Delta Blues was created in the Mississippi Delta and was predominantly acoustic, often played in bottleneck guitar style. Chicago Blues pioneered by artists like Muddy Waters is an electric guitar style developed to be heard above the crowds in noisy clubs.

Best known Delta Blues Artists: 
  • Son House
  • Charlie Patton
  • Robert Johnson
  • Skip James
  • Mississippi Fred McDowell
  • Mississippi John Hurt

What Is Delta Blues Music?

Often played in bottleneck style in open G, D or C tuning, it was probably the first blues music to appear in the U.S.A. It's thought that bottleneck, or slide guitar was common due to the nature of the instruments used and the humid conditions in the Mississippi Delta basic.

Difference between delta blues and chicago blues - Son House - Delta Blues Guitar Player

What Kind Of Guitars Were Used To Play Delta Blues?

Field workers would often make their own 'guitars' from old wooden boxes and wire. The first very rudimentary instruments were called Diddley Bows with a single string and could be plucked or bowed like a violin depending on the style of music to be played.

Cigar-box guitars became common, with 3, 4 or 5 strings. This helped enormously in creating music that was a little more complex. Whatever style of home-made guitar was made, they were probably very difficult to keep in tune, hence the prevalence of the bottleneck style of Delta Blues playing. Poor quality guitar are difficult to keep in tune and bottleneck open tunings are more forgiving than standard tuning.

  Delta blues guitar player Son House plays |Death Letter in the clip below:

Son House Death Letter Blues.mp3

Playing Delta Blues On Acoustic 6 String Guitars

Cheap factory-made guitars with regular 6 steel strings were a revelation to Delta Blues musicians. It was the combination of mass guitar construction and nation-wide distribution by mail-order Sears catalogue that drove the blues guitar revolution.

For one dollar a poor field worker could buy a playable Stella Harmony guitar and begin to develop the delta blues style of playing guitar that would eventually become electric Chicago Blues and most of the rock music we hear today.

How Was Delta Blues Style Guitar Played?

It began in a rudimentary way, just by plucking a string or strings up and down, sometimes fretting a string with the fingers or running the neck of a bottle or knife up and down the strings. Although the bottleneck way of playing Delta Blues is deceptively simple and easy to grasp, it's hard to make it sound really great.

In its finest form, slide guitar can be incredibly beautiful and delicate to hear. In some player's hands, the style can also be raw and powerful, oozing with emotion. Son House was very proficient in this raw playing style, basically having just one style of playing for his whole repertoire of songs.

What Is Fingerstyle Delta Blues Guitar?

After mass-produced Stella acoustic guitars arrived on the scene, musicians began to explore the full possibilities of the instrument. Many guitarists just strummed across all 6 strings, but some wanted a little more.

For some years in the Mississippi Delta and other states during the time of slavery, it was forbidden by law to own or play a drum. The feeling was among slave masters was that a drum-beat engages the spirit and leads a slave to dream of freedom and insurrection. The call of drum music was strong, given the slaves' African ancestry.

This was probably how fingerstyle acoustic guitar developed. The thumb was used to hit a bass string to keep the beat, while the fingers were used to create a melody on the higher strings. The thumb strike was often damped or choked with the palm of the picking hand so that it sounded like a drum-beat.

Some players developed this style even further, separating the thumb strikes and hitting 2 or 3 bass strings alternately to form a 'bum-chick' ragtime style rhythm. Alternating bass ragtime fingerstyle guitar was born. Mississippi John Hurt was an early example of this style.

How Is Chicago Style Blues Guitar Played?

Chicago style blues is characterized by it's heavy electric amplified sound. It's mostly played with a plastic plectrum, but some players use fingerstyle as well. There are guitarists who use the plectrum as a thumb and play the melody with their fingers - there are many variations in style.

Whatever the playing style, Chicago Blues is always electrified. Many of the great exponents of Chicago Blues style guitar were first of all acoustic fingerstyle players in the Delta Blues vein. Electric guitar was the next evolution in spreading the blues to the city areas in the North of the USA.

Muddy Waters originated in the Mississippi Delta but like many other musicians he made his way up to Chicago seeking out new audiences. he as instrumental in the cross-over between the acoustic guitar sound of the Delta and the harsh electric guitar sound of Chicago Blues.

Muddy Waters (acoustic) at Newport 1968 Walkin Blues.mp3

Big Bill Broonzy was another artist making his way from the Delta to Chicago. Broonzy sometimes played electric guitar in the Chicago style but was mostly known for his swinging acoustic guitar sound. Here's Bill singing Key to the Highway.