Blues guitar lessons from a top Truefire guitar instructor.
From Texas To The Delta is a mega-pack of acoustic blues guitar lessons covering all aspects of finger picking acoustic blues guitar, hence the name. From the Mississippi Delta sounds of Robert Johnson to the happy complex ragtime guitar picking style of Blind Blake, all styles are covered in great detail.
In addition to the legendary blues men, such as Lightnin Hopkins, Big Bill Broonzy and Robert Johnson, this course explores some of the amazing guitar techniques of guys who are not exactly household names, but nevertheless had an enormous impact on blues guitar development and modern music in general. Blues guitar men such as Scrapper Blackwell, Pink Anderson and Floyd Council are unknown names, unless you are a blues fan! Most people know that Pink Floyd took their group name from the latter two blues men, but very few people have heard their music.
In presenting these 39 video lessons from the major acoustic blues artists of the 20s and 30, the aim is provide a good grounding in all acoustic blues guitar finger picking techniques. Depending on the key used, and also the musical style, the lessons are suitable for intermediate to advanced players. For example, the alternating bass patterns used in ragtime guitar are harder to learn than the monotonic bass techniques associated with the Delta.
Jim Bruce was voted N°2 Internet Guitar Instructor by Truefire in 2013.
Baby Please was recorded by many legendary blues guitar players, including Big Bill, Big Joe Williams, Brownie McGhee and others. Hopkins gives it a great twist here. He follows the basic blues in E structure, but adds some unique techniques, such as a syncopated thumb beat in the instrumental break. Although it looks a piece of cake on paper, getting that guitar rhythm down takes some practice, if we want it to hit the mark.
Hopkins might hit one string and let it ring while moving on to the treble strings. Perhaps he would damp the string with the palm of his picking hand now and again to change the mood, or double up on the tempo delivering two beats instead of one. He called this his 'heartbeat' sound, which had a powerful appeal directly to the emotions.
Often there's not a lot happening but the feeling is solid blues guitar and difficult to copy. This kind of feeling is exactly what guitar players mean when they say that what you leave out is just as important as what you put in!
Listening to blues guitar, we can feel that it's very closely related to modern rock. If you want to start playing the blues in E, just form that basic E chord and experiment. Don't forget to have fun and practice some guitar every single day.
The famous Texas blues guitar player Lightnin' Hopkins was the Mr Cool of the blues and had a massive influence on a lot of guitarists. His guitar technique could be simply structured or quite complicated, but never appeared to be strained or out of place. He perfected the monotonic bass way of guitar picking, just like Big Bill Broonzy, and other such as fellow Texan Mance Lipscomb, often favoring the key of E. In his rendition of 'Baby Please Don't Go' the melody played on the treble strings mostly follows his vocals, which is normally not a good idea, but naturally, Hopkins makes it work!
His acoustic guitar was often tuned down one or two steps, which suited the level of his low voice. A pulsating driving bass pattern pushed the music along and the resulting effect was magical. Expert in slow guitar blues in the keys of E and A, he often demonstrated his total control of his picking thumb by putting together syncopated patterns while singing simultaneously. (Listen to his song Mojo Hand and have a go - good luck!) my advice for Hopkins style guitar playing is take it slowly and try to keep it authentic.
If we talk about blues, we often think of a guitar blues from the Mississippi delta in the key of E, the thin and whining higher notes supported by the rhythmic bass pattern of the picking thumb beat.
It's always possible to make the blues as complicated as we can, but the fact is that the most appealing blues songs are often very simple – it's the style and touch that sets them apart. A guitar master like Texas blues master Lightnin Hopkins, could create syncopated arrangements, but was also unparalleled in creating music with that almost undefinable 'bluesy' feel.
I transcribed 'Mary' from an old documentary film called 'The Blues According To Lightnin' Hopkins' - check it out on Youtube. I tried to get his licks down, but getting the feeling is the major challenge here. Take it nice and slow with feeling any questions, you know where I am!
Many blues guitar players recorded Goin' Down Slow, written by St. Louis Jimmy Oden, and it is one of the most enduring and successful 12 bar blues. I chose Mance's rendition over Lightnin's as it's unusual. It's a bit faster than many versions and there's some mysterious things going on there with Mance's fingers on that old guitar of his!
I've transcribed it with a straight monotonic bass, but if you listen to the original you'll hear something else going on there which is hard to pin down, a bit like a quick shuffle on the basses at the end of the lines. I didn't want to try and guess at it, so preferred to play it with the straight bass line, taking care to try and retain the power and the feeling of the original.
This is often played in open D, but I'm not sure that Mance tuned his guitar in this way. As far as I can see, he didn't fret any bass notes throughout the song, which makes it easier for our fretting hand (not that any of the chords are difficult) as there's less to think about. It never sounds strange without the basses fretted due to the heavy palm damping that's applied. remember to watch the string damping. If it gets loose, in some sections it can sound quite strange.
This song is quite unusual - Mance still uses his trade-mark bass technique, but play here in the key of C. We need to be very careful with damping techniques using the chord progressions in this key - if it becomes too loose it starts too sound messy!
