Tag: Guitar

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 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. 

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.

Bad songs vs. Good songs vs. Great songs

I remember telling my friend in high school that the reason I loved the Beatles was because all of their recordings were good, there were none that I didn’t like.

Now I would change this statement to:

Some of their recordings weren’t good–

some of their recordings were great–

and some are bad. 

Later, when I started listening seriously to the Grateful Dead and Leonard Cohen, I realized there were quite a few tracks I didn’t like at all. A couple examples is this copy of Stagger Lee by the Dead or this song from Leonard Cohen.

Despite these examples’ clear badness as songs, I thought they were good because I was unable to divorce the artist from their work.

There are a lot of arguments you can make about how art is a representation of the artist.  To critique art is to critique the artist.

However, to truly understand the art you love, you have to realize that an artist can create a lot of duds. These artists we love are just mortals like you and I, no matter how much we deify them. 

Let’s take Robert Johnson as a prime example of this effect.

Johnson had a short career. He died at age 27 in 1938 from being poisoned. If dying from poison isn’t enough proof that Johnson wasn’t a god, I don’t know what is (sorry Clapton fans).

Later rock-and-roll and blues fans claimed Johnson sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads and was given incredible musical skills. If you listen to his tunes like Me and the Devil Blues or Crossroads Blues you can see how this myth perpetuated:

In truth, Robert Johnson was just a great musician who played a lot of other styles besides blues. We even have a recording of his hokum tune They’re Red Hot. He lived a hard life, traveled around the south to play music, and then died violently. In his life he recorded 29 different songs, with 13 surviving alternate takes of these songs.

I don’t like the song They’re Red Hot, but I still think Robert Johnson was a great musician. A lot of people, who deify Robert Johnson do not accept that any of his work could possibly be bad.

To really appreciate music, we have to be able to discriminate against certain recordings and understand that they are not good. This outlook is especially important for old recordings because there wasn’t really any post processing, we got an honest view of an artist’s performance at the time. 

At the same time, we can always be grateful we have these recordings to formulate these opinions. 

Blind Boy Fuller is another example of a prolific artist who made some poor recordings. There a lot sociological reasons why these recordings were bad, but the point is that we can separate artists from their work. 

We shouldn’t assume that because we love an artist, everything they produce is gold. Realizing this improved my own musicianship, as I became able to understand that some sounds will appeal to people for a longtime, and some sounds are relics of a time, or simply bad. 

As a final comparison, check out these three songs by 12-string wizard Blind Willie Mctell. I think the first song is bad, the second song is good, and the last is great. 

What songs do you think are bad, good, or great? 

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.

 

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.