Featured Musician: Paul Geremia

I used to frequent the forums of Weenie Campbell to expand my oeuvre of music beyond traditional country blues.

In my earlier days, I used to judge contemporary country blues artist by how they played songs I was familiar with.

My mindset used to limit me!

As I matured as a musician and as a listener, I became much more interested in artists that would play in the style, not just play slavish copies of source material. After all, all the country blues greats played regional and popular songs in their own style which led them to producing great music.

Paul Geremia is a player that really stands out to me as a living country blues artist. Using 12 strings, 6 strings, harmonica, and his voice, Paul always paints a picture through his work.

From crosses between Blind Boy Fuller’s Walking My Blues Away (part 2) and Thelonious Monk’s Blue Monk, to a cover of Robert Johnson’s Come In My Kitchen with Skip James-esque falsetto, Geremia was never afraid to experiment to push the genre.

Also, it’s important to note that Paul is one of the greatest exponents of playing the music of Blind Lemon Jefferson. A video of his version of Shuckin’ Sugar Blues is shown below.

In some ways, I think Geremia’s voice prepped me for later country music I listened to. He definitely had a great twang to his voice when he wanted.

Paul also hung out with Howling Wolf and Hubert Sumlin in his apartment! Check out the story here!

Unfortunately, Paul had a stroke in 2014, and his career is on hold. You can support him and his family at through this Paypal link. 

Country Blues Basics Part 9: How do I add melody to an alternating bass?

Melody is like an ornament on a house.

The ornament needs a foundation to shine and be framed. Rhythm is the foundation that allows melody to be comprehensible. 

The good news is that melody is simple to add over an alternating bass pattern. A basic alternating bass pattern is typically divided into 4 beats. Melody notes can only be played in between beats or at the same time as a beat.

You can play melody on the high strings with one finger, two fingers, or three. I find all three approaches to be useful depending on what sound I’m going for. However, when I started playing country blues, I used three fingers

I have written a simple melody below without an alternating bass. It should be relatively simple to play:

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Now play it with the alternating bass added in:

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Looking at a country blues song tabbed out can be intimidating.

A consistent bass figure and melody notes make a simple song look complicated when written out. Try breaking the song into pieces; figure out what’s happening in the bass, and then just add the melody on top.

In the next lesson you will learn to play the song Delta Momma Blues. It will teach you a great song, but also give you an exercise in adding melody notes to an alternating bass pattern.

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.