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 catalogue became commonplace, pioneered by Sears, and inexpensive guitars were made available to ordinary people. However, for a coloured 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!
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.
Author: Jim Bruce