Me and the Devil is perhaps the most famous Robert Johnson song, after Crossroads and obviously evokes his long standing musical relationship with the Devil. Everyone knows the story of the Crossroads and what happened there, but we don't really know where this delta blues legend came from. Logic tells us that it was easy to blame bad luck and anxiety about life on something else, like a spirit that wants your soul. On top of that, his emotional skill on the blues guitar was nothing short of supernatural (I guess!) Me - I think he was just an intense young man who practiced an awful lot.
While it's true that he had a fantastic emotional appeal, he wasn't very original. Many of his songs can be traced back to earlier songs by other people. Walkin' Blues, for example, was played incredibly well by Muddy Waters who stated that he was playing it long before he heard Johnson's record. Son House and several other blues men had a version, and it's probable that he got it from House, as he hung around the older man when he was learning how to perform in the local bars and juke joints. Sweet Home Chicago was almost a direct copy of Scrapper Blackwell's Kokomo Blues, which was a very inventive and appealing song.
Another contemporary of Johnson's, Johnny Shines, played Sweet Home and does a very fine job. Shines would have been the blues legend that Robert was, but he just lived too long! They did travel together and a recently discovered photo of them both has been ratified as genuine by the Robert Johnson Society, showing them both young and dapper in slick new suits of the day.
We can only imagine the kind of live they must have had and it was easy to understand how a couple of young bucks would learn guitar and take the next train out of their small town, heading for Chicago or another exciting town to sample the best of the nightlife, the liquor and the ladies, which is what killed him very soon. He took a fancy to a bar owner's girl, and he laced a beer with poison - that was the end of Johnson at 26.
RJ used a variety of keys and chord shapes in his music, such as E, A, dropped D and open G. Open G of course was used for Walkin' Blues and Crossroads, while Me and the Devil was typical of his work in the key of A. Although we try to be fresh and deliver new ideas in our guitar playing, it's inevitable that a guitarist develops certain signature licks or runs, and Johnson was no exception.
He would start normally high up on the fret board and gradually moving down to the A chord, which he formed with his forefinger and pinky. This Raised the tension before settling into the song proper. Usually, he would go back up the fretboard to sing a 'middle eight' or take a musical break, introducing variations to make the music more interesting.
A striking thing about his music is the relationship between the guitar and his vocals. Normally, we fit the vocals into spaces in the guitar music where there is not too much going on - it's difficult to concentrate on both things at the same time. This inevitably means that words are sung on or off the beat, but are usually regulated an governed by the guitar technique. In Johnson's case, this wasn't true. His vocal delivery and guitar were asynchronous and didn't seem to depend on each other.
Crossroads is played in open G guitar tuning with a bottleneck, or slide.
Some old school slide guitar players actually use a real bottleneck, but this is mostly for effect and has no real significance except that the old blues guys made use of them. others used a knife of similar to make that eerie sound.
Modern bottlenecks come in a couple of flavors - either glass or metal. For me, the glass type make a warmer sound, and the thickness of the glass wall is important. A thicker wall means a heavier bottleneck, so when we rapidly move our fretting hand to get that vibrato sound, the heavier slide changes the speed of the vibrato slightly, making for a nicer sound. Just my two cents worth.
The bottleneck technique itself is one of those guitar playing paradoxes.
It's very easy to get the basic action down, but takes a lot more time to control the hand movements so that it sounds nice. If we don't control that bottleneck properly, it turns into a messy sound of glass on metal and isn't very nice to hear, becoming harsh and discordant.
Done properly, however, the technique can produce a warm sounds that just shouts 'delta blues'. Some players make it sound sweet (Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters) and others play it in a powerful, percussive way (Son House - see photo below).
Accuracy is the key, of course. We need to hit that note, and we don't have a fret to help us, as the bottleneck floats above the frets and doesn't touch them. Luckily, we can aim for the fret we want and then vibrate the slide until we hit it, which is one of the characteristics of the style. This is probably one of the reasons why bottleneck blues guitar was so popular in the beginning.
In the Delta it was hot and humid and wooden guitars were difficult to keep in tune - it was easier to tune down to open G and easier to hit notes using a slide. Just remember to damp the strings between the bottleneck and the guitar headstock with a finger. If not, you will hear sounds from the strings both sides of the slide and it'll sound horrible!
Open G is very easy to achieve - the bass E string is brought down to D, the A string to G, and the high E string tuned down to D also - that's it! Strum it and you have a G chord. Other chords can be formed but they are not really necessary for this song - Johnson uses mostly single strings and half chords, which are fully tabulated in the lesson.
Bringing the Bass E down to D introduces a powerful low bass drone effect and I often use Open D and dropped D for just that reason - it gives a low notes to offset fancy treble work.As with most Robert Johnson pieces, attack is very important. What do I mean by attack? Well, for example, you can slide up to a note slow or fast, and also change the speed of the vibrato when you get there.
