Tag: Blues

A Note on Quality

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Across time, as musical styles evolve, there is a tendency for them to ossify and solidify in time. For example, when is the last time there was a new era in Jazz or Blues? We play the same type of sounds that were played years ago. 

We look at genres in the same way we look at classical music– frozen in time. This allows us to say “this is country music,” “this sounds like rock and roll,” or “this guy is ripping off Charlie Parker.”

While there is nothing inherently wrong about this, I do notice a specific trend: Technicality of the music becomes the paradigm. For example, many types of modern metal music feature quick and accurate guitar licks. Or, in Blues music, the technicavirtuosic playing of Stevie Ray Vaughn is a far-cry from the slow and vocal-like playing of Muddy Waters. 

As I mentioned, this technicality is not a bad thing, it is a natural aspect of a music evolving within a form. Over time, once what was considered a “bluesy” sound becomes agreed upon, the logical next step is for players to become virtuosos in the style and hone the skills that led to making the great players great. In other words, we focus on the means to the end.

However, this is a quantitate approach. Once speed, accuracy, and vocabulary become the paradigm of what makes a “good player,” it becomes a game of measurable quantifiers. The best player would be the fastest, the most accurate, and the player with the most licks. 

These aspects of music should be looked at as aspects of quality, a means to an end, instead of an end in itself. 

After all, many great players from across genres often did not play fast, or particularly accurately, or have an endless bag of sounds. 

Look no further than Townes Van Zandt to see a  great musician than often played slowly, sometimes ‘sloppily,’ and played with a distinct but specific bag of licks.

While many consider Townes’ music ‘simple,’ keep in mind simplicity does not always equate to quality. Simplicity, like speed, is just a means to an end. 

It’s not what you play, it’s how you play it.

The goal of music should be to express something to the listener, and only a focus on quality will ensure that every note is a piece of the message. 

If you are learning to play an instrument, or just a music fan, look for quality in what you play or what you hear.

Music should represent the player to the world.

The music should be an end in itself. 

Featured Musician: Hank Williams Sr.

If you read one of my early posts about my new-found discovery of my enjoyment of country music, then you know that my love of this genre is relatively new to me. 

Like the blues, my passion started with a more contemporary bluesman (Lightnin’ Hopkins), but as I get deeper into the music, I uncover the artists behind them. In this case, I started with Townes Van Zandt and saw Hank Williams behind him.

Hank Williams died at the age of 29, but because of his more contemporary existence, we have MANY high quality recordings, photographs, and videos of him. This accessibility humanizes him in a way the old bluesmen were not, and so he becomes relatable.

Over the years, hundreds of artists have covered his songs and you can hear his music in movies and television shows as well. Hank Williams was a legend, and his influence is still felt today. 

Some of my favorite covers were by Ray Charles; two of the best were his covers of Your Cheating Heart and Take These Chains from my Heart and Set Me Free (which we luckily also have videos of!):

Here are a few curated selections of Hank Williams performing in the 1950s: 

Hank Williams also had a son, also named Hank Williams, who grew up to be a major country and country rock player. He filmed an interesting music video in the 1980s which featured special effects allowing him to play with his deceased father:

I hope you enjoy listening to Hank Williams as much as I do. If you listen to his lyrics you will uncover a truth and beauty not present in a lot of his contemporaries.

He was a real poet in a cowboy hat.  

 

Country Blues Basics Part 15: Closing Thoughts

Playing country blues music changed my life in many respects, even beyond the music itself. I wanted to share these basics to give the opportunity for it to do the same for you.

Once you learn the bass techniques, the rest will fall into place.

You may be wondering where you should take the music next— I would respond by asking what do you want out of this music?

