Blind Blake was a complete master of ragtime blues guitar - so how do we define that?
First of all, his performances had a joyful quality typical of the ragtime piano feel of the likes of Scott Joplin which the style emulated. Secondly, Blake introduced some techniques that gave the music a syncopation that almost defies belief. Although his playing inspired many artists since his passing, very few can capture the feel of his picking patterns. He picked with his bare thumb and probably two fingers. A great many legendary blues men used just one finger for picking acoustic blues, but the triplets you can hear in much of Blake's music makes this just about impossible. His fingers were indeed fast and very, very accurate.
He would vary his techniques within a song to make it more interesting and exciting, singing along with an alternating bass picking pattern and regularly throwing in fast single string runs picked with his thumb and forefinger. He could also reverse his bass picking pattern seemingly at will, also changing from a two string pattern to a three string variation. He might double up on the timing in the middle of a song and then seamlessly return without missing a beat (for example, Tootie Blues). When he combined all of these techniques in one song, it was formidable.
Blake's most famous technique is also the one most difficult to copy. He would slip or roll his thumb from one bass string to another, so instead of hearing one bass note per beat, we hear two! Your thumb needs to be super disciplined to do this correctly, as your fingers will be picking the treble strings at the same time! Now it's time to sing as well - wow, this is great fun! Good Luck.
Jim Bruce was voted N°2 Internet Guitar Instructor by Truefire in 2013.
Blind Blake's ragtime guitar technique was fast and very accurate. Students wanting to learn to play the blues in this finger picking style have two hurdles to overcome. First of all, we need to create the tablature that accurately reflects his finger positions and movements, and also 'guess' at some of the more obscure chord shapes.
Secondly, when we're happy with the representation, we need to train our fingers to play the piece at speed. Jim's acoustic blues guitar lessons take care of both of these small obstacles, showing how to play the blues in this wonderful old authentic style. After spending many hours noting the smallest nuance in Blake's music, the resulting tablature is almost definitive.
The slow-motion demonstrations featured throughout the lesson videos ensure a sure and enjoyable learning process. Learn how play acoustic blues guitar!
"Blind" Blake (born Arthur Blake or Arthur Phelps, around 1893, Jacksonville, Florida; died: 1933) was an prolific ragtime blues singer and guitarist. He is known "The King of Ragtime Blues Guitar" and his contribution to blues music is immense..
He put out around 80 songs for Paramount from 1926 to 1932. He was an accomplished guitarists of his style with a astonishingly blues guitar picking. He is well known for his rhythmic guitar sound using standard blues guitar chords but sounding like ragtime piano.
Not a lot is known about Blake. His place of birth is shown as Jacksonville, Florida by Paramount but that its not certain. On one blues song he lapses into a Geechee way of speaking, which could lead us that he was from the coastal region of Georgia. Nothing is known of the circumstances surrounding his death and we are not even sure of his correct name. According to some, his proper name was Arthur Phelps, although there is no real, written evidence of this.
The "Phelps" name probably came about after he responded to Blind Willie McTell in a conversation in 1955 in Atlanta, where Blake was never reported to have frequented; neither did Willie McTell ever live in or near Chicago. However, many of Blake's tracks were copyrighted by the name 'Arthur Blake', and during his recording with Papa Charlie Jackson, "Papa Charlie and Blind Blake Talk About It", the following words are clearly heard: Jackson: What is your right name? Blake: My right name is Arthur Blake!
Blind Blake was the king of ragtime blues guitar, playing with a speed and accuracy that few others mastered. It wasn't just the speed though - it was damn smooth as well, not choppy as though he was struggling at all. On top of that he's sing a song - great stuff. He also played piano and can be heard supporting other artists, for which he was in great demand - there was no one else like him, you see.
This style of blues guitar built on the basic picking patterns of the original delta blues guitar style and added a little something that opened up the possibilities fore guitar finger picking and how to play the blues.
