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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.
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|Section 1: Blind Blake Songs in G|
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.
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'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!
|Section 2: Blind Blake Songs in C|
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!
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.
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 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?
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.
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!
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!
Guitar Chimes Part 1
Guitar Chimes Part 2
|Section 3: Blind Blake Songs in Open D|
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.
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.
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.
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.
|Section 4: Blind Blake Songs in Dropped D|
Chump Man Blues
Acoustic blues guitarist Jim Bruce was voted Number 2 top guitar instructor on Truefire in 2013 (Number 1 for acoustic blues). 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.
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 the blues in great detail. "
Peace, Jim Bruce
Jim's guitar lessons follow a well proven and award-winning formula guaranteed to have you playing the blues in the shortest time possible.