It all adds to the overall effect. In some cases, when we move on from one note to the next, the change is so fast that there isn't really any vibrato to speak of. In these cases you need to be very accurate when sliding up to the note. This happens in Crossroads at the beginning of the verses, when we slide up to the 12th fret and then quickly move down to the 3rd fret for a three beat run down, fretting with our finger on two bass strings.
It's a great contrast, playing the low bass run down just after the high treble notes on the 12th fret. It's like a call and answer structure, which has a powerful effect on the emotions of the listener.
Most people know Love in Vain from the playing of famous people like the Stones and Eric Clapton. Of course, the Stones' version is nothing like the original and Clapton's doesn't have the intensity (IMO).
The original is a powerful mixture of emotional intensity and an almost poetical feel, with well crafted words that say much more than what we hear. Johnson's music speaks to us in a very emotional way - we can feel his suffering and his special approach to the blues. It's special because it was an extension of his real life, which was fast and tough in those days.
Several of Johnson's songs in the key of A have the same basic structure, which is very common amongst blues men - they develop a series of licks in a key and it tends to be reproduced in other works. You could say such licks are clichés, but that's why clichés are everywhere - people like them!
Love in Vain is nice and slow and gives us no problems with the fingering.
If we think of Delta blues we might think of Son House, Muddy Waters but for most people Robert Johnson was the King of Delta Blues. Why is that? Well, for one thing, he died young and disappeared before anything was really known about him. He was shy yet arrogant, by all accounts, was a ladies man and liked the spotlight. Not that he really saw any spotlight or big times - he died before he became really known.
Walkin' Blues is played with a bottleneck in open G, which is a common delta blues guitar tuning probably favored as it's easy to do - you just change 3 strings - and it's easy to keep I tune when playing in hot humid conditions. Johnson probably used an actual bottleneck and of course nowadays we have a huge selection of slides we could put to use, either made from glass, brass or steel.
I favor a glass bottleneck which I wear on my ring finger. You can put the slide on any finger you like, as long as you have some free to fret other chords when you need to. Some people use those strange long bottlenecks worn on the pinky. Doesn't work for me, but whatever floats you boat, as they say!
Just try as many as you can and "feel' your way. I like a thick walled bottleneck, as it slows down the vibrato sound when you are searching for that note - seem a little more bluesy to me. It's been said the bottleneck guitar is easy to learn but very difficult to perfect, and this is about right.
You can pick up the basics in ten minutes, but the nuances of the style take months to explore. It's a challenge to play it with the right delicacy, but also with the right intensity when needed. If you don't damp down those strings behind the bottleneck when need, the sound quickly deteriorates into a clash of glass and steel and it's not very nice - have fun!
One of the most interesting things about Johnson's performances is not his creativity, but his delivery. He didn't actually create many songs, but rather copied others and adapted traditional stuff to his style and needs, which is what blues men did all the time.
For example, Sweet Home Chicago was a very thinly disguised copy of Scrapper Blackwell's Kokomo Blues, and Walkin' Blues was played by Muddy Waters before it appeared on record from Johnson. Even Crossroads was an adaptation of Walkin' Blues licks, although the timing was changed and it was more urgent, more percussive. The most interesting thing was that he could play and sing as if the guitar and voice were not linked at all.
Most blues guitar players start singing when there is a particular beat, or a lull in the finger picking complexity - with Robert it didn't seem to matter what his fingers were doing, he just sang as he felt it. This is rare, and only people like Johnson and Reverend Gary Davis could do it effectively.
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!
Blind Boy Fuller was something of a recording super star in his day and cut around 120 tracks during his career. He had different partners at different times, such as Sonny Terry and Bull City Red. Of course, we all know of Sonny's work with Brownie McGhee, and he also had a very stable solo career, playing harmonica, whooping and singing almost at the same time! Sonny's voice was really good and very bluesy.
Bull City Red can also be heard singing on a few tracks on which Gary Davis plays guitar (I Saw The Light) and gives us a hint and some insight into the scene around South Carolina in those times. Fuller and Davis had other links besides the fact that Bull City Red performed with them both. Gary Davis took Fuller under his wing musically and taught the younger man many tricks and techniques, which he in turn learned from Blind Willie Walker - the best there ever was, by all accounts.
It's a great shame that Davis never received the same accolades and financial rewards that Fuller enjoyed. Davis was clearly the better guitarist - his range and repertoire covered everything from gospel to country to ragtime to delta type blues. Of course, Fuller was no slouch either. His picking style was not as complicated as the older man's, but his finger picking technique was slick, accurate and had a great appeal. Add his bluesy, matter of fact voice and it became a recipe for success with records buyers in the 20s.
Story goes that Davis did have some recording sessions at the same time, but maintained that he was cheated by the record company, so parted company with them. At that time, it was common for blues men to get paid for each session and then get nothing for record sales afterwards. Perhaps he wasn't paid for a session, and that soured his attitude to making records. Pretty soon he was ordained as a minister and refused to play anything but Gospel, which he performed on the street in Harlem where he lived. the money he made became of little interest, as long as he had enough to eat and put a roof over his head.
