Learning Other Styles
Generally, artists tended to stick within their own regional style, sometimes adding songs in other styles to 'round out' their repertoire and keep audiences interested. Some blues guitarists, however, crossed all the boundaries and learned how to play blues guitar in any style, such as Reverend Gary Davis and Big Bill Broonzy
The Reverend was taught in part by Willie Walker, an incredibly fast and accurate ragtime guitarists from Carolina. Gary Davis could play in any key and in any style, with any kind of blues guitar chords but favored Gospel guitar in his later years.
Broonzy came from the South, but ended up as a celebrity 'rock star' in Chicago, where he developed a particular style of swinging guitar blues characterized by his monotonic thumb action on the bass strings. He was also very fast and accurate, and very few modern day players can copy his technique effectively. Some of his pieces tended towards ragtime and he could also incorporate pop songs from the 'tin pan alley' of his day.
Towards Ragtime Fingerpicking
Ragtime blues could be considered to be the more complex technique within the genre 'acoustic blues guitar'. The music of Lightnin' Hopkins was definitely bluesy and often appeared in the keys of E and A. In fact, many of his pieces in the same key were very similar. However, his ability to up-beat the temp and mix techniques places him in a class of his own - acoustic Texas Blues. He can't be glossed over in our study, if we seriously want to learn blues guitar.
It's interesting that some great talent who could really knew how to play blues also came out of Carolina, such as Pink Anderson, Floyd Council and Scrapper Blackwell. Pink was a fast player in the Piedmont guitar style and honed his craft playing behind the good Doctor Kerr in a traveling medicine show.
Floyd Council made few records in his own right, but can be heard backing Blind Boy Fuller on several tracks cut in 1940s. Their use of blues guitar chords and styles were very similar. He was known as the 'Devil's Daddy In-Law', but it's not certain why that is.
Scrapper Blackwell was an extremely influential artists who produced several blues guitar classics, like 'Blues Before Sunrise, Nobody Knows You When You're Down And Out' and 'Kokomo Blues'. The latter was taken by Robert Johnson, who re-worked it and called it Sweet Home Chicago.
Reverend Gary Davis was an exponent of ragtime guitar par excellence. He played a Gibson J200 guitar, which had a prodigious sound when played with finger picks, as Davis did.
Rev Gary Davis was a giant of ragtime blues guitar, but there were other very notable exponents of this wonderfully complex style of playing a guitar.
Blind Wille McTell played syncopated rhythms on a 12 string guitar, creating classics such as 'Statesboro Blues'. Blind Boy Fuller was perhaps the most commercially successful of the ragtime guitarists, and his style was heavily influenced by Gary Davis, who taught him in his early years.
Blind Blake cut over 100 sides for Paramount and was very prolific. His complex fingerpicking guitar technique was characterized by a complicated double-thumb beat syncopation, rapid triplets executed by his fingers and lightning fast single strings runs.
The Roots Of The Blues
Learning blues guitar in today's world is a curious thing to go for. Even the least well off in Western countries are so much richer than the early blues legends who first invented the wonderful music that was the corner stone of all the various musical styles of our times. Even making use of the best blues guitar tabs, it's difficult for students to identify with the authentic spirit.
In that technique of playing guitar, the rhythmic pattern was basically simpler and the thumb picking stroke was made to sound like a drum's beat. In those tough decades, a dedicated guitarist would pluck a monotonous bass pattern which frequently was at the same timing as a beating heart. This made sure that the beat has an emotional contact and it wasn't that important for the music to be analyzed, or be musically over structured.
You can find examples of the work in restored film archives of the time, where a line of workers with strong iron bars holler a repeating work song and synchronize their work motion such that the massive steel rail is eased over a short distance at the finish of a line of verse or perhaps the chorus. More often than not the work song was split up and an answer sung by designated parts of the work crew. This successful application of question and answer was utilized in many blues songs when sung by a couple of singers, and was a mainstay in church blues music.
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When first starting to search for those ideal lessons for guitar, many people used to go to the great 'G', and 'Google it'. More and more searches for everything imaginable are made on Youtube, as a matter of fact it's the second most favorite search engine after Google itself. Like Google, the number of items returned for a search such as 'blues guitar lessons' is formidable - how to determine the instruction that's best for you and how to play blues guitar in the authentic style? Youtube guitar lessons feature all manner of styles and teaching levels, both paid and for free.
This must be the first step, presenting the basic things that can be put into practice straight away. When all said and done, a thorough understanding of the first concepts will bring huge advantages later on in the instruction.
This abbreviated 'musical' notation was quickly assimilated and is an effective tool for learning blues guitar, for example. A grid of six strings is numbered from the bottom bass string (1) to the top E string (6) and a number written on a string shows which fret finger should be placed above. A straight line at the side of the number denotes that the thumb or finger is employed.
Before the detailed tuition, any difficult techniques can be discussed and valuable tips given. A close up of both hands are invaluable, and would be best shown seperately. Blues guitar chords and tab may be overlaid on the screen, so that students can follow the finger movements at the same time.
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The Legendary Robert Johnson
Some people, notably Eric Clapton amongst them, seems to want to BE Robert Johnson. It's a bit strange, but I completey understand the infatuation that consumes some folk when discussing Johnson, his work and his place in the scheme of things.
For me, it's not a fat lot of good trying to be someone else, but agree that it's fantastic fun trying to work out how he played. It's dubious that he would have been so highly regarded if he hadn't died so young - this is the stuff that legends are made of! The fact is that there are no legends, just people that we need to elevate to that position - it seems to be a human need.
