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How To Play Blues Guitar - Finger Picking Blues Guitar Techniques - The Thumb Is King

After studying finger picking acoustic blues guitar for the forty years or thereabouts, it struck me that thumb control is the key to it all. When asked by other  guitarists 'what’s the single most important thing to practice and perfect', I always reply - your basic thumb technique, repeat it for hours and explore the different ways of moving it.

 

A Little History – Picking acoustic blues guitar


It's probable that the first blues guitar sounds were created in the southern states and were obviously really basic. The environment is heavy and humid in those areas - not ideal for musical instruments made of wood using metal or gut strings!


The early first stringed guitars were possible made out of cigar boxes, had one or two strings and were maybe fretted with a bottle neck or knife.


These primeval instruments were probably very hard to keep tuned, and so slide playing was a great option, as varying the note was simply a matter of adjusting the bottleneck position during the performance.

 

In the early twentieth century, buying by catalog was becoming more and more common, launched by Sears, and cheap guitars were becoming available to the man on the street (or the farm!).


Mind you, for a black man living on very low level wages, even a really cheap instrument was difficult to afford. Of course, factory made six string guitars were a big improvement over home made guitars!


 

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The First Guitar Picking Techniques


A picking technique really common in the early blue genre is called 'monotonic bass', which is an indication that the picking thumb strikes one or more bass strings, and isn't alternating between the bass strings. This means that the fingers can be more creative, as it's not necessary to think about the thumb strikes too much.


Additionally, it was quite normal that the basses weren’t even fretted, which also allowed for enhanced flexibility for the fretting hand. When this technique was used, guitarists held the palm of their hand in contact with the bass strings, damping the sound so that it became something like a 'thunk'  sound rather than a clear note. Big Bill Broonzy was a major exponent of this way of playing.


Other blues guitar players, like Lightnin' Hopkins, frequently employed this monotonic bass technique, but often left the the bass notes to ring out. The monotonic bass technique was used by many blues men like Scrapper Blackwell, Mance Lipscomb and of course Robert Johnson.




The Legendary Robert Johnson


Probably the most celebrated old blues man. For most people, blues signifies 'delta blues' and delta blues inevitably translates into 'Robert Johnson'. His picking technique was at the same time raw but might also be delicate, which was done by his creation of a strong technique using a monotonic bass line linked with delicate responding finger work. As well as his creative guitar style, Johnson's singing was intense and filled with emotion. His most interesting songs were written in the key of A or appeared as bottleneck songs in the open G, both styles being played with a heavy and rhythmic monotonic bass line.


Alternate That Bass - Ragtime Blues Guitar


Ragtime piano was the rage in the early nineteen hundreds and  blues guitar players realized that the appealing bass sound might be played in a less complicated way on the guitar. To do this, it was necessary to pluck two or three basses with the thumb, but alternate between the strings, creating a 'bum-chick' kind of sound. If this pattern was combined with the fingers, a syncopated sound is produced which sounds like moire than one guitar. Many ragtime blues guitar players, like Mississippi John Hurt, perfected this style and recorded some great classic tracks. It almost goes without saying that the muscle control required to perform in this style is much greater than that required to play monotonic bass style.


Blind Arthur Blake was possible the best ragtime blues guitarist performing between 1920 and 1930. He developed his style this by raising thumb control to a new,  exciting level. In a lot of his pieces, Blake would double up on the alternating thumb beats, rolling the basses with his thumb and making two notes in the place of one!


After Ragtime Blues Guitar


Many modern blues guitar players took this early ragtime guitar music and extended the chord structures and techniques, pushing the boundaries and exploring new areas. Most of the original Scott Joplin rags have been accurately interpreted, and news ways of playing appear constantly. In America, many great guitar players extended these picking styles and gave the music a country flavor.


Merle Travis was one of the greatest exponents of this new picking style, which is why the style is sometimes called 'Travis picking'. Chet Atkins was another master of this technique and currently Tommy Emmanuel is probably the most accomplished guitar finger picker alive, playing many styles expertly. Doc Watson, (Deep River Blues), was another expert in this Travis picking style.



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