pioneering guitarist changed the trajectory of American music. She deeply influenced those who we understand to be the founders of rock ’n’ roll: Little Richard, Elvis, Chuck Berry, and so on. Rosetta pushed boundaries and rocked the boat, which is obvious from both the way she lived her life and how she played guitar.

She is known as “The Original Soul Sister” and “The Godmother of Rock ’n’ Roll” for good reason. Her playing. Her persona. Her boldness. Everything about this woman oozes attitude. She was playing rock licks more than a decade before the first rock record was released. Rosetta was fascinating audiences with her “windmill” guitar stunt twenty years before Pete Townshend is thought to have developed this move. She was one of the first artists to merge spiritual and secular music. Rosetta shocked audiences by performing with an integrated band in a segregated nation. She played through chord changes, which demonstrated a jazz influence, and mixed this with blues, gospel, and rock sounds to create her own unique style.

While there’s much more that can be said about this woman who was far ahead of her time, we’re going to focus on a few key elements of her playing: chromaticism, double-stops, and triplets. (For a comprehensive look into Tharpe’s amazing career, check out “Forgotten Heroes: Sister Rosetta Tharpe.”

For all the following examples, I provide two versions: one in standard tuning and one tuned down a minor third (C#–F#–B–E–G#–C#). Sister Rosetta frequently tuned her guitar down a minor third, which creates more low end, makes the strings easier to bend, and gives the guitar a bigger sound.

You can experience this trailblazer playing guitar tuned down a minor third in these two videos. I also highly recommend watching these videos for your own pleasure and inspiration.

YouTube It

For this lesson, we’ll pay special attention to fingering shapes and keys. Rosetta frequently played in the keys of A and E (or rather, F# and C#, if she tuned down), which allowed her to use open strings. These licks all use the “A” and “E” shapes of the CAGED system. In the examples below, the audio for all of the even-numbered licks was played on a guitar tuned down to C#, but the notation will show you how to play them in standard tuning—no detuning required. This way you’ll have two different ways to play each phrase—twice the bang for your buck.

Rosetta used a great deal of chromaticism in her playing. She would frequently ascend or descend using chromatic notes to target chord tones (the root, 3, 5,or 7) on the downbeats. She’d play non-diatonic notes on the upbeats.

Such use of chromaticism is frequently associated with jazz—bebop in particular—but Rosetta’s hot chromatic licks do not feel “jazzy” because of her deep pocket, the groove, and the way she mixes this technique with bends, double-stops, and bold melodies.

Ex. 1through Ex. 4illustrate how Sister Rosetta Tharpe would weave chromaticism into her playing. In Examples 3 and 4 there is an enclosure, which occurs when you approach a chord tone—in this case the 3—from both above and below. In these two examples, the enclosure starts on beat 3 of measure two, with the chord tone falling on beat 4.

Frequently, Rosetta would play uninterrupted eighth-note phrases while improvising. The phrases are still melodic, though, because she would accent certain notes and not just play diatonic notes in a scalar manner, but rather play chromatically while outlining chords.

Click here for Ex. 1

Click here for Ex. 2

Click here for Ex. 3

Click here for Ex. 4

You can hear fast triplet licks throughout Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s playing. These triplets would outline the chords and she would usually hit chord tones on the downbeat of each triplet. The triplets added energy and suspense to her solos, intros, and endings.

Check out the triplets in Ex. 5, which use the “A” shape, and Ex. 6, which is based on the “E” shape. Notice how the majority of the downbeats are chord tones. This allows you to really hear what is happening harmonically in a song.

Click here for Ex. 5

Click here for Ex. 6

In Ex. 7 andEx. 8,the chord changes are outlined, but Sister Rosetta didn’t just play pentatonics. She would play through the harmonic movement, yet she still made it sound like rock ’n’ roll! She would also frequently develop ideas using motifs. Check it out.

Click here for Ex. 7

Click here for Ex. 8

You better believe Rosetta had fiery double-stop licks! She would slide into double-stops, outline chords using double-stops, and bend a note while playing double-stops.

In Ex. 9 andEx. 10, a double-stop motif outlines the chord changes. Notice how each new dyad is approached with a slide. Rosetta’s pocket was nuts—she really dug in and grooved hard. This is a great Rosetta-esque lick for developing that essential skill.

Click here for Ex. 9

Click here for Ex. 10

The final two examples (Ex. 11and Ex. 12) combine double-stops, triplets, and chromaticism. This is a very “Rosetta” way to end a tune. Try it in different keys, as well.

Click here for Ex. 11

Click here for Ex. 12

Chromaticism, triplets, and double-stops are all over Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s playing. A huge part of what makes Rosetta so good is her groove and melody, and how they coincide with the guitar techniques we’ve been exploring. When working on your Rosetta licks, keep groove and melody at the forefront of your mind. It’s always helpful to practice with a metronome, record yourself, and then listen back. If you can make a metronome sound groovy, you’re in good shape!