Country Blues Basics Part 12: What is monotonic Bass?

Monotonic bass literally means single tone. In practice, it is the technique of playing a single note over a song’s melody. It gives songs a driving, down home feel as opposed to the bouncy feel of an alternating bass. 

Alternating bass is much better to learn first so you can really free up the thumb and begin to understand which bass notes are appropriate to play over a chord.

The end goal of these lessons is to truly free up the thumb and allow you to switch between alternating and monotonic bass to create the foundation YOU want to create while you play country blues music. 

You will hear monotonic bass a lot in Texas blues— check out Mance Lipscomb and Lightnin Hopkins to hear this technique in practice.

To demonstrate the monotonic bass, I will be playing Hey Hey by Big Bill Broonzy. Pay attention to the switching of what note is played depending on what chord I am playing. 

Hey Hey is in the key of E. I play the open low E string over the E sections (I chord), the open A string over the A sections (IV chord), and I play F# over the B section (V chord).

The B chord I use is the A chord shape below, moved up two frets. 

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Here is the demonstration:

Notice how I play single notes in the bass over the melody. I do not switch between the 1st and 3rd strings as I would while using the alternating bass technique.

Learning how to play this type of bass should be relatively straight forward. You will be using the same chord shapes, and in many respects, the thumb movement is simpler. 

In the next lesson we will be applying this technique to Robert Johnson’s blues standard Me and the Devil Blues. 

Painted Faces Part 1

How many paintings have forgotten faces? Faces meticulously created by artists, only to be lost in the work as a whole. 

If great works of art are comprised of pieces of a whole, then each piece is essential. 

These faces say so much, hold so much meaning, but are forgotten and unrecognized.

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The Mountain

As I walked down the the rocky slope, an old woman stopped us:

“It’s beautiful here, but sad. I hiked this path every year for twenty years, and I see the glaciers slowly disappear.”

The old woman walked off. My partner and I looked at each other.

We only knew the beauty of right now. I wondered what next year held when I would surely return.

Would I run into the woman again? Would she say the same thing? 

These experiences make me appreciate photography. It’s not just a way for me to share my world with others, but to document what my flawed memories cannot.

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The Small Things

I love shooting pictures with a 50mm lens because it makes you have to work within the limitations of the frame. 

These limitations make me focus on the small things. When you do this enough, it permeates your everyday life; you start to notice little intricacies and details you would not have otherwise. You realize that there is so much more to see and experience than you ever could have imagined. 

What joy it brings.

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Featured Musician: Big Bill Broonzy

A myriad of individual contributors created a fabric and vocabulary we group together and call the “blues.” In truth, the blues are just a group of regional African American popular folk musics that were marketed under the same genre.

What if there was an individual that stepped outside these regional bounds? That transcended the genre, only to return to it?

That man is Big Bill Broonzy.

Big Bill was a masterful guitar player who played in almost of the popular styles of the day. His earlier songs feature a raggy undertone, but by the end of his life, he played in a more rural style.

Although his guitar playing is masterful and distinct, his voice is often times the real star of the show. Listen to his version of Trouble in Mind which features very minimalistic guitar accompaniment:

The focus on guitar in modern acoustic blues music is one of the genre’s biggest misconceptions. Blues is a vocal music, and the guitar provides another voice to the chorus. Big Bill’s later material is a master class on how to build a compelling accompaniment behind strong vocals.

That being said, some of Big Bill’s most memorable songs were often played as instrumentals. A couple of the most notables are Hey Hey, which Clapton popularized in his MTV Unplugged performance:

Below if Eric Clapton’s version. Clapton was once quoted as saying that Big Bill was one of his greatest guitar influences:

Another great instrumental by Big Bill was his Shuffle Rag:

Aside from recording legendary blues tracks, Big Bill also recorded some racially charged political songs, often dressed in the guise of spirituals. One of his least tactful songs in this genre is his piece Get Back, take a listen:

Big Bill is a paradigmatic example of a forgotten giant of music history who had a lasting and tangible impact on the evolution of music. He was there during the birth of Chicago blues and mentored many of the greats such as Muddy Waters. In the 1950s, Big Bill toured around Europe and inspired a generation of musicians that later adapted the blues and created Rock and Roll. 

There is a popular conception of the invention of modern music starting in the mid-1950 by artists such as Elvis or Bill Haley.

To see the truth, we must look a layer below. If we do, we see men like Big Bill Broonzy waiting.