Acoustic Blues Guitar Video Lesson Preview - Southern Rag by Blind Blake.
It's not without good reason that Blind Blake was known as The King of Ragtime Guitar.
Gary Davis was amazing, and his ability to play any style at all was formidable, but for straight, fast and accurate ragtime guitar picking, Blake was the one. Davis held him in high regard, saying that Blake 'was a sportin' guitar player' - it seems that's quite an accolade between blues guitar players!
I always try to imagine what life was like for these guys. We have the basic info (mostly), like where they were born and died, but precious little about the bit in between. Where did he get his dynamic ability to play guitar in that way? Was he blind from birth? How much money did he make? Was he considered a bit of a superstar? How often did he practice? The questions just go on and on.
Of course, these things weren't just accidental - you don't suddenly wake up one morning playing fantastic guitar. You need the aptitude - after that it's sheer hard work and practice. For me, if I'm not gigging, then I try and practice an hour a day, which is not a lot at all, but I'm not trying to improve. I also find that playing regular gigs, it's not really necessary to practice, unless you want to learn new stuff, for example. Playing on the street is a great way to practice, and get paid a little (maybe).
Blake probably practiced intensely, particularly after his first records were cut. When entertaining live, some of the songs and stomps for dancing to would have gone on for 10 to 15 minutes, and each audience was new. When you cut a record, thousands hear it. Blake's style was at the top of it's form when he started recording, which gave him a little problem I feel. After laying down a track like West Coast Blues, where do you go?
WCB is a famous piece - very intricate and fast, making it almost impossible to copy. Instead of using a single strike alternating bass pattern Blake would roll his picking thumb from one bass string to the next, creating a complex syncopated beat - it really does sound as though two guitars are being played. Southern Rag follows the basic form of WCB, but it's picking structure is different in a couple of ways.
He swaps the bass dexterity for fast treble string work played with two fingers. He does use the rolling thumb basses, but they are fewer and far between compared to WCB. He also introduces some fast arpeggio type runs across typical ragtime chord progressions, such as the familiar C-E/E7-A7-D7-G7 pattern. Unfortunately, when you are locked into a particular style of playing, in a particular key, the tunes can all tend to sound the sound, and this is exactly what happened to Blake's playing. There are several version of West Coast Blues, for example, thinly disguised with a new name and new lyrics.
After saying all that, Blake really doesn't have an equal for fast ragtime blues fingerpicking. the first time I heard him I was absolutely sure there were two guitars, but I was wrong of course. After spending many hours listening and tabbing his finger placements, I gradually learned to approximate his sound. An approximation is the best most of us can do, I'm afraid - it simply can't be copied with the same panache.