Guitar History. Blues
The blues has played a larger role in the history of popular music than any other genre.
It is a direct ancestor to music styles as diverse as rock’n’roll, rock, heavy metal, soul,
funk and pop. Without the blues there would have been no Beatles. Jimi Hendrix. Led Zeppelin.
James Brown. Stevie Wonder or Oasis, to name but a few!
The blues emerged out of the hardships endured by generations
of African-American slaves during the late nineteenth and early
twentieth centuries. By 1900. the genre had developed into a
three-line stanza, with a vocal style derived from southern work
songs. These 'call and response' songs were developed further by
early blues guitar players, who would sing a line and then answer it
on the guitar. By the 1920s. rural African-Americans had migrated
to the big cities in search of work, bringing their music with them.
Early street musicians such as Blind Lemon Jefferson, a guitar-
playing blues singer, started to make recordings and these
inspired the next generation
of blues guitar players.
The 1930s were a crucial period in the development of the blues, for It was then that acoustic Mississippi Delta
blues performers Charley Patton. Son House and Robert Johnson travelled throughout the southern states,
singing about their woes, freedom, love and sex to community after community. Johnson, who
the legend goes, made a mysterious pact with the devil to become a better guitar player,
was the first true blues performance artist. Over on the East Coast, musicians such as Blind Boy Fuller.
Sonny Terry and Gary Davis developed a more folky blues style.
By the 1940s. Chicago bluesmen took Mississippi Delta ideas and played them on electric guitars.
Lone performers became scarcer while small bands sprang up everywhere. By the 1950s. electric
blues was in full swing, with B.B King. Muddy Waters. John Lee Hooker. T-Bone Walker and Howlin' Wolf all playing to packed
houses in major cities. King pioneered across-the- string vibrato and note- bending techniques
on his beloved guitar. 'Lucille', and these techniques are now used by all blues lead-guitar players.
Hooker developed a completely different style, in which he stomped continuously with his right foot
while singing and playing. Wolf injected more power and frustration into the blues, and Walker jazzed things up,
but it was perhaps Muddy Waters’ passionate singing and biting guitar tones that popularized the style more than
anyone else from this period. Some bluesmen. such as Big Bill Broonzy. visited England, where their performances inspired British musicians to adopt the style.
The 1960s witnessed a musical and cultural revolution when British guitar players such as
Eric Clapton and Peter Green started to mimic American bluesmen. They used solid-body guitars
and more powerful amplifiers to get a harder, more driving sound than their American mentors.
Clapton's electric guitar sound led to the birth of a number of other styles, including blues rock, hard rock and even heavy metal.
From the 1970s onwards, artists including Stevie Ray Vaughan. Robert Cray and Robben Ford
have added more voices and sounds to the blues repertoire, and the genre is still thriving today.
Playing the Blues. Blues styles.
Blues is based around the blues scale which is a pentatonic minor scale with an added flat
fifth note (the blue note). Blues music is usually played in the keys of A. D. E and G as they
are all easy keys to play on the guitar. The style has an odd harmonic structure, as the blues
scale is usually played or sung over chords that are all dominant sevenths (eg A7. D7 and E7 in
the key of A) or chords derived from them.
There are two main blues styles; traditional acoustic blues and urban electric blues.
Acoustic blues normally requires a 'finger-style’ approach, in which the thumb of the right hand -
assuming the player is right-handed - plays a steady bass- note groove while the melody or licks
are picked out by the first and second fingers. Most of this is performed quite forcefully,
although acoustic blues players rest the side of their picking hand across the strings at times
to make sure the bass notes don't ring out too loudly Son House. Leadbelly and Big Bill Broonzy
were all masters of this style, so if you want to play it you should familiarize yourself with
their recordings It is important to realize, however, that a lot of their guitar playing was
improvised and designed to accompany their own vocal phrasings
Urban electric blues guitar is usually played within the context of a band, so it is normally
restricted to lead or rhythm playing at any one time. Some electric guitar players use a plectrum
(pick) to achieve better articulation, while others favour a more earthy finger-style approach.
Electric blues guitarists play in a wider range of keys than their acoustic counterparts, as they
often work with horn players who prefer to play in Bb and C.
