While Chris Whitley’s name might be unfamiliar to many Guitar World readers, a list of the late singer-songwriter’s fans includes musical heavyweights Keith Richards, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Dave Matthews, John Mayer and Joe Bonamassa (who even covered Whitley’s “Ball Peen Hammer”), to name only a few.
Though Whitley succumbed to lung cancer in 2005 at age 45, he left behind a dozen solo albums—dark, grungy designs on folk rock and country blues (influenced by players like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Jimi Hendrix and Johnny Winter), ripe with unorthodox strumming techniques, (literal) boot stomping, fierce slide playing and inventive tunings, picked on Thirties-era National Steel Resonator guitars (Style O and Triolian models—essentially an acoustic guitar with “a dirtier tone,” Whitley once stated). Let’s examine CW’s twisted take on the blues and beyond.
Whitley’s recording history dates back to the early Eighties, when he was discovered playing and singing on the streets of New York City and given a plane ticket to Belgium, where he recorded with assorted bands (A Noh Rodeo, Kuruki and Nacht und Nebel). Returning to New York in 1990, a meeting with producer Daniel Lanois (U2, Peter Gabriel) led to Whitley’s solo debut album, Living with the Law, its title track akin to FIGURE 1.
Originally played in a DADADE tuning, in later years, Whitley resorted to the Bsus2 tuning presented here (even lower—to Bbsus2—on Weed, 2004’s intimate “live to two-track” re-recording of Whitley’s staple songs). Use downstrokes on each beat and (in bar 2) strum upward with your pick hand’s middle finger on the upbeats. A similar pick-and-fingers approach is used in “Poison Girl,” like FIGURE 2, a groovy vehicle for Whitley’s stunning vocals (note the Eadd4 tuning), and Living with the Law’s third single. (The title track and “Big Sky Country” reached number 28 and number 36, respectively, on Billboard).
Though Whitley’s success seemed to be on the rise, it took him four years to issue a follow-up. In 1995, he emerged with a striking new sound—a mix of edgier rock that, to some extent, alienated his fan base—on Din of Ecstasy; it was clear that Whitley was more interested in “a constant quest for musical growth” than appeasing the musical marketplace. To wit: Whitley cut 1998’s Dirt Floor at his father’s barn in one day, with just his guitar, banjo, voice and trademark “boot stomping.” The high-energy “Ball Peen Hammer” was picked on an Eb-minor-tuned five-string banjo, arranged similarly for six-string acoustic guitar in FIGURE 3. Meanwhile, Whitley’s stinging slide work is showcased in “Accordingly,” played in an unusual Absus2 tuning; the track features bluesy licks picked on higher strings, over a droning open fifth string, similar to FIGURE 4.
2005’s Soft Dangerous Shores is the last album Whitley issued while alive. (Reiter In was recorded in June 2005 and released posthumously). A family affair, it features Chris’ daughter Trixie and brother Dan on select tracks. We’ll close this lesson with the brooding “Her Furious Angel,” which informs FIGURE 5, its chunky two-note chords and jarring voicings sculpted from Whitley’s B6 (no 3rd) tuning.
Acoustic Nation November 2016 FIGURE 1
Acoustic Nation November 2016 FIGURE 2
Acoustic Nation November 2016 FIGURE 3
Acoustic Nation November 2016 FIGURE 4
Acoustic Nation November 2016 FIGURE 5