Author: Zach G.

Country Blues Basics Part 11: What else can I do with alternating bass?

Aside from your straight alternating bass, you can learn additional techniques with your thumb that spice up your rhythm and give your playing a more orchestrated feel.

Players like Blind Blake and Reverend Gary Davis used a lot of fancy right thumb techniques. If you break these down, they are actually quite simple but add a significant amount of excitement to your playing.

Listen to Georgia Bound by Blind Blake to get a sense of what’s possible.

It’s best to wait on learning these advanced techniques until you have the basic alternating bass technique locked in. These advanced techniques serve the goal of freeing up your thumb, allowing to perform whatever bass figures you want at any moment.

Changing Alternation Pattern

The 1st technique is changing the notes you hit within an alternating bass pattern.

For instance, in a G chord, alternate the 6th, 4th, and 5th strings instead of just the 6th and 4th.

Below is a tabbed out exercise to apply this technique:

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Whatever bass notes you have fretted and any relevant open bass strings are fair game for this technique. Just keep in mind that an alternating bass usually starts with a lower pitch then goes to a higher pitch.

Being able to freely execute this technique will give your playing more variation and prepare you for more complicated bass runs as you progress.

Leading In

The 2nd advanced alternating bass technique is called leading in. This technique is typically used during a chord change, but has a lot of utility beyond that.

To understand what leading in sounds like, check out this video demonstration (tabs for the song are below):

To perform this technique, hold down a G chord and hit the 6th string, 3rd fret but Play through the note and hit the 5th string, 2nd fret.

I have tabbed out the 8 bar-blues in G so you can practice leading in:

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When I learned to lead in, I felt like a lightbulb had gone off. I realized that you don’t play both notes, but push through the top note into the bottom one. Learning this technique made me dial into freeing up how I move my thumb when playing bass notes. 

A lot of players took this technique and used it as a rhythmic tool, playing it in the bass to give a cool stumbling sound. Check out You’ll Like My Loving by Otis Harris, an unknown Texas bluesman. You’ll notice Harris uses this technique through out the song to give a persistent stumbling bass line.

String Snapping

The 3rd technique is string snapping, a move you’ll hear a lot of delta blues players use. 

Check out this video of Alvin Youngblood Hart playing Pony Blues. He snaps the bass throughout to give the song a hard driving rhythm. 

A common chord to use this technique on is the ‘Delta E7.’ You slide up snapping the 5th string against the fret board. Here is a video explaining this technique and accompanying tablature:

 

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Think about every note you play as instrumentation. The alternating bass is like a drumbeat or a bass player; when you snap your strings it’s like adding in an extra instrument into your one-person band.

 

Country Blues Basics Part 7: How do I play alternating bass on guitar?

Rhythm is consistently making a sound at the right time. The only way to achieve this is through practice— luckily, you can practice alternating bass while watching TV or talking to your friends.

The more you get the basic thumb movement drilled in, the easier this style of music will be to play.

In an alternating bass, the bass notes you want to hit will be different, depending on what chord you are playing at a given time. A good rule of thumb is if you’re holding down a note, it’s good to play, although it may not be the right time to play it.

The bottom line is to follow your ears. 

Remember to keep your hand holding down the chord as you play an alternating bass. Anchoring your fretting hand will let you focus on your right hand technique and keep the bass going.

Hold down an E chord to get started :

E Chord
E chord

Alternating bass is characterized by hitting a lower note and then a higher bass note to give a moving rhythmic feel.

For the E chord, hit the open 6th string to get the low E, and then the 4th string, 2nd fret to get a higher E bass note.

Below is the bass tabbed out for an E chord. Notice you are hitting an open string on the 1st and 3rd beat of a measure. The open 6th string is an E note, and is also the lowest note on the guitar. You typically want the lowest pitch of the chord’s root note to be played on the 1st and 3rd beat.

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Once you get the basic motion of moving between two strings, try playing the bass pattern for a 12 bar blues in E (you will need E, A, B7 chords,).

Keep in mind that the 1st and 3rd note in an alternating bass over an a chord, is an open 5th string. Just like with an E chord, this is because the open 5th string is the lowest A note you can play on a guitar.

Pay attention to what bass notes you need to hit:

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Here is a video of the progression 3 times through, with some melody notes added in the last time to show you how you can apply this lesson:

If you feel you can play this alternating bass pattern consistently, try it with other chord progressions in the 5 common blues keys. Here are the typical notes you would hit for every chord in an alternating bass pattern:

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If you’ve got these patterns down, toss a melody note or two in while keeping the rhythm going. 

A listener may not notice if you play the wrong note, but will definitely notice bad rhythm.

Next, let’s try applying what you’ve learned to a song called Catfish Blues. Learning this song well will definitely level up your country blues rhythm, and you’ll learn an awesome song in the process!

Country Blues Basics Part 6: Why is the bass so important?

For beginners wanting to play this style, you’ll want to know the two types of common bass patterns that need to be learned: Alternating Bass and Monotonic Bass.

Alternating bass is when your thumb alternates between at least 2 bass notes every beat.

Monotonic bass is when you thump on one note every beat.

Most great country blues songs used a mixture of both alternating bass and monotonic bass, but learning both individually is the best approach.

Note that before you begin to tackle a full song, getting your right hand thumb hitting the bass strings to time is more essential than what you are playing. In blues, it’s not about what notes you play, but how you play them. The bass you play provides the template and framework for melody notes to be played.

Think about the bass like the foundation of a house, and melody is what makes the house unique.

A good country blues song is an interplay between melody and rhythm. If you can master this dichotomy then you will become a better musician over all, no matter what style you play.