It was quite obvious in Fuller's later recordings that he was affected by drinking - his voice was slurred and it is probable that, like most alcoholics, he started drinking in the morning and carried it on through the day. However, throughout his career, he laid down some classic songs that can be considered standards.
Often, he would interpret old traditional standards, such as Weeping Willow, and give it a particular Piedmont guitar flavor that was quite unique. His song 'Truckin' Little Baby' has been performed in many forms by many ragtime guitar players, but with the exception of 'Diddie Wah Diddie' by Blind Blake, it hasn't really been beat as an example of that style of ragtime picking in the key pf C.
Untrue Blues is challenging because of the asynchronous timing that Fuller brings to the piece, and also, the picking pattern is not typically Piedmont. His thumb is especially inventive in this song, and it carries on it's tricks while he sings the lyrics, which is tough to copy - it's to sing and play as though the guitar timing is asynchronous to the melody of the lyrics. The song starts with a long A, that is, using the forefinger as a bar and the pinky holding down the high E string on the 5th Fret, and follows the standard chord progression of A-E/E7-D7-A-E/E7-A , but and inversion is used for the D7, which is basically the C7 shape with the root on the 5th fret.
It's not the left hand that is so difficult, but the way that the right hand picks the pattern that brings this song it's special flavor. Be very careful with the way in which the thumb and forefinger pick the bass strings as they really help to syncopate the rhythm. If it feels tricky, play it really slowly and get that style under your belt before you try to sing.
Weeping Willow performed here by Blind Boy fuller is an interesting piece that gets the South Carolina Piedmont ragtime guitar treatment. Like many old blues men, Fuller adapted many old traditional standards that originally came from Europe and gave them a makeover of romantic sounding blues, made even more wistful by the use of minor chords - a common trick used by musicians wanting to give a song that sad feel. It's basically in the key of A and starts off with a long A (forefinger bar on the second fret and the pinky on the high E at the fifth fret), but next moves to Dm rather than the usual D7, while at the same time a two string alternating bass pattern anchors the melody.
The song is fairly standard stuff throughout until we get to the end tag of the verse and the turnaround. This is where he slips in progressions that are immediately recognizable as originating from Reverend Gary Davis, who tutored Fuller for a while. The end tag progressions goes E7-D7-F-E7 and the thumb jumps in an off time across the bass strings, rather then keeping a regular rhythm. He finishes off with a flourish using the long A and then again back again to E7.
There are a couple of instrumental breaks in this song, which was again a trade mark characteristic of Carolina blues music. The runs are inventive and slightly different each time, which adds interest for the listener. I always associate this song with his other well known make over Careless Love, although structurally it's not the same at all - it's just the feel that is very similar, an old standard making us of minor chords to give the feeling of sadness.
Strangely enough, although Fuller was a student of Gary Davis, he was much more popular in his day and made over a hundred records for Paramount. It seems that Davis thought that Fuller could have been one of the greats if he's stayed under him a little longer. He was very good as it was, but he didn't have the extensive repertoire and rich musical variety that Davis displayed.
The story goes that Davis, Fuller and Bull City Red played together on the streets and later recorded in the studio, but Davis had a dispute about money with the studio owners and left, preferring to work by himself. Later on he became an ordained minister and sang gospel music exclusively on the streets of Harlem where he lived. Another guitarist, Floyd Council, with an almost identical style to Fuller also played on some of his recordings - it was quite rare for Fuller to let himself be accompanied by another guitar player, so he must have rated Council highly.
Some of Fuller's ragtime work (Step It Up and Go, Truckin' Little Baby) endure as some of the best ragtime blues songs ever recorded. His guitar finger picking was fast and very accurate. Even in the later part of his career, when his voice obviously suffered from his alcoholism, his guitar work was impeccable, never missing a note. Naturally for someone so prolific, he often repeated himself musically, just singing new words to standard chord progressions.
This was quite common amongst blues men and his career didn't seem to suffer from it too much. His music was a force up into the forties, when the hard driving Chicago blues started to become electric and audiences preferences changed form folksie to city blues with an edge.
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Like Weeping Willow, Careless Love is a traditional song given the bluesy work over in the Carolina Style
It's use of Am and suspended chords makes it very unusual in the genre. I find it particularly sad listening to the sentiment and the words delivered by Fuller's slurred words, obviously affected by his alcoholism towards the middle and end of his career. Although very successful commercially, he never lost the edge that gave him his strong appeal. His picking was very accurate and sharp, mostly delivered on a National Steel - a habit probably adopted from his days playing on the street or in noisy bars.
Floyd Council played second guitar on several of Fuller's tracks and the sound of the two steel guitars was cutting and exciting, as their styles were very similar and steeped in the licks and riffs of the Carolina style handed down from the likes of Reverend Gary Davis and
Willie Walker. the South Carolina style is an interesting mixture of techniques. It's feel is definitely ragtime guitar, but it's not light. It's solid deliver and slower timing (mostly) gives it a more 'serious' feel than the ragtime of someone like Blake for example.
