Alternating Bass And Ragtime Blues Guitar
Ragtime piano became popular in the early 1900s and some blues guitar players realized that the characteristic bass signature could be played in a simplified way on the guitar. To accomplish this, it was necessary to strike two or three bass strings with the picking thumb, alternating between the strings, producing a bum-chick sound. When this technique was combined with the picking sounds of the fingers, a very complex sound is produced which sounds like two guitars!
Many guitarists, such as Mississippi John Hurt, used this technique exclusively and recorded some fine work - he is one of the artists we take a look at in this course.The dexterity needed to play this style is far above that required to play monotonic, delta style blues. Blind Blake was probably the foremost ragtime blues guitar player between 1920 and 1930. He achieved this by taking the thumb control to a new, extraordinary level.
In many of his songs, Blake doubled up on the alternating thumb beats, making two notes instead of one. Blake's work is covered in another of my courses.
I've presented 6 video lessons demonstrating the techniques of some great guitar players who were experts at playing ragtime style syncopated guitar songs - John Hurt, Pink Anderson, Willie Walker, Blind Boy Fuller and Blind Willie McTell. These guys laid the foundations of the style and provided the foundation for later master guitar pickers such as Merle Travis, Doc Watson, Chet Atkins and Tommy Emmanuel. Modern players took hold of this early ragtime sound and quickly extended the chords and techniques, exploring new areas. Many of the original Scott Joplin rags have been faithfully transcribed, and other ways of playing appeared constantly. In the U.S., many notable musicians extended these picking styles and gave the music a country flavor.
Jim Bruce was voted N°2 Internet Guitar Instructor by Truefire.com in 2013.
Mississippi John Hurt's Guitar Technique
There's just no mistaking that easy flowing style of the nice man of blues picking. Mississippi John Hurt wasn't a ragtime guitar player, as his name suggests, but he really did like that strong alternating bass. It was much more rhythmic country blues finger picking rather than Piedmont, South Carolina or straight ragtime guitar. It's worth while watching the old film of John playing - there are some great close ups and we get to see his fingers working.
Although he use two fingers, his pinky never left the top of the guitar, which gave him a huge advantage in that his hand was solidly anchored and he could really control the timing well. It depends how your own hand is wired, if you can play this way or not. I can't. When I use my second finger, my pinky always lifts away from the guitar affecting my timing.
I'm not sure how many other great blues guitar players did this, but it's a nice trick. My failure to do this is one of the reasons why I finger-pick the guitar with one finger whenever I can - you don't need as much control, and it gives a special flavor to the music.
Of course, when you play Hurt or Blind Blake songs, you just have to use two fingers if you want to try and copy that guitar sound.
While on the subject, many great master blues guitarists used mostly one finger - Reverend Gary Davis (always), Doc Watson (always), Broonzy (mostly), and Lightnin' Hopkins (mostly). I get the feeling that Johnny Shines did, and maybe Johnson used two. It seems that John Hurt's style was quite unique in this respect. Other people played lazy rag style guitar, as I call it, like Elizabeth Cotton, but it's a different feel.
Hurt played mostly in C and G. In the key of C his work was more melodic and lighter, with nice chord changes and interesting alternating bass variations. However, once the pattern for a verse was set, he mostly stuck to it! Satisfied and Pallet on the floor were very, very similar. In fact, if you could play one, you can play the other. There isn't a lot of technical difficulty associated with John's style, it's just the elusive feel that we need to try and capture, as is often the case with the old blues men.
When he played in the key of G, his songs were driven by a powerful alternating bass o two strings, which turned into a 3 bass pattern from time to time, which is one of the hall marks of an expert guitar player. In songs like 'Lonesome Valley' the song is performed using variations of just one basic G chord - impressive!
Mind you, it never feels strange or repetitive, which of course it is - very. Even the occasional discords we hear when open strings are played that don't really fit with a particular guitar chord higher up the fret board, it doesn't seem out of place when he does it.
Some of his work is quite challenging on reflection. For example, his version of Candy Man has some tricky timing t get our heads around. It's very different from the accepted version by Reverend Gary Davis and has a flavor all of it's own.
By all accounts, he was gently man and didn't go in for the traveling blues man's life much at all, preferring to keep his long time job on the railroad and retire without trying to find stardom. However, he was sought out in the folk blues boom of the sixties and played several festivals in his later years, where he wowed the young audiences. He also appeared on Pete Seeger's TV show, which left us priceless archive film of some of his best songs.