This was the alternating thumb pattern of playing the bass notes. Instead of hitting just one bass (monotonic bass), the thumb hops from one to another and makes a 'bum chick' sound, which can either be damped by the palm of the picking hand or left to ring, depending on the songs being played.
This style was later developed into what is known as Travis picking and modern guitarists have built a hugely complex style of guitar finger picking based on it. Without the innovative work of Blake, it would have been much more difficult.
Blake was at his best in the 1920s, just after and during the ragtime piano boom. The bass pattern in all ragtime piano pieces can be very well approximated by the alternating bass pattern when finger picking acoustic guitar. Although several guitarists were using the alternating bass (Mississippi John Hurt, Skip James) only Gary Davis and Blake really mastered the thumb rolls we find in Blake's best work.
Blake's Ragtime Blues Guitar Thumb Roll.
If the thumb hits three bass strings in alternating pattern, then Blake would often hit two strings in the space of one beat! he achieved this by slipping his picking hand thumb off one bass string to the next. It's a good trick to do, but the timing has to be impeccable, or it just comes out a mess. The most complex form of this can be found in his instrumentals in the key of C, where he thumb rolls his basses with a C chord, before doing the same thing with the following chords of E7 and A! Very slick and impressive. When you try it, you'll notice that your thumb gets sore very quickly. Blind Blake probably had massive callouses.
Ragtime Blues Guitar Chords - Key Of G.
For this song Blake's chord structure is easy - mostly G, D/D7 and A/A7, with a little E7 used in the turnaround. It's slow as well, which is a great help to us. Many of Blake's songs in G are fast, and it's hard to hear what's going on sometimes. Here it is very clear and we can get to grips with it. You don't need the chops to play it at the right tempo, but you need to practice to get that bouncy feel - without that, it's nothing.
Singing The Blues Blind Blake Style
While it's true that he wasn't much of a singer, his finger picking guitar style carried him along. He had a playful style of singing, as though he wasn't too serious about it, or anything else for that matter!! His guitar style was a bit like that also, giving the impression that it was just a few little tricks. I have a feeling that he practiced many long hours to get those little tricks. Whatever, it is a huge challenge to sing along with some of Blake's creations and here again he gives us a treat by presenting a song that contains most of his licks in the key of G, but it's slow enough for us to get a hold of - thanks Mr Blake.
Blake's lightning fast accurate style was indeed formidable. he wasn't the only great ragtime guitarist around, but no one could perform quite like Blake. It's not sure where he got such a prodigious talent, or how he developed his techniques - of course, there has to be sole innate ability that we are born with, and after that, a lot of hard work is required! Reverend Gary Davis, the master of blues, gospel and ragtime guitar, didn't give out complements lightly, but he said that Blake was 'a sportin' guitar player, yes sir'. This was a huge accolade from the best of them all.
However, not even Davis could play it like Blake. He did play a version of West Coast Blues, but it was much slower and didn't have all the Blake tricks. I have a feeling that Blake played with bare fingers rather than picks. One contemporary remarked that he had a hole in his thumb where it hit the strings - he must have played an awful lot. He w&as also a showman, sometimes playing the guitar behind his head, for example, or talking while performing a very difficult guitar instrumental.
Many blues guitar men used just one finger together with their thumb (Broonzy, Doc Watson, Lightnin' Hopkins) but Blake must have used at least two (maybe three?), because the triplets he plays on the treble strings just can't be done at that speed with just one finger. I'm not sure if guitar players in those days used long finger nails or not, but I would suggest not. These guys played hard in bars and at parties - it wouldn't go down very well if you couldn't play due to a broken nail!
Early Mornin' is a great song to start to figure out Blake's style in the key of C. First of all, it's SLOW compared to the next examples below. It contains all the usual tricks we expect from Blake, but it's at a slow enough pace for us to work out what he does.
