Worryin' You Off My Mind is typical of a Big Bill Broonzy song played in the key of E

Big Bill Broonzy - Chicago Acoustic Blues MasterThe left hand fingering is basic and follow the standard chord progressions that most blues guitar players perform, but there's something else going on here.

There's a couple of things we notice when hearing Broonzy music - that pounding bass rhythm and the feeling that the music is just swingin' along. It's very appealing and infectious.

These two characteristics are the backbone of Bill's style and have to be studied carefully if you want to play something like Big Bill.

The Almighty Thumb Of Big Bill Broonzy

It sounds as though he really pounds those bass strings, but it's not strictly true. He uses a couple fo tricks to augment the sound. First of all, he damps the bass string he has just picked with the palm of his picking hand, so the sound is a combination of the note and a 'thud'.

As well as giving a drum beat effect to the melody line, this technique also frees up the need to play the bass notes for any particular chord shape.

Mance Lipscombe - Texas Blues Guitar Player

Other blues men such as Mance Lipscombe, make great use of this technique. You might think that it would be limiting musically, but it doesn't work out that way if you do it right.

Control is the key. His thumb also brushes across two or three strings, instead of just banging way on one. Many modern blues men play Broonzy style hitting just one bass string - it's not like that! It creates a much bigger sound that's hard to master - listen to Hey hey.


So how does Big Bill make his sound swing like that? A journalist once asked him that same question, to which he replied 'when playing a guitar, you can play with the beat at the exact time, a little in front of the beat or a little behind. You don't speed up or slow down. 

It's like riding a horse, you can either ride on the fron of the hporse or the back, but  you still go at the same speed. My thumb beat rides on the back of the horse.' This is a big ârt of the reason his music swings along like that - there's a subtle syncopation, or gap between the real beat and Broonzy's thumb strike

This treble work also adds to the effect. Watching the films of Big Bill, I get the impression that he played mostly with his forefinger, sometimes slipping in a strike with his second finger if need. While his forefinger plays the real melody, it also jumps back and forwards on adjacent strings, which fills out the gaps in the music making it swing even more. 

Ernie Hawkins calls these extra notes, often not even tabbed, as 'grace notes' and have a powerful effect on the sound. If you miss them out, we can hear that something's not quite right with the sound, but it's difficult to identify what it is. Many guitar players leave some of these subtle things out and feel frustrated why their copy doesn't sound like Big Bill. 

The fact is that there is more to his technique than meets the eye and we need to go back and listen to the originals again and again. For me, it's not paying homage to these old blues guys if we just copy their notes and fingering without going deeper into it and really understanding what they did.

Author: Jim Bruce 
Date: 2014-04-10
Category: Music