It's less based in a definite alternating bass finger picking pattern, and the thumb can switch to a monotonic bass deliver or jump along to the treble strings from time to time, depending on the needs of the song. Fuller's picking can be grouped into ragtime songs in C and G, and wistful songs, mostly traditional, using minor chords to give a feeling of sadness, which always works whatever the music you play.
The use of traditional and minstrel type songs is a spin-off from the days when playing on the street and for parties, when it was necessary to vary the repertoire to attract different kinds of audience and appeal to the greatest number.Before his recording career, it must have been incredibly difficult to make a living playing the blues on the street (I know, because I do it!) Most blues men started out poor and stayed poor, there wasn't too much about it that was very romantic, although we made it seem romantic during the folk-blues revival of the 60s.
Even guitar players such as Mance Lipscombe and Big Bill Broonzy stayed poor, even though they found some measure of later success playing to new young audiences. Others, like Fuller's guitar teacher, Reverend Gary Davis did find some financial security and Davis was able to buy a house for his retirement in the West Indies.
Careless Love uses a combination of picking styles and is a testimony to Fuller's skill when interpreting traditional songs. It starts in Am and then follow the standard chord progression of A-E7-D7, always moving back to the minor at the start of each verse in order to maintain the sadness.
His clever use of a suspended chord in the verse adds variety and demonstrates considerable skill, as he cross picks with his thumb and forefinger while singing at the same time - a good trick if you can do it! When I play it, I tend to play a single string melody at the beginning that matches the singing melody linen bending the strings slightly for effect, and then passing on to the finger picking pattern for the rest of the song.
There isn't really an instrumental break, although Fuller plays through the verse without singing and adds some picking variations. Such variations include half-steps bends while pinching the last two treble strings and timing changes, accentuating the initial notes. These are all powerful tools to engage the audience - one of the worst things you can do as a musician is to bore people, which can be difficult due to the limited musical scope of blues chords.
Floyd Council (Born September 2, 1911 and died May 9th , 1976) was a well-known performer of the Piedmont ragtime blues sound, which was well liked all through the southeastern region of America during the nineteen thirties . Floyd is on eof my all time favorite blues men, even thoughhe only produced 6 records under his own steam.
He started his career in the 1920s, performing with two brothers, Leo and Thomas Strowd calling themselves "The Chapel Hillbillies". He also played on some sessions with Blind Fuller during the thirties, playing second guitar on several of his records. Their styles are every very similar, but there's a kind of joy in Council's music that I don't find in Fuller's - a matter of taste, I guess.
He survived into the sixties,but his muscles were partially paralyzed after suffering a stroke in the nineteen sixties , but it seemed that his mind was still sharp. However , he was never able to recover his playing ability, although still finding time to show others how to play the guitar. Council died in 1976 after a heart attack, just after going to live in Sanford, North Carolina.
This Piedmont style is often slower than straight ragtime picking a la Blind Blake, for example, but it's full of tricks and syncopation - fantastic fun! It's played in C with a solid alternating bass pattern and tasteful single string runs that are easy to do. The trick is to play with the same feeling.
Born in Syracuse, Carolina, Scrapper Blackwell was one of sixteen children. Part Cherokee, he was raised up and spent most of his life in Indianapolis. He was given the familiar name , "Scrapper", by his grandma , because of his prickly nature. His father played the fiddle, but Scrapper taught himself how to play the guitar .
Even when he was a teenager , Blackwell worked as a part-time musician, wandering as far away as Chicago. He was a sullen man, generally keeping to himself and difficult to get along with. In spite of this , Blackwell established a duo with piano player Leroy Carr, whom he ran across in Indiana in the 1920s, which was a productive working relationship.
Blackwell also made recordings on his own , including "Kokomo Blues" which became "Old Kokomo Blues" (Kokomo Arnold) before it was transformed again into "Sweet Home Chicago" by Robert Johnson. Blackwell and Carr traveled extensively throughout the mid-west states and through the South from 1928 to 1935 - stars of the blues scene, recording over 100 tracks.
After Carr died, Scrapper returned to performing in the late 1950s and was recorded again in June 1958 by Colin C. Pomroy. He was going to resume his blues career when he was shot and killed during a robbery in an Indianapolis alley. He was fifty nine years old . Although the crime remains unsolved, police took into custody his neighbor for the murder. Scrapper Blackwell is buried in New Crown Cemetery, Indianapolis.
Blues Before Sunrise is played in the key of E. Although it follows the generally accepted chord progressions, he hardly forms a straight chord, but uses combinations and half chords to great effect. His technique is neither alternating bass or monotonic, but can be either! The thumb was very flexible and could play any of the strings.
In general, Scrapper's style was richer and more diverse than many blues men - probably due to his partnership with Leroy Carr, the blues pianist who he traveled around with.
Blue Day Blues is a lovely song in A and is a great example of how Blackwell could wring out some innovative riffs and moves from a very simple blues.
The turnarounds between the verses are completely Blackwell - simple but effective, and not that hard to play! As is usual with his work, he includes a couple of instrumental breaks, the second of which is just a subtle variation of the first.
