Modern Acoustic Blues Guitar

It's difficult for us modern guitarists to fully understand the blues and how the original performers lived in those incredibly difficult times.

We live in a time of plenty and can't imagine the hardship most of them endured, living lives of slave field workers for the most part.

Interviews with some give us some indication of the life and times of a traveling blues man.

Gary Davis recounted how he was playing at a rent party and a knife fight broke out. It was summer and the house had a big old stone fireplace and chimney. Davis grabbed handfuls of food off the table and stood up inside the chimney out of harm's way, quietly eating his meal until the fuss died down.

Danger and violence were probably an every day occurrence in their lives and it took a strong spirit to deal with it (or a huge insensitivity!) Son House told a story about one of his wives (he was married 5 times). She went out to the toilet shed in the back yard and didn't come back. When he went out to look, she had died on the seat. When asked what he did then, he replied simply - "I moved house"

29th Jan 2013

If you've ever tried to write any kind of blues songs at all, you'll know that it's very difficult.

When we try to create a melody, it's amazing how other melodies we've heard in our lifetimes get in the way; More than once I've worked on a superb piece of original blues music, only to have a friend say "Oh I see you have re-worked Kokomo Blues" or something like that - you get the picture.

When it comes to the blues, we find that it's even worse! Generally, the musical structure of blues guitar music is quite simple, but this also gives us problems as there are not too many variations within in. Often , it's the nuances withing a blues song that set it apart - that little appealing riff or catchy refrain.

Once we have some kind of melody line, we can try to write some words, and this is where the fun really starts! Let me say right now - "Woke Up One Morning ..." worked for the old guys, but it won't do for us. We live in modern times, so we need to try and reflect that blues feeling in those terms, but try and keep an old style blues feel. It's not easy to keep it fresh and alive, but that's what we try to do. It's what we do, blues guitarists!

martin guitar

29th Dec 2013

We often romanticize the blues - we can't help it, people need heroes.

In fact, it's been shown that we'll create heroes out of almost nobody, if there aren't any real heroes around! Some people might take advantage of this in the blues world and call themselves a 'legend' (since when did Cory Harris become a legend?)

I have a great respect for a certain blues man, who I can't name, but suffice to say I drove hundreds of miles to see him play live and maybe chat to him afterwards, which I did.

Not at all what I expected. he didn't think much of the traveling blues man's life and would rather be at home doing something else. he also had a few beefs to air, such as the fact that he was fed up of British blues guitar players trying to teach Americans how to play blues.

A bit close to home that one, as it included me. I thought deeply about this over the next few days. we all need to be open and loving, towards everything and everyone - black, white and all the colors in-between. All guitarists think they are something special (Clapton once said he was the best guitarist in the world - maybe he was, but nowadays there are some that can run rings around him) but the truth is that, compared to the old guys, none of us are that special - need to remember that.

30th Jan 2013

Ever heard of Robert Johnson

Well, I know it's a bit of a dumb question - who hasn't? Anyone that plays blues guitar and know anything about blues guitar music knows a little about this legendary blues man. Was the guy all that he was stacked up to be, or have we elevated him to a high position because we need heroes? His music is really intense, for sure - and his guitar fingerpicking technique is slick.

I don't agree with people saying that he was the greatest blues man of all time or that he was creative. I think he was very skilled at copying other people's work, or maybe adapting traditional songs to his wonderful style. For example, Sweet Home Chicago is a straight copy of Scrapper Blackwell's Kokomo Blues, a much more inventive and varied blues man.

For me, Johnson's appeal came from the stunning combination of his blues guitar and vocals. It's not easy to sing and fingerpick the blues at the same time, and inevitably, there has to be a rhythmic connection between guitar and voice. For the majority of performers, this link is obvious, but for some (like Gary Davis and Johnson) the voice seems completely independent. The guitar part carries on doing it's thing, which is unusual. Normally, the guitar picking tends to become simpler while the mind concentrates on the singing.

Johnson sold his soul to be the best blues guitar player ever? Hogwash! He just practiced like the Devil!

