After studying how to finger pick blues guitar
- for the last forty years or so, it strikes me that thumb movement control is vital. If asked by student guitarists 'what’s the most important technique to practice again and again', my reply is always - work on your basic thumb technique, repeat and explore the possibilities.
Early Picking Techniques
A picking style very common in the early blues music is known as the 'monotonic
bass'. This indicates that the thumb hits one or more bass strings, and doesn't
alternate between strings.
This allowed the fingers to be creative, as you
didn't have to think too much about your thumb. Also, often the basses weren’t fretted
at all, which allowed for increased flexibility for the fretting hand fingers.
For this reason, players held the palm of their picking hand in contact with the first three or four bass strings, muting the sound so that it became more of a 'thunk' or 'thrumming' sound than a clear discernible note. Big Bill Broonzy was a master of this style.
Other guitarists , such as Lightnin' Hopkins, often used this monotonic bass style, but let the the bass notes ring. The monotonic bass style was employed by other blues men such as Mance Lipscomb, Scrapper Blackwell and of course Robert Johnson.
In the video below I'm re-visiting Broonzy's famous song Hey,Hey again and jammin' along with Bill to try and get that elusive swing. The palm damping technique is easy to learn but very hard to master when playing in Big Bill's style.
As well as controlling that thumb, remember that Bill played mostly with just one finger, so there's a lot to think about - add a little singing and you'll see where the challenge is.
Some History – Picking Blues Guitar
It's possible that the first blues guitar sounds came from the south states and were really quite basic. Weather conditions are heavy and humid in those regions, which aren’t ideal for wooden musical instruments using strings. The very first stringed guitar-type instruments were probably constructed from cigar boxes, had one to four strings and were sometimes played with a bottle neck or slide. These first guitars were very difficult to keep in tune, and so bottleneck playing was a good option, as variation in tone was just a matter of moving the slide position while playing.
In the first part of the 20th century, selling by catalog became commonplace, pioneered by Sears, and inexpensive guitars were made available to ordinary people. However, for a colored person existing on subsistence level wages, even a very cheap guitar was tough to buy. That said, professionally constructed six string guitars were a great improvement over a self made cigar box guitar!
Download a free Robert Johnson blues guitar lesson - Love In Vain
Alternating Bass And Ragtime Blues Guitar
Ragtime piano became popular in the early 1900s and some blues guitar players realized that the characteristic bass signature could be played in a simplified way on the guitar. To accomplish this, it was necessary to strike two or three bass strings with the picking thumb, alternating between the strings, producing a 'bum-chick' sound. When this technique was combined with the picking sounds of the fingers, a very complex sound is produced which sounds like two guitars!
Many guitarists, such as Mississippi John Hurt, used this technique exclusively and recorded some fine work. Of course, the dexterity needed to play this style is far above that required to play monotonic, delta style blues.
Blind Blake was probably the foremost ragtime blues guitar player between 1920 and 1930? He achieved this by taking the thumb control to a new, extraordinary level. In many of his songs, Blake doubled up on the alternating thumb beats, making two notes instead of one.
Beyond Ragtime Blues Guitar
Modern players took hold of this early ragtime sound and quickly extended the chords and techniques, exploring new areas. Many of the original Scott Joplin rags have been faithfully transcribed, and other ways of playing appeared constantly. In the U.S., many notable musicians extended these picking styles and gave the music a country flavor.
Merle Travis was one of the first pioneers of this new genre and this is why the style is often called Travis picking. Chet Atkins was an obvious master of the style and currently Tommy Emmanuel is probably the foremost finger picker on the planet. Doc Watson, another legendary figure, was an expert in the Travis picking style.