Blind Willie McTell - 12 String Guitar King
Willie McTell was another one of those blues men that survived until he was middle aged and making records up into the late forties. His style was called Piedmont ragtime guitar, but it was a peculiar style all of his own. Like many blues guitarists, his timing was special to himself and the number of bars didn't have a lot of meaning for him.
As a young man he traveled around making a living as a musician, as he was blind from birth there were not too many options in those days for a blind young negro. It was either play a musical instrument for a few pennies, or beg on the street.
Later on in his career, he played with wife and they produced several records of the 'call and answer' variety, which was very popular in traveling carnival type shows in the early twenties. Often, these 'songs' were little more than very suggestive ditties meant to entertain an audience by titillating them. For example, in one song she sings 'hit me with your chocolate stick', which doesn't take much of a stretch of the imagination to guess what she's talking about!
He favored the 12 string guitar with a jumbo body which produced a big and rich sound for being heard in noisy streets and bars. He probably played with a thumb pic,k and bare fingers, unlike Gary Davis, who used a finger pick also to make his ragtime guitar sound. McTell could of course play in any key, and also open tuning, but he preferred the more varied chord progressions of the ragtime syncopated sound than the predominantly Delta keys of E or A.
His best and most memorable work was done in dropped D, where the bass E string is lowered two steps from E to D. This produced a deep bass note and generally meant that it didn't need fretting, which frees up a finger for other work on the treble strings.
Statesboro' Blues is his most famous piece and it's played in dropped D. I get the feeling that Wille played with just one finger, rather than using his first and second finger, which is probably the reason why his timing sounds a bit strange to our modern ears. The fact that one finger is used indicates that sometimes it needs ot move fast between the strings, which produces a separation in the timing that's difficult to achieve when using two.
This is because the second finger tends to move quickly after the first finger strike in a kind of reflex action, and it needs to be held back a bit - tough to do! Howvere, we can use this reflex action to play triplets, which is required for some other styles of ragtime - Blind Blake for example.
In fact I do play this song in a slightly different way than the original, in that I do use two fingers. I also changed the timing into a more fluid version, which suits the style of the harmonica player who joins me on this recording (Ken Mayall from UK). You'll find that most chords used are little more than half chords, moving a basic D shape, a G7 without the bass ( the bass isn't played at all - remember that the bass E is dropped to D) and the two basic variations of A/A7, one using two finger and the other using a bar and the little finger.
The verses are played in this format, but I change the chords when I want to play an instrumental break (there are two of these). For the first one I slide up to the fifth fret to make a D a couple of times and then simply slide down to use the basic D and G7 to add to the effect. The next time I use a long A shape up to the 9th fret to give the music another flavor and maintain interest.
Blind Boy Fuller was an expert in the fingerpicking guitar style known as Pidemont or Ragtime Blues. It's a difficult style to master, as the thumb and fingers operate tend to operate independently of each other. That alternating bass performed by the thumb is crucial to the technique.
Learning how to play acoustic blues guitar is a two pronged battle. First, we have to train our motor skills to technically make the right sounds.
Once we know where to put the fingers of both hands, its just a case of practicing for many hours a week. It is that a professional guitarist has about 10 000 hours of practice time under his belt.
Tommy Emmanuel once guessed that he had practiced around one hundred thousand hours in his life time, which comes in at about 5 hours a day, every single day!
Guitar players will tell you that improvement comes in levels - you stick at one level of competence for a lengthy period, and then it seems as though you jump to the next. Of course, the progress is because of regular practice.
We have all watched excellent guitarists perform and been totally bored after 5 minutes, just because there is no feeling - it just doesn't mean anything. From time to time, technical skill and feeling will come together in a certain guitarist, and then we hear magic.
Naturally, everything is relative, and playing the guitar is the same. Although Clapton is considered a legend, his acoustic blues picking technique appears quite basic when compared to Tommy Emmanuel, who can literally play any style of music.
Truckin' is played in the key of C and follows a standard ragtime chord progression using the chords C, C7, F and G/G7 and using a standard 'turnaround' between verses.
Fuller's playing doesn't have quite the complexity of Blind Blake or the diversity of Reverend Gary Davis, who taught him for a while, but his technique is rock solid. Combined with his slurring manner of singing, the appeal was enormous and he was a pop star of those days, producing around 120 records.