2nd Feb 2013

We often hear about the blues coming from hard beginnings, but we can't really appreciate how it was, without actually being there. Imagine being dirt poor, maybe hungry a lot of the time, being second in society's queue for EVERYTHING and feel put down by most of the world. Maybe you'll start to get a feel for it.

A good way to feel the ambiance of those times is to listen to the lyrics of the popular blues songs. Here are two of my favorite slices, one from Whistler's Jug Band 'Folding Bed' and the other from Floyd Council.

Whistler's Jug - "Went down town to have a little fun, bought a razor and a gun ..."
Floyd Council - "Gonna buy me a razor and a blue-steel gun, cut her if she stands, shoot her if she runs"

Now, that's the blues right there.

1st Feb 2013 

How often do you change your guitar strings? Like a lot of things to do with playing guitar, it's mostly a matter of choice and feeling - of course, there are certain ground rules.  Guitar strings absorb dirt and grease from you fingers and gradually become dull and lifeless - you generally know when it's time to change them.

Strangely enough, it's usually the G string that goes first, and it's tempting to keep a few extra G strings around to change just the one and get some extra playing time out of the others. A pro blues guitarist might change his strings every gig - it depends on how often he plays and also how hard he picks them.

I first started to lean on nylon strung guitar, which was great on the fretting and picking fingers, but it was tough to get a bluesy sound and almost impossible to bend them around, so I changed to steel (well, bronze wound light gauge Martin strings, to be exact.) At that time in the 70s, I was playing on the street and Metro in London and was probably performing about 4 hours a day - when you perform for that amount of time, you don't need to practice!

My picking style was always heavy and as I used a thumb pick and two steel finger picks, the guitar took quite a hammering. In these circumstances I changed the strings once a week in general. Over the years I used bare fingers more and more to play fast ragtime, so they last a little longer.

2nd Feb 2013

The blues is made up of legends and myths so I though I'd throw a few anecdotes at you here. Story goes that Reverend Gary Davis set up to play in a tobacco town in the East and took out his guitar at the corner of a parking lot to play while the men came off their afternoon shift.

Some children gathered and one of them was taunting the Reverend, shouting " You ain't nuthin' but a blind ole' man!" Gary Davis turned to the boy and quietly said "An' you ain't nuthin' but a foolish boy." The boy ran home and didn't come out from under his bed for half a day.

A news reporter once asked Big Bill Broonzy what are the blues? Big Bill just laughed and said, "If you've got to ask, then you'll never know"

Son House - 'The blues is a woman, plain and simple. And I should know, I've been married five times". Also from Son House, "Some young folk might play some jumped up little boogie and call it the 'this and that blues'. Well, it's not - there's only one blues - if you ain't got it, you ain't got it and you never gonna get it by wanting it."

"Nobody gets to be cool by wanting to be cool - you either are or you ain't" - Jim Bruce

Video - Whistler's Jug Plays 'Folding Bed'

4nd Feb 2013

I always though that you needed the best guitar, best strings, best accessories, etc to play the guitar properly and professionally. A couple of things happened to change my mind and help me to see a bit of reality. The first one was a long time ago in the 70s (that's 1970s for you smart Alecs). A that time I was a bit fanatical about changing my guitar strings, which I did every few days or so.

If I though I heard the slightest dullness or buzz, I put it down to string wear and immediately changed them, which was tough financially, as I was a street blues player and not rich at all! It's true that I played with steel finger picks which tend to tear up the strings some, but even so, I did change them a bit too often , until ...

I happened to be in a folk club south of London which was incidentally the home of Ginger Jug, a great jug band in the area. A guy got up to play and I noticed that one of his guitar strings had been snapped. He'd simply tied it together and put a capo on the 2nd fret. the other strings where not too good either, which gave me a good laugh at the time - I considered myself a pro and a purist.

He didn't say much and started to play, and the smile immediately dissolved right off my face. It was simply stunning. The feel and spareness of the blues he sang far outweighed any shortcomings in the string department. The other thing that changed my attitude was all the old guys to be seen playing on Youtube - take a look and see how many were making the sweetest sounds with old Stellas or Ekos.