Singing and Playing
Of course, Johnson's emotional intensity and his prowess on acoustic guitar was formidable and has inspired countless musicians over the last 90 years or so. For one thing, it seemed as though he could deliver his lyrics asynchronously to the guitar patterns. What do I mean by that?
Well, normally a guitarist plays something quite complex in between the lines of verse, creates a space or beat and then sings over the mujsical state he created. It's very common and I do it myself all the time. While I'm singing, the guitar complexity reduces, basically because concentration is split between two things. In Johnson's case, it seems he could start and stop singing anywhere without his guitar playing suffering - it's quite a trick and only masters can do it ( Rev Gary davis, Broonzy).
Some fans have analyzed the old 78s and found that they were speeded up quite substantially, so we actually hear Johnson singing at a higher pitch and faster than he actually did! This is important - if you slow the records down and lower the pitch, you get an overall sound which is a lot like Son House. This makes complete sense, as Johnson hung around with the older man and presumably picked up his style, or at least some riffs and ideas.
Looking at his output of 26 sides, they can be grouped into various keys and styles, notably open G, dropped D and normal tuning. All his songs in any particular key were very much the same, which is the same for all of us. It's difficult to maintain a freshness in our guitar finger picking, as our habits and preferences produce similar sounds.
In those days, it was important to have a broad variety of songs in your repertoire, so that the audience wouldn't get bored and you could play something for everyone - no doubt requests were often made for popular or traditional songs. Johnson even played 'pop' siongs such as 'Red Hot' in the key of C, which wasn't much of a piece at all, but was a light and happier alternative to his usual dark and intense output.
Was Robert Johnson Original?
I'd have to say No. Many of his songs were basically traditional and re-worked by RJ. Intense works like Crossroads were another reincarnation of Walkin' Blues, which was performed by Muddy Waters and Son House before Johnson's recording. Come On In My Kitchen, another song on open G was a disguised version of 'Sittin On Top Of The World', a Jug Band favorite.
His songs in the key of A did produce some interesting riffs not found in other blues men's work, so in that sense, he was original. His most famous song 'Sweet Home Chicago', was a direct copy of 'Kokomo Blues' written by Scrapper Blackwell, who was a much more creative acoustic blues guitar player.
How Did He Create His Guitar Sounds?
Possible the two best guides would be Son House and Johnny Shines. House's thrashing right hand picking style was very different from Johnson's intense delicacy, but many of the riffs are the same. Luckily, another of Johnson's traveling companions, Johnny Shines, survived into the seventies and his playing gave us clues to Johnson's style.
Search for 'Johnny Shines Sweet Chicago' on Youtube and you'll find a great old video showing Shine's hands in close up - this is probably just how Johnson played it.
Who Was The Best Blues Man?
Bit of a strange question this, but it is asked and debated (and even argued!) It's a strange question, because there isn't really an answer. For on thing, what or who we admire depends on our individual preferences, so it's very subjective. That's one greatreason right there! The other powerful reason is that the different styles of blues within the blues are not really comparable. How do you compare Son House with Blind Blake? It just can't be done.
In my own courses I have a stab at categorizing the styles, and I guess these would be the main categories:
This style is characterized by Son House, Muddy Waters, many, many others and of course, Robert Johnson. It can be in the keys of E, A, dropped , or open tuning such as G or D. More unusually, there are examples in G and C. Generally speaking, the simple chord structures offer the best sounds for the intense and dark delta sounds.
This picking style is very rich, incorporating complex chord structure an inventive finger work. the bass pattern can be monotonic, alternating bass or anything in between! A wonderful example of this style is Reverend Gary Davis.
Bottleneck Guitar (Slide)
Its been said that slide guitar is easy to learn for the basics, but very difficult to perfect. the basic movements are really easy to take on board, but its the subtleties that takes the time to properly understand. Mostly used in open G, D and A, bottleneck makes great use of the eerie sound produced when a glass or metal tube is placed over the strings and pushed up or down the fretboard.
Another finger is placed behind the slide to damp the sounds a little, and the tube is rapidly oscillated around the target fret until the right note is hit. this 'search' for the note in itself produces a greta delta sound!
Ragtime Blues guitar
Some old players, notably Blind Blake, developed an alternating bass style of playing that tried to copy the sound of ragtime piano, which was popular at the beginning of the 20th century. The basses make a 'bum-chick' sound and th thumb might play just two or three bass strings.
What's New from Jim Bruce
If you'd like to keep abreast of what's happening on my Youtube Channel, it's a good idea to subscribe, and get notified in your emails whenever I post a new video. There are also services that notify you and also send you the video to watch - you don't even have to go to Youtube!
Another great way to keep informed about what I'm doing is to follow my blog here.Guitar Practice
I know that it's often very difficult to get enough practice time in, particularly if you have a family and job commitments. We often start out as youngsters playing blues guitar avidly and then it tends to tail off as we get involved romantically, or take a demanding career path - and later on balancing a relationship, kids and job all at the same time! It's no wonder that playing guitar takes last place.
This exact thing happened to me. I was playing at pro level in my twenties and then got married. Of course, I needed a good job to support a family, which demands time. Basically, I stopped playing at all for about 5 years, which was not a good idea. I thought that I would just pick it up when I was ready and carry on where I left off - wrong! Years of 'no practice' left a big hole, which I recovered after about a year's hard work. However, for some reason, I never recovered the slickness that I had previously.
Judging from my emails, there are many men between 50 and 60 years of age coming back learn guitar after years of inactivity, and finding it tough even if they played really well in their youth. My advice is always the same - make time every day for a little playing, even if it's 10 minutes. It really does work wonders and keeps those muscle memories active.
I'd really welcome any comments you might have, or any questions ... Cheers, Jim