As is usual with Blake's work, he uses a pretty standard chord progression, whatever key he's in, and this song is no exception - he uses standard chord shapes for C, C7, F, G/G7, A7 and D7. Any variations of these chords are short lived as he progresses from one chord to the next - we discuss this in the lesson.
Blake isn't called the King of Ragtime Guitar for nothing, and this song is a great example of many of the tricks used in the key of C. It's quite slow and has a leisurely pace quite unlike the fast West Coast Blues, also in C, or his ragtime pieces in G such as Too Tight Blues. His slow songs give us a great opportunity to work out exactly what he's doing and where he's putting his fingers. it's true that in some of his faster material, it sometimes doesn't really help to know where he placed his fingers - it's so incredibly fast and accurate that it's very difficult indeed to copy. it's great fun trying though!
I get the impression that Blind Blake was always trying to keep ahead of the competition by exploring new ideas and possibilities. Often the old blues men recorded a lot of songs with basically the same structure and just changing the words a little. This is inevitable - there are only so many chord progressions to choose from! Any particular blues man has a particular set of licks and techniques that are trademarks to his sound, and Blake was no different. As he was at the top of the tree, and wanted to show it, he would try to be one step ahead as far as technique goes.
One of the ways he would do this is to play around with the timing. In West Coast Blues he leans heavily on his ability to roll his thumb from bass string to bass string, producing a very syncopated sound by using an alternating bass pattern, but having two beats where there is normally one - it's a good trick, if you can do it! His thumb rolls appear now again in Tootie Blues, but not continuously all the way through. In this slow kind of song it be too much and boring - Blake was very astute in that way. In Tootie, he sings a line and then follows the lyrics with an appealing single string run picked with his thumb and forefinger, which is a standard arrangement for this type of Piedmont ragtime guitar finger picking.
What makes this song so different is the double timing he suddenly slips in. It happens twice in the song and follow the lyrics like the single string run at normal timing - the timing is twice as fast, so that it fits in with no disruption, and he obviously fits in twice as many notes. You have to be really careful where you use your thumb and finger when copying this if it is to sound just right. It's a challenge, but when you get it right it's hugely satisfying and produces a sound that is not often heard with modern guitar players. Very often we take an old blues song and, if it's a little difficult we simplify it because in our modern times we are always in such a hurry. These guys had all the time in the world.
Simplifying the original blues ragtime songs is a dangerous thing to do. Sometimes we have to, as some of them are just too tough to play (think South Carolina Rag by Willie Walker) but we should be careful not to change the flavor of the music. These guys left us a huge legacy and we need to respect and pay homage by playing it the best we can.
Tootie Blues starts nice and slow. If you are going to attempt the double timing breaks, then this slow pace really needs to be maintained. Too often I've started this song too fast without thinking and found that it's just impossible to double up on the timing when it gets to that point in the song. I have to skip, which is a shame because for me it's one the high points of the whole piece. It appears twice in slightly different forms. Blake knew, like other blues men, that such a neat and impressive technique shouldn't appear all the way through a song - that would just dilute the effect.
The chord progression starts in C and moves down to Ab7, back C and the repeats - not difficult chords at all. We then use a full F chord however, I never ever play a full F chord, preferring to leave the bass A string open - this frees up my little finger for treble string work.) Back to C and the single string run after the lyrics end. This repeats and then we move to G/G7 and C to finish, which repeats again and acts as a kind of 'turnaround' getting us ready for the next verse.
West Coast Blues was Blake's first track and was typical of his work in the key of C. The B side was Early Mornin' Blues, which in it's turn was typical of Blake's work in the key of G. Early Mornin' is a slow piece and gives us a great opportunity to figure out Blake's approach to playing in G. WCB on the other hand is fast and furious - it seems as though every space is filled with a note. When I first heard the song on an old Biograph LP I was sure that there were two guitar playing due to the extreme syncopation I was hearing.
