Tag: Music

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. 

 

Featured Musician: Sam Chatmon

A big misconception about bluesman is that they were old men 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.

Sam, along with his famous brother Bo Carter, were part of the popular group the Mississippi Sheiks during the 1930s.

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.

Country Blues Basics Part 3: How do I play the chords for country blues?

The Chords

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:

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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:

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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.

Once you are able to finger the basic chords, we will explore chord progressions.

Country Blues Basics Part 2: What music knowledge do I need to play country blues?

There is not much music theory needed to play this style of music, but there are still a few basics that must be understood.

As I mentioned in the previous post, blues is typically played in 5 different keys: A, C, D, E, and G.

Although some blues songs are only played with 1 chord, most are played with 3 chords. To play songs with 3 chords, you will need to learn the I chord, the IV chord, and the V chord.

Below is a handy reference chart which breaks down the I, IV, and V chord based off the key:

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Key Chart

Essentially, most blues songs are based around a certain chord. Let’s say it’s an A chord. If we are going to base a song around a certain chord, that means we are playing the song in that key.

Based on the chart above, in order to play a 3 chord song in the key of A, you will also need to learn the D chord and E chord.

If you look at the chart above, you will see you will need to learn to at least one B chord and F chord.

Luckily, nearly every country blues player (and most folk and country players) used a form of the F chord with no barre, and played an easy to fret B7 chord instead of B major. 

If you are comfortable with how progressions work, take a look at this post to see diagrams of the chords you’ll need to know.

Country Blues Basics Part 1: What chords do I need for country blues?

Almost every country blues song uses the same vocabulary of chords. Most songs use basic open position chord forms or a limited group of simple inversions.

Most country blues songs are played in the basic keys of A, C, D, E, or G.

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!).

Next let’s explore the basic knowledge you need to play this music.

Country Blues Basics Part 8: How to play Catfish Blues on guitar

A front porch gem.

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:

E Chord
E chord

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.

Catfish Blues Tabs
My version of Catfish 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.