Lauded electric blues guitar players
include B.B. King, Freddie King, Albert Collins,
Buddy Guy, Eric Clapton, Robben Ford and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
Playing Electric Blues
Electric blues stylists often embellish their phrases with expressive techniques such as string bending,
sliding and vibrato. String bending should simply be thought of as another way of moving from one pitch to
another on the fretboard. To bend a string accurately, you must know your target note - this will usually
be a note pitched a half step, a whole step or a step and a half above your unbent note.
If your target note is a half step higher, for example, you can play
the note behind the next fret up on the same string to hear what it should sound like.
When you perform the bend, push the string over towards the bass strings until you hear your target note.
You can produce a blues slide effect by playing a note on a string and. while holding the string firmly down,
slide along the fingerboard to another note. You can even slide across two or more strings at a time by barring your
fretting finger across the strings and moving it along the neck in the same way. To obtain a vibrato effect play a
fretted note and move the string from side to side - across the fingerboard - with your fretting finger.
This makes a sustained note sound more expressive or even aggressive.
Going Blues Solo
There are many different approaches to soloing over a blues progression, but the simplest way to
leam is to target the root notes of each chord in the progression. In the key of C. for example,
the main blues chords are C7.F7 and G7. You can begin by playing the C pentatonic minor scale and
targeting the notes C F and G (which are all in the scale) over their respective chords. Try
bending or sliding to these notes to make things sound more bluesy.
|| C7 | C7 | C7 | C7 |
| F7 | F7 | C7 | C7 |
| G7 | F7 | C7 | G7 |
| G7 | F7 | C7 | G7 :||
Tens of thousands of blues songs are based around the most common chord progression
in the history of popular music the 12-bar blues sequence.
It is also a good idea to practise blues lead phrasing by using the call and response’
approach favoured by early blues musicians; sing a phrase and then reply to it with a
guitar line, and so on. This should help you to get an authentic blues feel. It will
enable you to put comfortable, natural rests between your phrases and notes so it all
ends up sounding more musical and logical. You should also jam with other like-minded
musicians, as this is not only fun but will also motivate you to become a better player.
Using a Bottleneck
Some blues players, including Elmore James and Duane Allman, have used a bottleneck made out of
glass or metal to obtain a distinctive sliding effect between notes. Bottlenecks are inexpensive
and fun to play with, but you'll need a little patience to master the technique properly.
Special tunings such as D A D F# A D are often used for bottleneck pieces, as they enable
the guitarist to play whole chords up the guitar neck with just one finger!
Work songs such as this retain a strong African influence, with irregular rhythms that often follow speech patterns.
Getting a Blues Sound
To get an authentic blues sound you’ll need an
appropriate guitar. Almost any acoustic instrument
will do for acoustic blues, although resonators -
guitars that use thin aluminium cones to mechanically
amplify their sound - will give you a particularly
bluesy’ tone. If you’re after an authentic electric
blues sound, you should pick an instrument similar
to one played by your favourite blues artist If you
want to sound like B.B. King, for example, you
should consider a Gibson ES-335. as this is
the guitar he has favoured over the years,
while a Fender Stratocaster will enable you
to sound more like Robert Cray or Stevie Ray
Vaughan, and a Telecaster would be essential
for that biting Albert Collins sound.
Amplification is important too.
and most blues artists favour valve
amplifiers such as the Marshall
Bluesbreaker combo or Fender s
Twin and Deluxe models, as they
give a warm, fat sound with a
wide dynamic range.
Transistor amplifiers are cheaper but they sound more synthetic
If you’re just playing guitar in your bedroom you should consider
getting an amp-modelling device such as a Line 6 POD. or a
virtual amp software package such as IK Multimedia's AmpliTube
or Native Instruments' Guitar Rig. Each of these comes armed
with a surprisingly authentic set of blues presets, and you
can use them without upsetting the neighbours.
Tone control settings are important as well: boosting
an amplifiers bass and mid-range will give a fat
B.B. King sound, while boosting the treble will help
to emulate the ‘icy’ tones of Albert Collins. All in
all. it is important to find a guitar tone that you
feel comfortable with - if you like your sound,
you’ll play well!