Were Robert Johnson’s Original 78 RPM Recordings Sped Up?

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    Robert Johnson King of the Delta BluesWriting the liner notes for the Columbia/Legacy single-CD anthology Robert Johnson: King of the Delta Blues was a great pleasure, since I’ve loved  Johnson’s music since the 1960s. I’ve listened to Robert Johnson so much – along with his contemporaries Son House, Willie Brown, and others – that this music feels ingrained on my soul.

    Recently I was asked me to weigh in on the controversial theory that Robert Johnson’s 78s were sped up during the recording or mastering process.I don’t believe they are. Here are my top three reasons:

    1) In the early days of recording – from the cylinder era through the early 1920s – companies did issue records at non-standard speeds, usually to encourage customers to buy their particular model of record player. (My 1919 Brunswick wind-up 78 player, for instance, has an ingenious speed-control lever to allow adjustment of the rpm – revolutions per minute – for any 78.) But by the mid 1920s, pretty much everyone adhered to 78 rpm as the industry standard. It’s highly unlikely a seasoned engineer like Don Law would get the recording speed wrong at Johnson’s session. I’ve read reports that Vocalion, Johnson’s label, had on occasion sped up recordings during the mastering process to make them sound more exciting. But I just cannot imagine them doing this consistently for all of Johnson’s issued 78s.

    hell hound2) Speeding up the rpm would change the pitch of both the voice and guitar – make them higher. None of Johnson’s associates have been known to observe that his records sound off. And since you can match Robert Johnson pitch-for-pitch in the standard and open tunings he used, sometimes with a capo, they’re very likely not sped up. The only exception to this rule of physics would be if Johnson tuned some micro-tones off from standard. I doubt this happened, though, as he was known to perform in public with a rack-mounted harmonica, like Les Paul and Bob Dylan early in their careers. Getting a guitar to match a harmonica requires pitch-perfect tuning. And let’s face it: evidence suggests Robert Johnson was a musical perfectionist.

    3) Most important, Robert Johnson’s music– and personality, from what Johnny Shines and others have told me – were on the manic side anyway. After all, he was a heavy drinker, had serious wanderlust, and wrote harrowing lyrics of making pacts with the devil and being dogged by hell hounds. It makes perfect sense that he’d perform with manic energy. It was part of his wiring.

    For more insight into Robert Johnson’s recording sessions, check out the Ry Cooder interview at Ry Cooder: Talking Country Blues and Gospel.

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    © 2010 Jas Obrecht. All rights reserved. This article may not be reposted or reprinted without the author’s permission.

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      8 comments on “Were Robert Johnson’s Original 78 RPM Recordings Sped Up?

      1. Stratoblogster on said:

        Besides, it just wasn't like Robert to pull a Vinnie Vincent.

      2. Scott Ainslie on said:

        I have to agree with Jas on this one: none of the cats who played with Robert said, "Wait a minute, that doesn't sound like him…"Folks who can't play the music want to slow it down, to invent a new tuning, to somehow explain away what is plain to everyone who's heard the stuff: this cat was young, he was good, he could play.Scott Ainslie

      3. I disagree. I’ve been listening to RJ’s records since around 1970 when I first encountered the Columbia LP. The recordings always sounded odd to me… the guitar vibrato, and the vocals particularly. When finally I heard the music slowed down a step, everything sounded correct to me, especially the timbre of his voice. I have pretty good ears, when things are slightly sped up it distorts and changes the overtones in an unnatural way. From the start I always thought the records sounded funny, the vocals especially. It is very possible that a mistake was made in either the original recording speed, or that it was mastered at the wrong speed.

        As far as Robert’s recorded voice sounding correct to his contemporaries, these guys hadn’t heard him sing live for fifty years, that argument doesn’t really hold for me. Many early recordings were all over the map, you can hear old piano recordings that are way out of standard pitch for example. The slowed-down recordings make not one bit of difference to RJ’s sounding great, he sounds even better to me. If the unnatural quality of the sped-up stuff makes people get more into all the voodoo BS around RJ, then whatever… I can hear the difference.

        • Jas Obrecht on said:

          The counter-argument, Al, is that his guitar is in standard pitch. If the recordings were sped up, the guitar tuning would be higher than standard.

      4. Some of the songs are in A and B in open tuning, if we assume that B is capoed, then it could just as easily be sped up from G tuning sometimes capoed to A. Even Ry Cooder mentions how Robert’s records sounded weird, from your interview: “Because Robert Johnson sounds funny – let’s face it. It doesn’t sound like anybody playing an acoustic wooden guitar.” I agree with him completely and I think this is the result of what I’m talking about. It has nothing to do with him facing the corner, that alters the sound, but it couldn’t make the overtones sound so unnatural.

        At any rate, thanks much for sharing all this material online, it’s great reading.

      5. perry on said:

        I remember the first time I heard ‘Love in Vain’ and was mesmerized by the sound of the haunting voice,it sounded supernatural, non human.My only explanation is the recording was sped up unintenionally,remember this was archaic equipment were talking about.

      6. Darren on said:

        There is an article below stating that the ‘Kind Of Blue’ album by Miles Davis originally was sped up and then corrected later on.


      7. Peter Lloyd on said:

        Slowing RJ’s recordings down makes the guitar vibrato sound too slow and when the slide hits the strings it sounds baggy (for want of a better word). To some he might sound “weird” but so does Tommy Johnson or Skip James. I was debating this topic with a young friend of mine and he said “They’re not sped up, Pete. They’re just not.” I agree.

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