A big misconception about bluesman is that they were oldmen 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.
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.
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.
Awhile ago I stumbled upon a series of videos recorded by Alan Lomax in 1978. One of my favorites is from unknown guitar player Belton Sutherland.
Belton was probably a teenager in the hay-day of this music’s popularity in the south. Maybe he the opportunity to learn from one of the masters. Eugene Powell, also known as Sonny Boy Nelson was at this recording session. Maybe he taught Belton a thing or two.
Blues #1, just like Blues #2 is a droning Mississippi Hill Country type of song. I talk about how to play this type of song in my lesson on Catfish Blues.
This type of music seems so raw and emotionally loaded. A lifetime of experience and guitar playing allowed Belton to tap into such a raw channel of expression
There are a handful of other chord forms that you will use while playing the country blues.
There are 5 common alternative chord positions you will want to learn before moving on to right-hand techniques.
The chords are:
For the F#/D7 chord, fret the 6th string, 2nd fret with your thumb. Barre the top 4 strings with your index finger for the A7 chord.
Strum these alternative chord shapes for now, and practice substituting them in the 12-bar blues progression from the previous lesson.These chords’ utility will become apparent when we cover right-hand techniques.
If you’ve got a good grasp on the material we covered here, you are well on your way to getting the country blues basics down.
The goal of these first 5 lessons is to show you what you need to know in your left-hand to be able to play this style of music comfortably.
If you can get to the point where you don’t have to think about what your left hand is doing, then you can focus on right-hand technique
Practice the chord positions and strumming them in a 12-bar progression. Once you can do that comfortably, learning almost any blues song in the left hand will be no problem.
Now let’s take a look at developing the right-hand.
To be able to play the basic progression for nearly any blues song, you will need to learn 5 basic open chords, as well as B7 and F.
Here are what the chords look like:
Play the F chord to fret the 6th string with your thumb, and the top two strings with your index finger. It should look like this:
If you are not comfortable with these chord positions, it is is essential you practice them before moving on. Practice strumming them starting with an A chord and moving through a G chord before starting again.
What they are playing is not as important as how they play it. If you watch footage of the masters of this style of music you will notice that they are almost always holding down a chord.
These players are barely moving their left hand, but somehow produce amazingly complex sounding music.
The secret behind this complexity is in understanding the many sounds you can get out of holding down a single chord. The secret to the master’s playing isn’t in their fretting hand, but in their picking hand. The thumb of their right hand is always keeping time while his other fingers play something else.
An aphorism that sums up this idea is: ‘your left hand is what you know, your right hand is who you are.’
If you can get the left hand down, then you can focus on mastering right hand techniques, which is where the soul of the music resides.
If you think this type of playing sounds interesting then check out my instructional video of Catfish Blues to see how much mileage you can get out of a 1st position E chord (and that video just scratches the surface!).
Delta Momma Blues will help you practice your alternating bass technique over melodic chord changes. The song has a relatively simple melody that sounds awesome when combined with the moving bass pattern.
If you can play this song, you can start to tackle more complex songs in the genre.
Here is my version of the guitar arrangement:
The song is in the key of C. There are 3 chords in this song: C, G, and F.
But don’t worry! There is an easier way to play a first-position F chord that all blues players used because it’s much more practical than the barre chord.
When you play the F chord, hook your thumb over the neck to catch the 6th string 1st fret, barre the top two strings at the 1st fret with your pointer finger, and then use your middle and ring finger to fret the remaining. You’ll want to keep your pinky free to play melody notes.
Every finger style blues player utilized this position when playing the F chord. It should look like this:
The C chord should look like this:
Hold the G chord as shown below:
This song is an 8-bar blues in the Piedmont style—the chord progression is as follows:
C | C | F | F | G | G7 | C/G | G/C
A lot of tunes in C use this progression. Dave Van Ronk’s version of Cocaine Blues is a good example.
To begin learning Delta Momma Blues, play the alternating bass over the progression so you can practice quickly changing chords.
If you forget which note is next while learning the song, try humming the melody to yourself and see if you can find it. The note is always going to be accessible within the chord shapes you are holding.
Here is my version of Delta Momma Blues tabbed out:
This may look complicated but if you just play the melody notes you’ll see it’s a very simple melody over a repeating bass figure.
This song is a great one to practice singing over because the melody of the verse matches the vocals
This song was recorded by Townes Van Zandt on his 1970 record Delta Momma Blues:
Another version I like was recorded by Steve Earle on his album Townes:
Notice how the two versions are very similar but also different in what melody notes are hit.
This is a good example of how you can make your own arrangement of a song. You need to retain familiar elements to keep the song recognizable, but you actually have a lot of freedom to experiment and find your voice.
Next, let’s take a look at how we can make the alternating bass pattern more exciting.
This song’s droning and persistent bass line reminds me of blues music from the Northern Mississippi Hill country.
You can sit on the groove of this song all day, spinning up variations and just playing the main riff. The underlying groove is just a template for you to experiment upon.
But the best part of this whole song is that you can play it with only your thumb!
This song is a perfect way to practice varying the bass movement in an alternating bass setting (but you also learn an amazing song in the process).
The basic song is structured around a E chord. The E chord should look like this:
I would suggest holding down the full E chord while you play the song instead of just the relevant notes. A lot of times you’re hitting more than just the note tabbed out. Making sure those extra strings harmonize with what you are hitting is key.
For the verse, use your pinky to grab the 3rd fret on the 6th string. Begin to see if you can bend it with just your pinky to get that nice slurred sound that is essential to the blues.
It may be best to start this song by learning the verse. Getting the groove into your hands will prepare you for tackling the bass runs.
When you’re mastering the underlying groove, think about it like a drum beat.
Once you’ve gotten the song under your hands and can play it in your sleep, throw in some bass line variations or treble runs.
If you need some ideas, check out Lightnin’ Hopkins’ or Corey Harris’ version.
This song was recorded by Robert Petway in 1941. Here’s the version mine is based on. Catfish Blues is also a master class in blues vocals:
A lot of really great songs are based around 1 chord. If you can master this one, check out Rolling Stone Blues by Robert Wilkins:
If you’ve got your alternating bass technique locked in, try adding melody notes on top.