There are a few different musical eras of the singer-songwriter and guitarist Bonnie Raitt. Some know her for her early folk and slide blues hits; in the early ’90s, she had a number of adult contemporary pop rock ballads, and she even recently won a Song of the Year Grammy in 2023! One of the reasons she is still going strong is because of her songwriting and guitar approach. If you want to learn how to play guitar, she is one of the best to emulate! Here are some tips on how to play guitar like Bonnie Raitt.
When you are learning how to play guitar like another artist, it is best to look at their influences. Bonnie Raitt gravitated towards folk and beatnik music that was socially conscious and focused more on the topic of the song. Some of the biggest influences on her were blues greats like Muddy Waters and folk heroes such as Pete Seeger. Both Mississippi blues and New York City-folk had songs with meanings and messages.
That is one nice aspect of these genres and the guitar playing of Bonnie Raitt, they are not overly technical and accessible to most players. The chord progressions, strums, and rhythms she uses aren’t too difficult, the hard part becomes getting the right feeling and sound. Her power is in her storytelling, vocals, and emotive guitar abilities. As far as guitar influencers go, not many women are represented, but Bonnie Raitt surely fills the role with her career!
Bonnie Raitt’s Equipment
Her main guitar is a Fender Stratocaster that she calls “Brownie,” and it is very fitting for her early blues folk style. However, she uses a variety of instruments in all her songs, so in this case, copying her playing style can be done on most any guitar with steel strings (for the slide!). The power of her music comes less from the equipment and gear and more from the lyrics and chords!
If you are going for her slide blues sound, you will want to use compression, overdrive, and a little bit of distortion for guitar pedals. Just keep these elements to a minimum, as blues and Americana still want an overall clean sound; the chords and licks need to stand out, but we want to avoid heavy overtones. Often when playing a bluesy vibe tune, we want it to sound like an overdriven tube amp.
She is seen using a slide on her middle finger and molded plastic finger picks instead of flat picks. This can be a difficult guitar technique to master, so put three finger picks on your thumb, index, and middle finger and get to plucking! When you are learning this technique, you need to play slower to be certain you are hitting the right strings. You will likely make a lot of mistakes at first; it is not easy!
The Guitar Playing of Bonnie Raitt
Her playing style varies depending on whether she is using a slide or fingerpicking her melodies. The secret to slide playing is to dampen the strings behind the slide; this will keep unwanted squeaks away. Open tunings are usually the best when dealing with slide guitar, so you have a better chance of hitting the right notes.
Mixing the slide and finger fretting can also be a difficult step for some beginners; in that case, just learning the song’s chords and basics before attempting the slide. Once you know the chord progression, it will be easier to add that slide in. You may also find it helpful to try another finger; go with what works for you.
Her fingerstyle is often Travis picking, which is where you alternate between the bass and treble strings, a common pattern for many country, folk, and Americana songs. In some songs, she uses more strums and less picking; in the end, it depends on the genre she is playing. Like many singer-songwriters, she takes advantage of her ability to tell a good story over some catchy chords.
The Songs of Bonnie Raitt
The best way to learn songs from Bonnie Raitt is to listen to her past hits and start to play along. Use chords, sheet music, tabs, or videos to watch what she is doing and copy it! Play her songs over and over as you attempt to flesh out the chords and get the rhythmic strums right. And, of course, her singing is a huge part of her talent and fame, so be sure to learn the words as much as the guitar part!
“Angel from Montgomery” is written by John Prine, and Raitt’s version from 1974 is a wonderful mix of rhythm and blues with a country swing. Here she uses a capo, and while the chord progression consists of the shapes of D, G, A, and C, it is the fingerpicking that is more difficult. Her staccato notes and blues licks are played so smoothly that it even feels funky at times.
“Love Me Like a Man” is a more classic blues country song; it will take a lot of trial and error and practice to get these licks played right. If you are familiar with other blues hits, it will be easier, but once you have this song down, you will have a lot of future blues riffs to use!
“Thing Called Love” has a rockabilly vibe that mixes a rock progression with a simple I-IV-V chord chorus. It has some great blues slide moments, but remember that in the original version, one guitarist is playing the basic rhythms, while she is doing much of the slide work. So if you find yourself alone, you need to mix the parts, which can be tricky. As always, slowly build through the verse and chorus until you have the parts down.
“Something to Talk About” is perhaps the most famous hit from Bonnie Raitt; it is Americana, blues, country, pop, and even has a Doo Wop progression! And the rhythmic strum is even reminiscent of a Caribbean guitar skank; it’s no surprise the song was such a hit. It’s during the solo of this song that you will see how she plays slide guitar so effortlessly.
And the Grammy hit “Just Like That” uses a nice Travis picking technique with a very simple chord progression of D-G-A. This song is a great example how her style isn’t overly complicated but still very powerful. Many Harry Styles and Taylor Swift fans were surprised she won the Grammy, but a simple song can sometimes have a lot more pull over the audience.
There are many other great songs of hers that mix blues, country, and even funky rhythms, and of course, there are also many more tunes written for social causes. Probably one of the best ways to play guitar like Bonnie Raitt is to pick up a guitar and write a song about a passionate topic, as that is her style!
If you want to become a better guitarist and songwriter, learning to play and sing like Bonnie Raitt is a great step. Her music varies, and she has several hits that are suitable for those from beginning to advanced playing. If you want to get better at any style that she excels in, trying out some online guitar lessons can also be a great step. Whether you are writing an original tune or doing a cover, Bonnie Raitt knows how to do both! So follow her lead, and you will learn a lot about the guitar!