5th Jan 2013

I first posted videos on Youtube about 5 years ago, and it was a pretty ad hoc affair. At that time I was living in the South of France and not playing an awful lot, and I met a man at a restaurant who said he played blues harmonica. I didn't pay much attention, and then heard he was going to have practice session in a local bar, so I went along to take a look and listen - of course, I took my guitar.

The guitarist he was playing with was very good, but he was trying to adapt to the blues from another style, and it just wasn't working, so I started to play a bit and it took off. Arranging to meet once a week to practice, we soon built a tidy repertoire - well, enough to gig with, so off we went. We played around Bergerac area for about a year or so and then Ken went back to UK.

During that year, when we had practiced a lot, one summer evening I suggested we practice outside and just plonked down and old Kodak camera with a video function. We played 4 songs and the video quality was awful. the audio however was excellent and I posted all four on the Tube. They've had hundreds of thousands of views and a couple of them have been called the finest blues clips on Youtube - it just goes to show that you can't plan a quality event, it just happens in it's own time when you're not looking for it.

 Acoustic Travellers (Jim Bruce and Ken Mayall) Play Robert Johnson - Video

6th Feb 2013

Maybe for the 100th time I listened closely to an old Reverend Gary Davis track and realized that I couldn't play it properly, which means just like the old man did. It's not that I feel badly about this - after all, we can't possibly learn to play in all the styles that we would like to in exactly the same way as the classic blues men. However, it gives us a bit of a problem to tackle - how to play the blues with the same flavor, give the same feel and pay homage to this great blues music without busting our balls over the fact that we can't hope to play it how we'd really like to?

First of all, I don't like fancy blues chords or using a bar with my left hand ever since I had a stroke - my left hand fingers just don't want to cooperate anymore like they used to. I transcribe everything to simple chords, which is mostly combinations of C, G, F etc, and the tackle the tune in the following way. Knowing nothing about music helps a bit here!

Listen to the fingerpicking bass pattern in Davis' music - more often than not thus is where the secrets are. Is the alternating bass pattern reversing in any place? Does he sometimes stay on one string for two beats instead of moving on to the next strings, as we would expect? Does he syncopate by jumping his thumb across two bass strings in quick succession? And lastly, when does the thumb jump across to the treble strings to produce fast single string runs?

Once you work this out, add some of the more simple single string runs and achieve that all important rhythmic quality and you're good to go. Oh, and don't forget to use just one finger, or it won't sound right. Keep it slow and dive straight in. Don't be timid, just go for it - the Reverend did.

7th Feb 2013

One of the problems with committing to keep a journal is that fear that we won't have anything to say one day! Well, this is mostly nonsense - none of us are so boring. Out minds are full of thoughts rushing around like demons - unfortunately, many of them are not too constructive. After encountering the famous 'guitarist's block' a few weeks ago, I found myself languishing a little. You know the feeling, just tired of playing the same old thing.

Of course, we love blues music, but change is important. What to do when you hit the 'wall' ? Sometimes, I'll  play tunes right out of my style, like old pop tunes or swing jazz (not that I can play it very well) and thing just might kick me out of the lethargy. Just lately I find myself going back to the roots of blues again and again. Even after playing complex ragtime guitar for many years, it's refreshing to listen to the old guys and hear again how it all started.

A few weeks ago I started to play a couple of old Reverend Gary Davis songs - then another, then another and I soon found my old enthusiasm coming back. What artistry! The old man's chord structure and picking patterns are very interesting and a challenge for all of us. I even found a couple of clips on Youtube featuring songs that I hadn't heard before - treasure indeed. Here's a clip of 'Feel Like Going On'.

8th Feb 2013

About 15 years ago I found myself living in Indiana working at a 'straight' job. Of course, this is necessary for musicians as it's almost impossible to make a living at what we do. One day i was desperate for some blues and I needed to play somewhere. I read that there was live blues music at a bar in the town of La Porte, In so away I went!
blues piano legend pine top perkins

The bar was on the 'wrong side of the tracks' so exactly what I wanted! Buying a beer, I wandered off into the back room, where a Chicago band was blaring out typical electric blues sounds - not my bag at all really. There was obviously no chance at all to play (I had my acoustic guitar with me) so i sat down with an old guy at a table and chatted about nothing. Nice old guy.

