The Blues Guitar, Gospel Style

Reverend Gary Davis (born on April 30, 1896 in South Carolina -- he died on May 5, 1972 in New Jersey) was an incredible blues guitar player who was an expert in the way of playing generally referred to as Piedmont, which is the main ragtime blues style. Even within the generic term ‘ragtime’ guitar, there are other categories, like piano style ragtime finger picking and of course ragtime blues guitar. The ragtime blues technique was born because guitarists tried to emulate the joyous dancing music of that piano technique created by Scott Joplin et al. Guitar players in those times were fascinated by the alternating bass patterns and general rhythmic feel.

In South Carolina; when Davis was a young man, the acknowledged guitar master was Blind Willie Walker, who played incredibly accurate and very fast, much like Blind Blake. Davis picked up several tunes up from Walker, including Cincinatti Flow Drag and Make Belief Stunt. This meeting was probably crucial to the development of Davis’ style, no doubt expanding his skills and repertoire. By his own admission, Davis ‘was scared o’ no guitarist’ by the ti he was 30 years old.     

Even though an expert in the ragtime guitar style, he could truly play in any style and in any key with equal skill. After he became ordained as a minister, he refused to play the old blues, and favored gospel songs relating the word of the Lord. He also had many part songs in his song list. Musicians at that time played on the street, parties, and any where where they could get a few coins, a bed or a meal. It was essential that they varied their playing and offer music that appealed to a wide range of audiences.

Davis played a jumbo bodied Gibson guitar, which had rich, deep basses and cutting trebles – great for making himself heard above street noise. He also used finger picks, which act as a natural amplifier and also save the fingers from harm after playing for several hours, as musicians did at that time. He used a large plastic thumb pick worn high up, close to his hand, and a steel pick on his fore finger.

Incredibly, he only used one finger to pick the strings, which hardly seems possible, bearing in mind the complexity of the music he created. His thumb would jump all over the strings, never being content to play just the bass notes. It could also jump out of time and double up on the beat, which shows amazing control. Another trademark technique was his single string run work. He would strike a single string alternately with his thumb and fore finger in quick succession at lightning speed, and sing at the same time!

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Many great guitarists picked with just one finger (Doc Watson, Big Bill Broonzy, Blind Boy Fuller) but none so slick and inventive as the Reverend. His songs were truly creative with a wide variation in chord sequences used. Most ragtime blues songs have a standard chord progression depending on the key, and these progression are notably more complex than a standard blues progression in E or A, but Davis further extended these progressions adding a new level of richness.

Reverend Gary Davis has been a source of inspiration for a great number of guitarists over the years and his legacy will always be with us. Any students wanting to learn how to play blues should study the Reverend's techniques.

Author: Jim Bruce 
Date: 2014-07-05
Category: Music