A common mistake is to try and play it too fast. It seems faster than it actually is due to the effect of the syncopation, but it's quite leisurely (I almost always play it faster than the original.) If you want complete authenticity, play it on a National Steel guitar - I play most things on a small bodied Martin, which works fine. The resonator style of guitar tend to have loud treble string - great of you have a gently touch (which you should really try to develop) but not so good for heavy handed people like me!
It was widely accepted that Reverend Gary Davis was one of the very best blues guitar pickers around, even though one of his students, Blind Boy Fuller, made more records and a lot more money. But where did Gary Davis get his skills? Most blues guitar players have a kind of natural aptitude that comes up when they are very young, and they either borrow a simple guitar or they make their own out of a cigar box.
However, you can only go so far this way - even innate brilliance needs encouragement and direction. It was said that by the time he was 33, he was 'scared of no guitar player!' He did have a lot of respect for certain players though - Broonzy ('nobody could swing it like Bill'), Blind Blake ('he was sportin' guitar player') and most of all Blind Willie Walker.
Unlike Davis and Fuller, Walker was blind from birth, which might partly explain his almost supernatural skill on the guitar. It's not certain exactly when, but Davis had contact with Walker who must have had a big influence on his playing - he learned songs like Make Believe Stunt and Cincinatti Slow Drag from him.
Tragically for us, Walker was a very obscure person, probably making a living in his local area playing for parties and other events. he only cut two sides - Dupree Blues, and old standard story telling blues song in the style of Frankie and Johnny, and South Carolina Rag.
Dupree Blues was in G and Carolina Rag was in C. Both songs had a second guitar player, which sometimes makes it hard to figure out exactly what Walker was playing, but his mastery of the guitar was evident. It wasn't just the dexterity, but also the overall timing and feel. He used old tricks, like speeding up the song gradually to build tension in the audience as the musical story unfolds.
As you might think, the alternating bass pattern was very solid and he could break in and out of it, changing the timing, whenever he wanted. However, I get the impression that in those days the audience weren't looking for surprises - they preferred clichés they were comfortable with. Every now and again he would punctuate the end of a line of verse with a very tight and very fast single string run. Gary Davis does the same thing, alternating his picking thumb and finger to achieve the speed.
I've tried to copy these runs using my thumb and forefinger and I don't think it's possible to do it with that technique, not at that speed. So how did he do it? My best guess is that he held a plastic plectrum between his thumb and finger, playing an alternating bass pattern with the plectrum and using one or more of his other fingers to play the trebles. it's a technique that I've seen before, but it's something I can't do. If you can manage it, then it opens up a great opportunity - you'll be able to play ragtime using fast singles string runs played with a plectrum, just like a country flat picker!
In these Willie Walker lessons I've assumed that most of us use the standard thumb techniques, and so worked out a way of playing these songs in that way. The challenge is to kind of simulate the two guitar parts while keeping the important flavor of the original songs.
Listen to the originals again and again (I do!) and try to find ways to capture the original feeling. Put yourselves in the blues man's shoes. What were their days like? Did they travel a lot? Live their lives in your mind and try to play in the way they would. It was their life and how they ate, so they must have played and practiced for many hours - you need to do the same!
Dupree Blues was one of the two tracks recorded by the Carolina blues guitar player Blind Willie Walker.
It seems that Walker only ever recorded two tracks, presumably two sides of the same record, but those two pieces gave a powerful idea of his prowess at finger picking blues guitar. Dupree was a very familiar theme in traditional American songs at the time and was later transformed into many Frankie and Johnny variations.
It's basically a familiar story told in the form of song. Dupree is in love with Betty and would do anything for here. She wants a diamond ring, Dupree doesn't have any money and so steals one, killing a policeman during the robbery. Of course, he ends up in jail and is executed - Betty wails and spends the rest of her life in misery - the things we do for love! Great material for songs though - this kind of thing must have happened in real life many times.
What a shame we don't have more tracks to listen to! There's a whole group of brilliant guitarists that came from Carolina - Pink Anderson, Blind Boy Fuller, Floyd Council and of course, Reverend Gary Davis. Davis learned a lot from Walker, copying such magnificent guitar pieces as Make Believe Stunt and Cincinatti Flow Drag. Davis later said that he was simply the best, and the Rev didn't hand out his complements lightly. Other blues guitar players he rated highly were Blind Blake and Big Bill Broonzy, the Chicago swing king.