Although Scrapper Blackwell didn't write 'Nobody Wants You When You're Down and Out', for me he certainly made it his own - you only have to see the photo of him when he was re-discovered in the 60s. His whole appearance was 'Down and Out', seeming the worse for wear after years of hard living, depression and alcoholism. Blackwell was a big name in the thirties and forties when he toured the US extensively with his pianist partner Leroy Carr, who wrote many of the songs in their repertoire. The combination of Carr's swinging piano style and Scrapper's inventive blues guitar work was very appealing to a wide variety of audiences looking for some excitement to break up the boredom of their rural life styles.
In the old recordings, the piano often overshadowed the guitar sound and hides some of it's power, but in Blackwell's later recording during the fold blues boom of the late fifties and sixties, we get to hear in some detail what he could do.
His chord progressions always had that little something extra that set it apart from the others and was probably a sin off from performing with a blues piano player - the piano lends itself to much more varied and richer chord progressions.
It's a nice surprise to start listening to a Blackwell piece and come across a chord shape that shouldn't be in the progression, but it works really well, which was part of his genius. Listen to songs like Blues Before Sunrise and Kokomo Blues.
It's a bit tough to tab exactly what his picking fingers were doing - that's the magic of blues guitar. He didn't use an alternating bass pattern exclusively (although of course he could if he wanted to) and I get the impression that he found the tight alternating bass structure a bit constraining. In some songs he does use an two string alternating bass pattern, but breaks out of it regularly to play single string runs, to strum with his thumb and stroke the strings with his fingers in an upwards movement. It's a mark of a master blues guitar player that he can move in and out of the bass pattern effortlessly to add variations to his music.
The structure for Down and Out is quite basic, but Scrapper Blackwell turns it into something a bit special with his own additions. The intro starts in C and moves down to E7, where he already starts to change his picking style to add syncopation. It would be really easy to ignore the little variations that he introduces here, but stick with it and you'll add something a little extra to your own rendition.
The rest of the progression goes A7, F (which is unusual by itself) back to A7, D7 inversion on the 3rd fret F, Dsus, C, A, D7 and G - you get the idea! The progression is not standard and it has a flavor all of it's own. Try not to simplify it too much, as it's worth the effort to get it just right.
The transitions between the chords are always interesting and are never just plain chord changes. He would either run up or down on the bass strings to link chords, or fit in a single string run on the trebles. There was always something interesting going on and it gives a guitarist something to get his teeth into. Not only is it
exciting for an audience to listen to, but it's elegant and interesting to learn and play. His picking style in this song is just not regular at all, so there's quite a bit to remember.
You'll immediately recognize Kokomo, even if you don't already know of it. The tune was 'borrowed' by Robert Johnson's Sweet Home Chicago and it's a testimony to the fact that better musicians and artists never became legends, but had a powerful influence on some that did.
It's a tricky piece the way that Scrapper played it. the original is in dropped D, but I chose to transcribe it into E.
Worryin' You Off My Mind is typical of a Big Bill Broonzy song played in the key of E
The left hand fingering is basic and follow the standard chord progressions that most blues guitar players perform, but there's something else going on here. There's a couple of things we notice when hearing Broonzy music - that pounding bass rhythm and the feeling that the music is just swingin' along. It's very appealing and infectious.
These two characteristics are the backbone of Bill's style and have to be studied carefully if you want to play something like Big Bill.
The Almighty Thumb Of Big Bill Broonzy
It sounds as though he really pounds those bass strings, but it's not strictly true. He uses a couple fo tricks to augment the sound. First of all, he damps the bass string he has just picked with the palm of his picking hand, so the sound is a combination of the note and a 'thud'. As well as giving a drum beat effect to the melody line, this technique also frees up the need to play the bass notes for any particular chord shape.
Other blues men such as Mance Lipscombe, make great use of this technique. You might think that it would be limiting musically, but it doesn't work out that way if you do it right. Control is the key. His thumb also brushes across two or three strings, instead of just banging way on one. Many modern blues men play Broonzy style hitting just one bass string - it's not like that! It creates a much bigger sound that's hard to master - listen to Hey hey.
Swinging Chicago Blues
So how does Big Bill make his sound swing like that? A journalist once asked him that same question, to which he replied 'when playing a guitar, you can play with the beat at the exact time, a little in front of the beat or a little behind. You don't speed up or slow down. It's like riding a horse, you can either ride on the fron of the hporse or the back, but you still go at the same speed.
My thumb beat rides on the back of the horse.' This is a big ârt of the reason his music swings along like that - there's a subtle syncopation, or gap between the real beat and Broonzy's thumb strike. This treble work also adds to the effect. Watching the films of Big Bill, I get the impression that he played mostly with his forefinger, sometimes slipping in a strike with his second finger if need. While his forefinger plays the real melody, it also jumps back and forwards on adjacent strings, which fills out the gaps in the music making it swing even more.
Ernie Hawkins calls these extra notes, often not even tabbed, as 'grace notes' and have a powerful effect on the sound. If you miss them out, we can hear that something's not quite right with the sound, but it's difficult to identify what it is.