    • If you are interested in technical playing, I would recommend checking out the music of Reverend Gary Davis and Blind Blake. They were two of the finest guitarists that ever lived and whose style was rooted in the Ragtime tradition. If you want to stay in a more down home blues tradition, listen to Blind Lemon Jefferson.
    • If the notion of playing on your front porch attracts you, check out the playing of Mississippi John Hurt or Bukka White. They had a casual approach that evokes an image of people gathering together listening to them play.
    • If you want to learn the tools to bear your soul, check out Johnny Shines or Scrapper Blackwell. These players played and sang in a manner that will move you. What they played was semi-technical, but they had a very emotionally laden sound.
    • If you’re interested in singer-songwriter, folk music sounds, check out Charley Patton or Lightnin’ Hopkins. These guys inspired generations of players and dabbled in a lot of styles outside of blues.

The only way to play this music is to first learn songs by ear or through tabulature. A lot of veteran country blues players insist that learning by ear is the best way to learn. I personally have found that starting with tabulature to help visualize the chords and progressions to be very helpful, and will allow learning by ear to be easier. In the busy and bustling world we live in, you may not have time to learn by ear, so tabulature makes this music more accessible.

Luckily, we live in an age where there is a lot of great teaching material and tabulature available online. The best materials out there are through John Miller or Stefan Grossman’s Guitar Workshop. Stefan learned directly from the original country blues artists like Reverend Gary Davis, Mississippi John Hurt, and Skip James.

Beyond playing the music itself, I hope you also look into the rich history that allowed this music to come into fruition. Sometimes reading into the stories of these individuals can resonate and help guide you down the path. A great resource for learning more is the online country blues community Weenie Campbell. 

Best of luck, and feel free to reach out if you ever have any questions!

 

Country Blues Basics Part 13: Me and the Devil Blues

Aside from a driving feel, monotonic bass can also give a simplistic drum like beat to your music. It can create space in a way that alternating bass cannot.

Again, these bass techniques are a way of creating a fabric that you can adorn.

Robert Johnson was a master of creating space. He played a similar accompaniment to many of his most well known songs– it featured simple A position chords in a 12 bar Blues format. Johnson would alter the tempo and placement of the notes in each, giving them a different feel. 

A good example of this is in his song Kind Hearted Woman. We are lucky enough to have two takes of this song. One features a slow tempo, the other with a quicker one. Although the notes he plays are similar, the space he creates using the bass creates a much different feel. 

Here are his performances of Kind Hearted Woman:

In order to give you an exercise to practice the monotonic bass, let’s take a look at his song Me and the Devil Blues. The chords used are identical to Kind Hearted Woman, Phonograph Blues, 32-20 Blues, and Dead Shrimp Blues. By learning this song you are actually learning 5 songs. Sounds like a good deal to me!

Here is my performance of Me and the Devil Blues:

The chords I use is are an D7 shape moved up to the 9th fret to be A7. It looks like this:

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I use a D7 shape with my thumb hooked over the neck to catch the F# note. This shape is important for monotonic bass so you can get a really low sounding note.

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I also use an E7 shape that looks like this:

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During the second A section in the progression I use a A flat 7 chord. This is essentially a D chord shape moved up one string, and up to the 5th fret. It gives the song a sinister lonesome feel. Robert Johnson got this chord from Scrapper Blackwell. It sounds awesome!

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Finally, during the turnaround I utilize the A7 shape from the previous lesson and walk down in the bass. The turnaround riff looks like this:

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Here is the basic tablature of the progression:

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One thing to pay attention to is how the pulse of the bass effects the feel. At some times I place the note right on the beat, with 4 pulses a measure. Sometimes, I double up on the beat and give each measure 8 pulses.

How you create the fabric is up to you. 

Once you have mastered the Robert Johnson A blues progression, add other licks, or sing over it! I learned to play this years ago and still play it almost everyday because it’s such an awesome template. 

We will take a look at Sam Chatmon’s That’s Alright to demonstrate how we can weave the two bass techniques together to create a cohesive fabric.

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. 