Both Dupree Blues and South Carolina Rag were performed with two guitars, but it's easy to hear which one is played by Walker. The duo follows a common pattern in those times - one guitar lays down a solid alternating bass rhythm and the second, often played with a capo high up on the neck, plays the melody and fits in the fancy stuff, such as fast single string runs. Walker's singles string runs are incredibly fast, even more so than those of Gary Davis, and it make me wonder about his picking style. I generally play single string runs using alternating finger and thumb strokes, but Walker's are just to fast.
Pink Anderson is one of those blues men who was re-discovered during the folk-blues boom of the sixties, but due to illness never played at his previous level of skill. However, he made up for that in later years by singing slower tempo numbers that were simply stunning in their delivery and blues feel, such as the old blues classic 'Goin' Down Slow'.
In earlier years his speciality was Piedmont ragtime guitar and his technique was fast, slick and highly syncopated. On many of his recorded tracks he is partnered by another blues guitarist, Simmie Dooley, which is the case with this track 'CC&O Blues'. The second guitar is capoed high on the neck so more syncopation and complexity if achieved while both men play relatively simple guitar parts.
Of course, most people became aware of Anderson due to the fact that Pink Floyd named their group after him and Floyd Council, even though the two blues men never met and didn't know each other! The story goes that the group had another name and one night, while waiting to go on stage, another group using their name was introduced.
They saw a blues guitar album on a table in the dressing room featuring Pink and Floyd, and they quickly re-named themselves before the gig - a legend was born! They were both from Carolina though - Pink from the South and Floyd from the North.
Different regions produced different styles of blues guitar and Carolina produced some of the finest ever heard - Willie Walker, Reverend Gary Davis, Floyd Council, and Blind Boy Fuller, for example. The style was basically Piedmont ragtime guitar, but was often not so light and introduced interesting variations and patterns not found in other styles.
Pink learned to play banjo and guitar as a teenager and started to earn his living quite early on in life, playing to the crowds attending the demonstrations of a traveling medicine show, which he joined in Carolina. He learned ragtime blues guitar and different tunings from Simmie Dooly and they teamed up to play in bars and at parties traveling around Carolina and neighboring areas.
It's clearly possible to differentiate between the two guitars played on CC&O Blues, but as I play alone nowadays, transcribing it posed a bit of a challenge. I wanted to make it accessible to one guitar player, but keep the flavor of the original. Pink's guitar is playing a type of melody on the higher treble strings , while Dooly is laying down an alternating bass pattern at a lower level.
I simulated the feel of this sound by using dropped D tuning, one advantage of which is that you don't need to fret the bass E string when playing D, or any of it's inversions higher up the fret board. This means that I can play the higher treble register in exactly the same way as Pink did, but also maintain a nice low alternating bass pattern which sounds like Simmie Dooley's part.
Although the chord progressions is difficult for the left hand - basically D plus it's inversions, G7 and A7 - it's the right hand which gives the song it's overall special feel, which is important as it transmits the impression of a train moving along, which is what the CC&O was - a train. It was a popular them in those days, as the freight train represented a means of escape and it was free, if you could escape the railway police.
Pink used a thumb and two finger for his picking, but I'm not sure if he used a thumb pick or not. I'm fairly sure he used more than one finger due to the way that the notes played on adjacent strings were played - they are just too fast to be played with one finger. The dexterity shown when playing the D chord is particularly impressive - the picking finger follow each other rapidly while the left hand is lifting off and on the strings in the a very precise way, producing a clipped and raggy pattern which is very attractive.
Acoustic blues guitar teacher Jim Bruce was voted Number 2 top guitar instructor on Truefire in 2013 (Number 1 for acoustic blues lessons). Jim still plays blues guitar on the street in Europe and also gives concerts - plus teaching old style finger picking wherever he goes!
Now online students can benefit from over 40 years of real experience playing blues guitar in the authentic way. If you want to play real blues guitar just like the old blues men, then is where you come to find out how. Keep it real with Jim Bruce and play blues guitar like it was originally played using these state-of-the-art acoustic guitar lessons.
A word from Jim - " My playing career goes way back, to the folk clubs on the UK in the sixties, clubs pubs and bars in six countries, and on the city streets of Europe. This is how I learned my trade.
One day someone asked me to slow down a lick to show them exactly what I was doing with my hands. As I tried to do this, I found that I was doing much, much more than I realized. It was these tiny hand movements that make acoustic blues so exciting when it's performed properly. This is the main focus of my lessons - to show students exactly how to play blues guitar in great detail. "
Peace, Jim Bruce
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