Many guitar players leave some of these subtle things out and feel frustrated why their copy doesn't sound like Big Bill. the fact is that there is more to his technique than meets the eye and we need to go back and listen to the originals again and again. For me, it's not paying homage to these old blues guys if we just copy their notes and fingering without going deeper into it and really understanding what they did.
Although the style of Big Bill Broonzy's swinging guitar style has some points in common with many blues men, the differences make it very special indeed.
Hey Hey is the perfect example of this - apart from his thumping bass swing technique, he uses riffs and chord shapes that I haven't found in any other blues guitar player's repertoire, which is particularly interesting because it means that Big Bill created the progressions and the distinct sound.
Broonzy was very popular in the 20s and 30s, putting out hundreds of records for various record companies (Paramount,Vocalion, Chess, Verve, and Folkways) and wrote around 300 songs. Some of his songs were truly unique and became blues standards, such as Key to the Highway and Romance With No Finance. Of course, with over 300 songs under his belt, many of them were almost straight copies of his previous work, or thinly disguised covers of traditional blues, but his style was extended to cover swing blues fronting an orchestra, to ragtime breakdowns, to simple folk ballads and stories.
His swinging guitar style actually fused blues guitar with a jazzy influence and was to influence up and coming youngsters such as Muddy Waters in their change over to electric Chicago blues. Imagine what Bill could have produced if electric guitars were available in his day! Broonzy was the link between rural acoustic blues guitar and the hard driving electric blues guitar - his own style was mostly dance music and his thumb provided the rhythm.
Many people play Hey Hey with Broonzy's characteristic monotonic thumb stroke pattern (Clapton, et al) but it's mostly hit too cleanly. His proper technique was his thumb brushing across two or three bass notes - quite a tough thing to do while the fingers are plucking the treble strings. This produced a lag in the timing and also a fuller sound. Sometimes he would damp the strings hard with the palm of his picking hand, and sometimes not - often he wouldn't bother to even fret the bass notes of a chord. The result was a heavy 'thud' rather than a clear musical note which took the place of a drum beat.
At that time in the Southern states, drums were made illegal for black folk, and so a heavy guitar thumb beat took it's place. It was also less complicated to play, so more effort could be place on making an interesting melody with the fingers on the treble strings. Some blues guitar men, such as Mance Lipscombe, took the monotonic bass style even further - for example in Gong Down Slow he frets no basses at all, but it sounds just great!
Hey Hey is played in E but doesn't follow the standard chord progressions for a blues song in E, just one of the things that makes it so exciting and interesting. The first thing that strikes you is that the sound is so big! Even when we play the right notes and fret the same strings in the right place, it doesn't sound quite like Bill's rendition. Worse still it's not really possible to describe how he did it.
Normally, I learn a Broonzy song and then practice by playing along to his original version. A common mistake is to play Broonzy just too fast. his music seems to go at a fast pace, but it's just his swingy technique. One way to keep the pace down is to try and play it just like he did, which is with one finger. Many guitarists played in this way (Rev Gary Davis,Doc Watson, Lightnin Hopkins,Johnny Shines).
It's tough to get the forefinger moving fast enough, but when you succeed it gives the music a particular flavor that just can't be achieved when using two or three fingers. It gets just too 'pretty' and clean. Play it heavy and hard. Don't worry if you miss notes here and there, but make sure it swings!
Of course, Big Bill Boonzy is one of the big names in acoustic blues guitar and rightly so. His swinging finger picking style laid the groundwork for much of the important Chicago blues scene that followed. People that new him described him as a bit of a story teller, perhaps leaning towards downright fantasy towards the end of his career, which he re-invented as a blues-folk performer, which he never really was – he just played the old songs he gathered in his younger days.
He didn't write 'Key to the Highway' – there were several versions around – but he certainly made it his own. (Black Jack Gingham said that without Bill, there's no Highway!) Bill moved up to Chicago from the South and honed his swinging finger style guitar playing rapidly, becoming well known and sought after in the live music scene. He probably started out playing small joints, perhaps solo or with one or two other musicians. At that time is was common for struggling musicians to hold 'rent parties', where folks payed a dollar to enter and listen to theblues - it payed the rent!
There are many recordings of Bill playing with other musicians as his swinging guitar style was great for dancing, and he was also a really good singer with a good range and emotional appeal. In the days before electric guitar, small bands would 'stomp' out there tunes to make themselves heard and Bill's technique was perfect for this. However, his fortunes declines, as does every musician, but in his heyday Bill was a superstar, wearing snappy suits and wowing audiences everywhere.
It was during this decline that Broonzy revived his career. While looking for Robert Johnson to play a concert in New York, the promoter heard that he was dead and Broonzy was asked to step in and played to thousands of people. Bill played a series of acoustic folk type blues and the audience adored it - his new career was born! He found a new home in the 50s folk boom and started to tour again, visiting Europe for the first time where he was hailed as the real thing. Some old film exists of him playing in Germany, but he also visited UK and other countries.