Featured Musician: Lightnin’ Hopkins

If I hadn’t heard Lightnin’ Hopkins, I would not be playing guitar anymore. After two months of bumbling around on my girlfriend’s mini-sized acoustic guitar, trying to strum an A chord, I began to question what I was doing banging around on this stringed box.

We have all had that moment when we try to learn a new skill and we rapidly progress but then hit a wall. 

My wall derived from being uninterested in the songs I was trying to play. I never liked playing with a pick, preferring to play with my fingers.

To try and remedy my sudden plateau, I Googled “best music to play on acoustic guitar.” One insightful poster mentioned a learner should try learning blues because it’s the basis of modern music. 

I knew I wanted to stick with acoustic guitar with my fingers, and the blues sounded intriguing. Not knowing that acoustic finger style blues is synonymous with country blues, I typed in ‘acoustic blues player old.’ 

Here’s what came up:

Immediately I thought that this is how a guitar should sound. From that point on, I knew I had to make my guitar sound like that-— I’ve been on the journey ever since.

The player in the video is Lightnin’ Hopkins, perhaps the most widely recorded country bluesman that ever lived. Hopkins was a Texan through and through. Music giants from the area like Stevie Ray Vaughan cite Lightnin’ Hopkins as a major influence in their sound. Some musicians like BB King are as bold as to claim without Lightnin’, there would be no rock and roll. 

Lightnin’ was brought into the main stream in 1959, and thanks to his prodigious output and charisma, we have several COLOR videos of him playing.

A lot of bluesmen had their standard guitar licks, and Lightnin’ was no exception. The aphorism ‘it’s not what you play, its how you play it,’ rings true with Lightnin’ Hopkins. He played in a free flowing, improvisational manner; paired with his powerful singing, he had an unrivaled presence and immediacy about him. 

Although Lightnin’ typically played in the keys of E and A, he would sometimes play old pop songs like Baby Take Me Back:

If there is one video that characterizes what I think of when I hear Lightnin’ Hopkins, it’s the video below. His poetic, improvisational, effortless style is very evident:

If you are interested in learning more about Lightnin, check out this documentary that was made in the 1970s. Watching him live his life is very interesting, and at times humorous. 

Featured Musician: Skip James

When I started listening to the blues, I was fortunate to live in the world of YouTube and blogs. All of the living old blues men and women had already been tracked down, rare sides found, and historical performance footage uploaded to the internet.

One of my favorite stories to read about are when old performers were rediscovered by a small group of dedicated record collectors and amateur historians.

The legendary blues man Skip James was rediscovered in 1964. Check out this amazing performance he recorded that same year:

Skip James recorded some incredible sides in 1931, but his success was marred by the Great Depression. He did not record again for over 30 years. 

In 1964, after rediscovery, James preformed for the first time at the Newport Blues Festival. For the next five years, James enjoyed the career as a musician he never had. He passed away in 1969. 

Aside from Blind Lemon Jefferson, it’s hard to find a more idiosyncratic musician from the pre-war blues era than Skip James.

In many of his 1931 recordings, James played in a strange minor tuning he called “cross-note tuning.” This gave his music a somber, dark, moody quality. He also sang in an eerie falsetto that he was able to replicate even after his rediscovery. 

James’ contribution to music are unknown to many, but are significant. Hard Times Killing Floor Blues was famously covered in the Cohen Brother’s film O Brother, Where Art Thou?. Additionally, Skip James’ recording Devil Got My Woman heavily influenced Robert Johnson’s 1937 Hellhound on my Trail, which is considered to be one of the greatest songs of the 20th century. 

Many people think of blues men as nomadic, soulful, troubled men that traveled the open road expressing themselves through their guitar. In reality, many great country blues artists we’re not like this, but were seasoned performers, playing pop songs of the day.

When you listen to Skip James’ music, you don’t hear a 1930s pop performer. You hear a man channeling something deep through his voice, piano, and guitar.

Skip James is a true country blues legend– there will never be another.