Smokestack Lightnin’ – Guitar Riff

Smokestack Lightning by Howling Wolf has a great groove. The guitar riff is fantastic on its own but set off with the bass line is where you get the essence of the groove.

In my life I have lifted probably 5,000 songs. To “lift” a song means to take the music from a recording, to learn what the music is. And if you think about what a piece of music is there is a lot to lift: a riff, bass line, drum set part, chord progression, melody, lyrics, structure, each instrument’s part, etc.

To lift music efficiently you need to develop your ears, to train them. There are a number of ways you can train your ears to become a good lifter. The best one I can recommend is to be organized before you start to lift. Preparation is key to most things. The same applies to lifting a song.
First, decide what it is you want to learn from the song. For example, the guitar riff to Smokestack Lightning.

Next is to survey the song and make a map of the song using landmarks like: Intro, Verse, Chorus, Bridge, Solo Section, Coda. Letter names also work: The first section of a song is letter A, the next section is B, and so forth. In Smokestack Lightning there are a series of 6 verses, each ending with a howl. After some of the verses there is a short vamp, a repeat of the groove, where a harmonica plays. The song fades out. By doing this you now know what you have to lift. Each verse has basically the same music, the guitar riff continues throughout the whole tune.

Now the specifics, ask yourself what is the guitar riff? how many bars? how many notes? and does it change through the piece? If don’t know how time signatures work, then count the number of notes in the riff – it has 10. Try counting each note with the recording. It’s not easy but practice this and you will begin to really hear the phrase. To figure out the notes of the riff you can hunt and peck, or listen, sing the first note, stop the recording and find it. Do this for all ten notes.

Try the above exercise. Is there a better way to do it? How? Each time you lift a song use the method above and you will begin to find a path of your own. Lifting songs is tricky but rewarding because you’re not only improving your playing, your ears, your knowledge of how music works, but you’re also having fun playing the music that excites you.

by Chester Burnett (Howlin’ Wolf)
– from “Evil” (Chess 1540)

Ah-oh smokestack lightnin’
Shinin’ just like gold
Why don’t ya hear me cryin’?
A-whoo-hooo, oooo, whooo

Whoa-oh tell me baby,
What’s the matter with you?
Why don’t ya hear me cryin’?
A-whoo-hooo, oooo, whooo

Whoa-oh tell me baby,
Where did ya stay last night?
A-why don’t ya hear me cryin’?
A-whoo-hooo, oooo, whooo

Whoa-oh stop your train,
Let her go for a ride
Why don’t ya hear me cryin’?
A-whoo-hooo, oooo, whooo

Whoa-oh fare ya well
Never see you no more
A-why don’t ya hear me cryin’?
A-whoo-hooo, oooo, whooo

Whoa-oh, who been here baby since,
I-I been gone a little, bitty boy?
Girl be on
A-whoo-hooo, oooo, whooo


In the coming weeks I will be adding Easy, Intermediate, and Advanced guitar charts for a wide range of songs. The charts are designed for two types of guitar players: those who like to sing songs (Singer-Guitarists), those who just want to play guitar (Guitarists).

Keep checking this site for new charts. Feel free to leave a comment on the site to let me know if the charts and accompanying music are helpful. I look forward to hearing from you. Go here for the complete list.


To hear song:


Also, here’ a post that features Howling Wolf performing the song.




About Bill Parsons

Composer: Music composition and arranging for film, television, artistic collaborations, and studio recordings. Teacher: Private and ensemble music classes at Royal Conservatory and Home Studio. Musical coaching and/or collaborations in songwriting, arranging, and composing. Also improvisation, theory, and musicianship.
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2 Responses to Smokestack Lightnin’ – Guitar Riff

  1. Pingback: Smokestack Lightnin’ – Bass Line | Mosaicland

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