In fact he was show-casing his trademark technique of rolling his thumb across the bass strings. Adapting an ordinary alternating bass pattern on three strings, Blake would regularly slip his thumb from one bass string to the next, so producing two notes for one beat. The timing and accuracy must be impeccable for this to work and it's a real job of work to get it down. If you do manage to get it sounding anything like Blake's, it makes you laugh and it's just a joy to play.
The chord progression was basically the same for all of his songs in C - C, E7,A7,D7,G7 and he introduced some variations using inversions and diminished chords up and down the fret board. As well as the bass thumb rolls, his finger style was complex and inventive. in fact, his first track he recorded WCB was a very tough act to follow. It couldn't be beat , but he recorded several variations on the theme (Southern Rag, Seaboard Stomp) and often played around with the timing to try and change the flavor a little.
The hardest thing about this piece is the sheer speed of it. The timing just never falters and he just doesn't miss a note! I'd love to know if he could play like that all the time, or if he had several tries in the studio. I suspect that he could always do it. For me, sometimes I can play it almost like Blake, and other days - well, it just doesn't work.
Start learning it very slowly, paying particular attention to those thumb rolls. Get them right before trying to speed it up. On thing is for sure - if you can't play it slow, you'll never play it fast. Saying that, you don't have to play it at his frenetic speed. If you get halfway there, it'll sound just great. I think I play it at about 80% most of the time. Any faster and there's a tendency to lose it. Try it out on a parlor sized guitar, as this gives the right light ragtime sound.
It's not without good reason that Blind Blake was known as The King of Ragtime Guitar.
Gary Davis was amazing, and his ability to play any style at all was formidable, but for straight, fast and accurate ragtime guitar picking, Blake was the one. Davis held him in high regard, saying that Blake 'was a sportin' guitar player' - it seems that's quite an accolade between blues guitar players!
I always try to imagine what life was like for these guys. We have the basic info (mostly), like where they were born and died, but precious little about the bit in between. Where did he get his dynamic ability to play guitar in that way? Was he blind from birth? How much money did he make? Was he considered a bit of a superstar? How often did he practice? The questions just go on and on.
Of course, these things weren't just accidental - you don't suddenly wake up one morning playing fantastic guitar. You need the aptitude - after that it's sheer hard work and practice. For me, if I'm not gigging, then I try and practice an hour a day, which is not a lot at all, but I'm not trying to improve. I also find that playing regular gigs, it's not really necessary to practice, unless you want to learn new stuff, for example. Playing on the street is a great way to practice, and get paid a little (maybe).
Blake probably practiced intensely, particularly after his first records were cut. When entertaining live, some of the songs and stomps for dancing to would have gone on for 10 to 15 minutes, and each audience was new. When you cut a record, thousands hear it. Blake's style was at the top of it's form when he started recording, which gave him a little problem I feel. After laying down a track like West Coast Blues, where do you go?
WCB is a famous piece - very intricate and fast, making it almost impossible to copy. Instead of using a single strike alternating bass pattern Blake would roll his picking thumb from one bass string to the next, creating a complex syncopated beat - it really does sound as though two guitars are being played. Southern Rag follows the basic form of WCB, but it's picking structure is different in a couple of ways.
He swaps the bass dexterity for fast treble string work played with two fingers. He does use the rolling thumb basses, but they are fewer and far between compared to WCB. He also introduces some fast arpeggio type runs across typical ragtime chord progressions, such as the familiar C-E/E7-A7-D7-G7 pattern. Unfortunately, when you are locked into a particular style of playing, in a particular key, the tunes can all tend to sound the sound, and this is exactly what happened to Blake's playing. There are several version of West Coast Blues, for example, thinly disguised with a new name and new lyrics.
After saying all that, Blake really doesn't have an equal for fast ragtime blues finger picking. the first time I heard him I was absolutely sure there were two guitars, but I was wrong of course. After spending many hours listening and tabbing his finger placements, I gradually learned to approximate his sound. An approximation is the best most of us can do, I'm afraid - it simply can't be copied with the same panache.
