Tag: Music

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!

 

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 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 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.

Country Blues Basics Part 14: How to Play That’s Alright by Sam Chatmon

That’s Alright is a great example of combining alternating bass and monotonic bass. If you look at the tabulature, you’ll see that the two techniques are intermingled in a way where the techniques aren’t individually identifiable, but have been woven together to create a fabric for the song. 

Sam Chatmon used this guitar accompaniment for a lot of his tunes in G. Despite its heavy usage, I still think it is one of the most powerful accompaniments in G out there. It doesn’t sound like anyone else.

To play this song, you need to be comfortable with playing an alternating bass with a heavy accent on the down beat. Listen to how Sam plays time in this recording to get the idea:

That’s Alright is a 12-bar blues in the key of G. 

The main section is best played using an unconventional G chord fingering.

The G chord looks like a B7 chord moved up one string. Keep your pinky ready to fret the 1st string, 3rd fret, but don’t hold it down unless you are going to play it. You’ll need to keep your other three fingers uninhibited to play the bass figure!

The G chord look like this:

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The IV chord Sam uses is a basic open position C chord. The D chord is simply a C chord moved up two frets.

The secret to this song is in the heavy time and keeping the bass moving.

I have broken the tab into sections to help you see the various pieces.

The first four bars are based around Sam’s G chord. Keep your finger free so you can keep the bass moving.

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The IV chord section utilizes a C/C7 shape. Remember to push through the strings to get that heavy time sound. As long as you’re holding the chord, the surrounding notes will harmonize.

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Returning to the I chord, make sure you really hit the hammer-on/pull-off. I consider it an essential riff in the arrangement.

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Walking up to the V/IV chord, utilize the same technique you used in bars five and six. Finish off the verse by playing the same riff you played previously.

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Once you can play these sections, piece them together and you have yourself a great song you can get a lot of mileage on.

If you can play the bass comfortably, try improvising which notes you play in the chord.

Listening to Sam’s various breaks will give you interesting variations. I demo one of these breaks in my recording of the guitar arrangement below.

Try learning some of the lyrics Sam sings over this arrangement and create your own version of the song. This song is a master class in how to have a moving bass line with sparse melodic jabs. It creates the illusion of two players playing at once.

Once you have learned this song, you have learned the country blues basics. Congratulations, you can probably learn any song in this genre now that your bass skills are on point!

Take a look at my closing thoughts on where you can take your playing now that you have the essentials down.