His appeal was instant and exotic. Being about 6 feet 4, which meant around 6 feet 8 with his hat on, he must have been a striking figure - more like a boxer than a blues singer. He resurrected his old songs for his new young audiences who taste the real blues for the first time. At last Broonzy had the key to the highway. He died in the late fifties of throat cancer - a lifetime of smoking, we can imagine. RIP Bill and thanks for the legacy.
As with many of the master blues men, it's mostly quite easy to work out where they put there finger, which is the first step to learning this music, but the hard part is copying their style. All guitar players have a particular way of holding their hands and fingers which contribute to their sound. Luckily these techniques tend to be shared by groups of guitar players withing a particular region, but Bill's style was mostly peculiar to him alone. Although he used a monotonic bass, as did many classic blues players, he was very flexible in his approach
and would strum his thumb across the bass strings rather than hit just one.
His playing was very fluid and just moved along with this 'swing' which is incredibly hard to do. He said it was like riding a horse - you can move along at the same speed, but either ride on the front or the back. His thumb beat lagged being the exact timing a little, producing a swing feel - this is what he meant buy riding on the back of the horse. When a journalist asked him 'what are the blues?', he replied - "If you have to ask son, you'll never know ...)
Glory of Love by Big Bill Broonzy - Swing Blues Guitar At It's Best
Big Bill was incredibly prolific in the 30s and 40s and he almost single handedly invented the acoustic blues swing guitar style that pave the way for electric Chicago blues. Like Blind Blake, his guitar technique is much admired and copied, but rarely are the copies true to his original guitar finger picking technique. Broonzy's repertoire was enormous. he wrote over 300 songs - good time swing blues, ragtime pieces, down home blues and popular songs from Tin Pan Alley.
More than a blues man, he was an entertainer and able to sing and play just about anything for anybody. In his early career he was part of the group 'The Hokum Boys', a traveling string band. Groups of this kind developed a very varied repertoire to engage audiences of every type.
Glory of Love Chord Progression
Glory of Love was a very popular standard 'Pop' song of it's day - one of the many churned out by writers for 'Tin Pan Alley'. Big Bill gave it the celebrated Broonzy work over and added his individual guitar finger picking style to this song played in the key of C, which lends itself to a ragtime swing style guitar treatment. The chord progression was very simple - C-G7-C-F-C-G7 for the verse and for the refrain F-C-F-C-G7. Not complex at all, but it's the special picking that gives this song some magic. So how did he do it?
What set Bill's style apart was the fact that he didn't just hit one string but two or three at the same time, like a thumb brush or strum before damping them down. This really filled out the sound and it's tough to do it effectively like he did it, particularly when playing the trebles at the same time!
Bill's One Finger Guitar Style
Most people copy his finger picking style by using two fingers for the treble strings, which doesn't give the right feel at all. How can it, if Broonzy didn't play that way. He just used his forefinger, which was very dexterous, accurate and fast - like Doc Watson and Reverend Gary Davis. Of course, we need to use every trick we can to get over the fact that this stuff is hard to play, but using two fingers to play Broonzy and Davis often changes the timing and the flavor too much, making the music too modern and slick - Big Bill missed notes and you can too!
How To Get That Broonzy Blues Guitar Swing
There's something else happening when Broonzy plays guitar and it's difficult to pin it down. The swing effect is due to the fact that his bass strikes are not exactly on the beat, but lag just behind it. Swing bands of the time also used this technique to make the big band swing sound. Broonzy said 'You can either ride on the front of the horse, or the back of it - you're still going at the same speed.' Big Bill rode on the back of it, which gave his music a laid back swing sound that was very appealing, which was one of the reasons he was so popular.
Although not the King of Swing like Big Bill, Brownie McGhee was a very important blues guitar player who created many standards, such as Born With The Blues, and this variation, Livin' With Blues. Of course, with Sonny Terry on harmonica he helped form one of the most successful and enduring blues duos well into the 80s.
Sonny Terry can be heard backing Blind Boy Fuller, Rev Gary Davis and several other blues men in his hey day, and all by himself was a potent force in the blues world.
McGhee's guitar style was very attractive and suffered from one drawback - all his songs sounded very similar. This is a problem for many of us. We develop a certain way of playing, with certain riffs and personal 'quirks' and they tend to appear everywhere in our playing. However, with Brownie it was a fact that his output wasn't that varied.
He acknowledges this fact in a radio special hosted by Studs Terkel, stating that he plays basically the same kind of thing either fast or slow, and different words! Not knocking it at all - this version of Livin' With The Blues was my finishing song for live performances for some years, particularly when performing with a harmonica player.
Try and listen to the Studs Terkel show and compare Brownie's guitar prowess against that of Big Bill, who also appears on the show. Broonzy's guitar work is a step above McGhee, and they both know it. For one thing, Broonzy's repertoire was huge, covering down home blues, folk ballads, swinging blues, ragtime pieces and popular songs from Tin Pan Alley.
Livin' is a blues in the key of E, but has some great chords and an unusual structure. It's quite modern in it's feel, as it has a verse and then a kind of chorus which appears after every one. Early blues in E just didn't have a chorus - just verses with an occasional instrumental break. You should have a lot of fun with this one - I love playing it.
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, whihc 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.
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
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