Blind Blake as an amazing guitar picker and copying his work is one of the greatest challenges for a modern finger picking guitarist. I often adapt the work of some of the great blues men, but some of them are so unique (Blake, Broonzy, Reverend Gary Davis) that I try to tab their songs exactly as they were. Generally it's not too difficult to work out where Blake's finger went, but it's the sheer speed and efficiency of his technique that defeats us.
There a several tuition packages out there for Diddie Wah Diddie, such as Stephan Grossman's, but he doesn't play it like Blake. This is a big danger when studying this old music - when we come across something that's too tough for us to play we tend to simplify it and play it that way. This is a big shame. It dilutes the power of the music and doesn't pay homage to the genius of these old blues men.
The form of DWD is well known and was played by several ragtime blues guitarists. Blind Boy Fuller played a version called Truckin' Little Baby, played in a slower South Carolina Piedmont style. It's the enormous variety in picking patterns and the speed of Blake's delivery that makes this song very special. It contains all of Blake's tricks - thumb rolls on the basses, triplets on the trebles and lightnin' fast single string runs played with a combination of alternating finger and thumb.
The single string run is one of the things that gives us a problem when learning Diddie. It's not immediately clear which fingers he uses, so we have to make choices based on what we hear and also for our own comfort zone. In some places, foe example, I suspect he uses an arpeggio picking style, with two or three finger rapidly following the next. When we do choose a particular way of picking the strings, the key Question is - Does it sound like the original?
If it doesn't, and it mostly a timing issue, then it's either time to re-think it or just go with something as close as we can get. Writing down the tab for fast ragtime is challenging also, but I thoroughly recommend it as an exercise. Once you've done this, and get it something like 'right', you really know the music. Tool often in the past, particularly when quite young and before discovering guitar tablature (Thanks Mr Grossman) I would, as a friend once suggested, 'throw my fingers at the strings and hope that some of them stick on the right strings'!
The only chance you have of playing this stuff is to painstakingly go through it slowly and build up the speed a little every day. During my own practice session, for instance, I have a basic repertoire that I like and play in public, so I rapidly play just one verse and a break of each to keep my hand in. If I'm learning a new piece of music, I play that piece 5 times at the beginning of the practice session and 5 times at the end. I try and practice 30 mins in the morning and also in the evening. Strangely enough, I find that the morning session is much better and productive.
Diddi Wah Diddie is played in the key of C and the chord progression goes like this - C,C7,F,C,G with a fast turnaround between the verses. The song is filled with challenges, and the first one is thumb control.Not only do we need a solid alternating bass pattern, but Blake also rolls his thumb across two bass strings from time to time, creating two strikes per beat instead of one.
On top of that he might revers the order of the strings he's alternating between and sometimes break out of the pattern to stop-time of perform a single string run - you really do need to work on that thumb! Next, we need to grapple with the single string runs, working out the fingers to use and building up to that awesome Blake speed. Finally, we have to work out how to sing over the top while all that is going on!
Blake adds two instrumental breaks in the song which are nothing short of formidable. They are slick, fast and joyful reflecting the playful nature of Diddie Wah Diddie in particular and Blake's ragtime style in general. I tabbed them as faithfully as i could and it sounds about right when I play it, but it's very easy to get lost in the timing.
Although the structure repeats, there are many variations that need to be remembered if you want to play it correctly. Take it really slowly, repeat it several times every day and build up speed. Take it easy and you'll get there - there's no rush, you've got a lifetime!
Blind Blake was a master of ragtime blues guitar and no finger picking course would be complete with acoustic blues lesson covering Police Dog Blues.
Way back in the 1960s there were not a lot of very good acoustic blues guitar players around. American students of the old acoustic guitar styles had found all the living blues masters and copied their techniques, putting it down on paper as they went. Guitar players like Stefan Grossman and others did a fantastic service to future guitarists by inventing a simple tabalature system for other students to follow. It definitely cut corners - instead of listening to the old records and trying to figure out where to put your fingers, it was written out, and accelerated the learning activity.