The band had a break and announced that the legendary Pine Top Perkins would play a few numbers. Wow! I was going to hear a legend live and looked around for the great man. With a sigh, the little old fella at the side of me finished his drink and shuffled up to the stage, sitting down at the piano.

10th Feb 2103

Seems like in the 60s just about everyone played guitar, or had tried to play one. Just over a century ago, they were not too common at all, and the ordinary working man just couldn't afford one, which is why the old blues men made their own out of old cigar boxes. These 'guitars' just had one or two strings and probably didn't make too good of a sound if not well made, or the boxes were cracked.

Saying, that some the cigar box guitars being played on Youtube make excellent music and it's become a whole genre of itself inside blues music in general. It wasn't until Sears introduced a cheap factory made Stella guitar at the turn of the century that they became affordable - the first basic models cost about a dollar, which might have been a month's wages for negro maid, for example; which brings to mind the self-expressed story of Elizabeth Cotton.

ragtime blues guitar - elizabeth cotton

She worked as a maid for very low wages, lodgings and food and she desperately wanted a guitar. After many months of saving, she eventually got to send for a Stella Harmony guitar from the Sears mail order catalog and she started to teach herself. Of course, she'd heard the guitar sounds before, but she had never actually held one - she didn't realize that they could either be left or right handed. Elizabeth was left handed and she learned with a right handed guitar!

This meant that she played the treble strings with here thumb and the bass strings with her fingers. The amazing thing is that she played Piedmont ragtime style withe an alternating bass pattern - go figure.

11th Feb 2013

One of the questions I'm asked very often is why do I choose to use a capo on the first fret? There are a variety of reasons. Firstly, I started off my playing career playing just ragtime guitar, which I found difficult without a capo, I suppose due to the pinky stretches involved. So it just became a habit at that stage.

Later on I became interested in playing and singing some Lightnin' Hopkins songs, often in the key of E and his voice is low, low, low! Hopkins also tuned his guitar down a step or two sometimes. I decided to keep the capo on the first fret and tune down a step. This way, when I teach, I just tell people they are in the same tune without a cap and it works OK. Another advantage of tuning down is that the guitar strings are a little slacker and can be bent or pushed over more easily.

That said, there is something else going on when a capo is attached and it's difficult to explain. Something about the tone is different and it's quite subtle. The bottom line is this - whatever works for you, whatever you are comfortable with is the right thing to do.

12th Feb 2013

steel finger picksNow and again I'll use this spot to answers question that come by email. Today's question is this - 'Is it best to use finger picks or bare fingers?' For sure, there are people who use fingerpicks or bare fingers, like me and Stephan Grossman. I use bare fingers when I want to play something rather delicate, for example, or when triplets are required. This is when the finger rapidly pick the treble strings in quick succession, such as the ragtime playing of Blind Blake.

Incidentally, when playing Blake, I find it very difficult to roll those thumb basses when wearing a thumb pick  so this is another reason I don't use them for this style. However, a master like Gray Davis could do all styles with picks. In the case of Davis, I always wear picks to try and capture his sound even more and I try hard just to use one finger, as he did.

Guitar finger picks are also a natural amplifier, so if you play somewhere with no amp and need a bit more sound, then picks often do the job. I notice that many players, old and modern, use a plastic thumb pick and bare fingers, which gives a nice 'thunk' sound on the basses, particularly when the basses are damped with the palm of the picking hand - think about the 'bum-chick' sound of the alternating bass prevalent in Travis picking. Many great players used or use this style (Tommy Emmanuel, Doc Watson).

At one time, I played with a plastic thumb pick and two steel finger picks almost exclusively. One day I lost one of the steel picks, but still used the bare second finger when needed. I intended to buy a replacement pick, but never got round to it so carried on like that - bizarre, but it works for me!

Author: Jim Bruce 
Date: 2014-05-19
Category: Music