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King of the 9-String

How many guitar pickers seriously mess with their instrument? Normally I’d be safe in saying banjo players do a lot more of that kind of thing than guitar pickers. On a banjo you can adjust or change the head, adjust or change the tailpiece, try a different bridge, stuff the back of your instrument, or even put tape over the strings behind the bridge in an effort to modify the sound.

Big Joe Williams is one guitar player who wasn’t afraid to change things on his guitar. In fact he doubled up 3 strings and became known as the “king of the 9-string”. He was also known to add stuff to his amp to make a more percussive and rattling sound.

Williams was born in 1903 and passed in 1982, age 79. He was very well recorded with a career which spanned 4 decades. Many of his early sides were recorded with John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson on harmonica (that’s the first of the two Sonny Boy Williamsons…it was the second one who called himself the original). At one time I listened to most of those recordings and as I recall they were all excellent.

There was a time I listened to a lot of blues and Big Joe Willliams was among my faves. I love his rough and ready guitar attack.


  1. Not sure it would be the same thing as altering the instrument…but Joni Mitchell is well-known to have a unique way of tuning her instruments especially the guitar. Websites are devoted to analyzing and logging her distinct guitar tunings.

    • Sure, there are all kinds of tunings. In old time music, clawhammer banjo players use all kinds of them, and there are various fiddle “cross-tunings” as well. The thing with a guitar though, is that it is pretty much a one-piece unit compared to a banjo. You can change the tuning but somebody else can change it back. With a banjo, you can easily significantly transform the instrument by changing up various parts. You can do it at home without any special skills. Big Joe Williams created the 9-string by actually adding 3 tuners. He must have also messed with the nut and the bridge to accommodate his idea. He was after a more percussive sound, emphasizing the rhythm. I think Williams stayed with some earlier ideas about how blues should be played throughout his long career. In my view, that’s what makes his music so fascinating and unique. At some point along the way, blues became very generic and predictable (and at the same time very popular as it was appropriated by rock musicians).

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