Very shortly, numerous guitarists were taking on the most complex ragtime arrangements, and finger picking became more and more intricate, with players using a thumb, 2, 3 and sometimes all fingers to finger pick! How did this development originate? Possibly in an attempt to simulate the techniques of the classic guitarists such as Blind Arthur Blake and Gary Davis, more fingers were brought into play. It was a way around, and meant that one finger didn't have to move so quickly, which was how the old guys did it.
However, its not as simple as that. Even when the finger picking is correct technically speaking, there is often something missing in modern performances - a subtle change in the timing and that elusive feeling that speaks to the listener. One finger moving quickly over the strings imparts a particular emphasis to the beat, which can't be imitated with more fingers. Additionally, the bass strike differs in it's angle of attack and force when several fingers are brought into play.
The hunt for technical complexity can become the Holy Grail for guitarists, but it's a mistake to follow this path. Few players can equal the power of the old blues men,just because the basic techniques don't make a good enough foundation. There are no short cuts to the power of the blues. Listen to the bass lines of guitarists like Big Bill Broonzy, Gary Davis and Lightnin Hopkins. Lightnin' could strike just 1 bass note and send a shiver up your spine. It is not the complex technique that makes the blues, but the feeling and power behind it.
Police Dog Blues was played in open D and you'll need some chops to play like Ry Cooder!
Blind Blake's blues repertoire wasn't that varied and he's mostly known for his fast ragtime blues pieces in C and G, but he also played in dropped D and open D. Down the Country has a distinct advantage over other songs in that it's quite slow - great for people learning to play guitar. We can hear all the notes very clearly and it's a great insight into how Blake approached blues guitar picking in open D tuning.
Blake's most famous song in open D is 'Police Dog Blues' , which is like Down The Country on overdrive! It's fast and extremely accurate - very tough to play like the ragtime guitar master at the same speed. Both songs use the same chord shapes and finger picking tricks, but the speed makes Police Dog a real challenge.
Years ago, a guitar playing friend of mine went away for a year or so, and we talked a few times on the telephone. One day he told me he learned Police Dog - I was amazed as he was always a lesser guitarist that I was, plus the fact that I considered teh song beyond my abilities.
I was determined to play and set to dedicating a few hours a day to it - within a week, I had it down pretty much just like Blake. When my friend returned I mentioned it to him, saying how tough the tune is and he laughed - 'I can't play it', he said, 'I was just joking.' That day i learned something important about psychology - it motivated me and proved that, given enough time and the right attitude, we can learn just about anything in the blues guitar world.
The slowness of Down The Country gives us space to concentrate on that all-important 'feeling' tone of the piece, which is vital when playing a slow blues song. It's very easy to let a slow blues get boring, and we can't allow that to happen - it's the biggest sin that a working blues man can commit. The song evokes images of rural USA in the '20s big time, so how does Blind Blake adapt this tuning to get this effect?
Of course, his finger picking technique includes the famous thumb roll that's so evident on his songs in other keys, like Diddie Wah Diddie and West Coast Blues, and also includes more 'standard' techniques. Only a handful of other blues guitarists used the thumb roll in the same was as Blake - Rev Gary Davis being one of them. Other techniques include single string runs , changing the timing suddenly and bending the treble strings whenever it can create the right atmosphere.
String bending is one those techniques which should be done sparingly - too little and you don't get the right feel for the blues, too much and it becomes a cliché. It's a simple thing to do, just push (or pull) the string over with your fretting finger and change the tone. It's normal to make it a quarter tone or half tone, but half tones can get tough if you are doing it close to the nut. Luckily, the trebles are tuned down and so are a little slacker than in normal guitar tuning, so bending is easier. On the other side of the coin, I have to be careful not strike too hard, so that the guitar strings don't bounce and buzz.
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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