Let’s look at how to play an alternating bass.

Featured Musician: Jessie Mae Hemphill

I has seen a copy of Jesse Mae Hemphill’s self titled record sitting in my local record shop for 3 months before I decided to buy it.

I’m definitely glad I did— she’s a gem of the Mississippi Hill style of blues.

Jesse’s first recording wasn’t released until age 58, but what she put out was top-notch blues.

Featured Musician: Townes Van Zandt

If I were to picture the ideal archetype for country music, the answer would always be Townes Van Zandt. 

The first song I heard him play was Waiting Around To Die. Once I heard him, I knew he represented something I always was looking for.

You can read about my journey here.  

As Townes’ released more material, he never really diverged from the simple and understated sound he had perfected. Even as his hard living took a toll on his voice, he never lost his charm.

His recordings from the 1960s-70s are unparalleled art.

Country Blues Basics Part 14: How to Play That’s Alright by Sam Chatmon

That’s Alright is a great example of combining alternating bass and monotonic bass. If you look at the tabulature, you’ll see that the two techniques are intermingled in a way where the techniques aren’t individually identifiable, but have been woven together to create a fabric for the song. 

Sam Chatmon used this guitar accompaniment for a lot of his tunes in G. Despite its heavy usage, I still think it is one of the most powerful accompaniments in G out there. It doesn’t sound like anyone else.

To play this song, you need to be comfortable with playing an alternating bass with a heavy accent on the down beat. Listen to how Sam plays time in this recording to get the idea:

That’s Alright is a 12-bar blues in the key of G. 

The main section is best played using an unconventional G chord fingering.

The G chord looks like a B7 chord moved up one string. Keep your pinky ready to fret the 1st string, 3rd fret, but don’t hold it down unless you are going to play it. You’ll need to keep your other three fingers uninhibited to play the bass figure!

The G chord look like this:

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The IV chord Sam uses is a basic open position C chord. The D chord is simply a C chord moved up two frets.

The secret to this song is in the heavy time and keeping the bass moving.

I have broken the tab into sections to help you see the various pieces.

The first four bars are based around Sam’s G chord. Keep your finger free so you can keep the bass moving.

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The IV chord section utilizes a C/C7 shape. Remember to push through the strings to get that heavy time sound. As long as you’re holding the chord, the surrounding notes will harmonize.

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Returning to the I chord, make sure you really hit the hammer-on/pull-off. I consider it an essential riff in the arrangement.

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Walking up to the V/IV chord, utilize the same technique you used in bars five and six. Finish off the verse by playing the same riff you played previously.

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Once you can play these sections, piece them together and you have yourself a great song you can get a lot of mileage on.

If you can play the bass comfortably, try improvising which notes you play in the chord.

Listening to Sam’s various breaks will give you interesting variations. I demo one of these breaks in my recording of the guitar arrangement below.

Try learning some of the lyrics Sam sings over this arrangement and create your own version of the song. This song is a master class in how to have a moving bass line with sparse melodic jabs. It creates the illusion of two players playing at once.

Once you have learned this song, you have learned the country blues basics. Congratulations, you can probably learn any song in this genre now that your bass skills are on point!

Take a look at my closing thoughts on where you can take your playing now that you have the essentials down. 

 

Featured Musician: Sam Chatmon

A big misconception about bluesman is that they were old men playing their guitar and singing with weathered voices.

When most of these legendary players recorded, they were in their 20s. 

Luckily renewed interest in this music in the 1960s relaunched some of their careers. By the time these musicians careers relaunched, they were old. 

Sam Chatmon is an example of a great guitarist who was rediscovered and recorded in the 1960s. He was able to tour around for 20 more years until his death. Fortunately, we got a lot of great video recordings of him during this period.

Sam, along with his famous brother Bo Carter, were part of the popular group the Mississippi Sheiks during the 1930s.

When I used to study with John Miller, I found out he had spent quite a bit of time with Sam. I learned a couple of Sam’s tunes from John, and he showed me how Sam fingered some unconventional chord shapes.

Below is a video of Sam playing That’s Alright at age 81. If you want to learn how to play this, check out my free lesson.

If you’re interested in the history of this music, there are a couple interviews of Sam that are publicly available on Alan Lomax’s channel.

Featured Musician: Sonny Boy Nelson

Sonny Boy Nelson (real name Eugene Powell) recorded in the 1930s, and played along side legendary country blues musician Hacksaw Harney. I first discovered Nelson a few years into playing blues music.

It was a revelatory experience. 

Nelson’s intricate and sorrowful playing made me see the possibility of what my guitar playing could turn into.

When I studied with John Miller, I asked him to help me figure out some of Nelson’s playing because it was so unconventional, but so familiar. Only a master of this style like John could unravel this playing.

Watching and learning Nelson’s playing gave me a new outlook and perspective in what’s possible in country blues playing. It also helped me figure out the playing of blues-great Sam Chatmon who was undoubtedly in contact with Sonny Boy Nelson in his lifetime.

Here are some examples of Nelson’s incredible blues picking:

Nelson definitely has a unique style, but also has some clear influences. I can hear riffs from Tommy Johnson’s Lonesome Home Blues and a lot of stylistic borrowings from Blind Lemon Jefferson.

Matchbox Blues was a cover of a Blind Lemon Jefferson song, but Nelson’s version is a great example of making something your own.

For the same reasons as I love Scrapper Blackwell’s playing, I love Sonny Boy Nelson’s. They both have a clear way of playing in a key, and they constantly improvise, but their style is a recognizable trademark of their craft.