Fingerpicking Blues Guitar Lessons - Open Tunings
Playing guitar in open D opens interesting possibilities. For example, it isn';t necessary to hold down the bass E string when playing a D chord - a deeper bass gives the guitar a low down, bluesy feel but also lends itself to ragtime picking. The acoustic guitar lessons in this course explains how to tune down to open D and open G, and presents several videos teaching a variety of songs in these tunings.
Open G guitar tuning is of particular interest and we take a look how Robert Johnson, King of Delta Blues Guitar used it to create songs such as Walkin' Blues and Crossroads.
Jim Bruce was voted N°2 Internet Guitar Instructor by Truefire in 2013.
Blues Guitar In The Beginning ...
Open tunings were probably the first used for stringed instruments used to play the blues in the Southern states. For one thing, many guitars were home made affairs and difficult to keep in tune, so open G for example, was much easier to keep in tune.
Also, if a knife or bottleneck was used, it could be vibrated up to the target fret and the effects of an out of tune guitar could be compensated for.
We also look at another popular open guitar tuning, open D, and the first two lectures feature two songs by Blind Blake, the King of Ragtime guitar. The first one, Down The Country, has a low down bluesy sound and is nice and slow - great for easing yourself into the style. the picking is easy and you just need to capture that special feel.
The second song in open D is Police Dog blues, which has the same structure as Down The Country, but it's much faster and the finger work is trickier. Try and listen to the original and the playing of Ry Cooder, who has it about as close to Blake as is possible to get.
Blues Guitar in Open G - Bottleneck Style
I chose two Robert Johnson songs to demonstrate slide guitar. Walkin' Blues; although attributed to Johnson, was played with variations by Son House, Muddy Waters and others before Johnson recorded it.
It's slow enough to handle without too much trouble, but the piece just shouts 'DELTA BLUES GUITAR!' Clapton covered this on his unplugged album, but with nothing like the intensity of RJ - this is what you are really aiming for - not just to play it technically, but to feel it.
Crossroads is probably Johnson's signature tune and has been covered in many diverse forms by hundreds of artists, but none match the power of the original IMO. In this lesson you will learn many of the guitar licks Johnson used to get that sound.
Lastly, I introduce a song written by Leroy Carr 'Mobile Texas Line' which shows a different way of finger picking blues guitar in open G without a bottleneck.
Using the PDF guitar tablature downloads and the slow motion demonstrations of the video screens, you will learn to play 5 classic blues songs in a variety of picking styles - have fun!
Open D Guitar Lesson - Blake style
Down the Country has a distinct advantage over other Blind Blake songs in that it's quite slow - great for people learning to play acoustic 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 the 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.
Nobody knows if Blind Blake had a guitar teacher, or how he learned how to play ragtime blues guitar in that unique way. It’s true that several guitar players had a syncopated way of playing, but very few were as precise and as rapid as he was.
Police Dog Blues has an identical structure to the much slower 'Down The Country' and follows the same chord progressions and harmonics - it's the sheer speed that is the challenge here. Be sure to play it really slow and then speed it up a little every day.
Everywhere in Blake's guitar music, never mind the key used, the chord formations used were really quite simple but his magic was in his right hand technique. The fretting fingers were very efficient at damping the guitar strings and this technique is essential for rapid finger picking guitar. It strikes me that his right hand was the most critical one, although obviously both combine to create the music.
His finger picking technique may be split up into these components – thumb technique, fast finger triplets and runs on a single string. It’s a fact that other ragtime blues guitar players had these skills, but Blind Blake combined the techniques continuously, making very complicated and rhythmic sounds.
His thumb in particular needs special investigation for students who want to learn how to play blues guitar in this style. Guitarists are familiar with the picking pattern called ‘alternating bass’. However, Blake could brush the thumb from one string to the next, creating two beats in place of just one! Blake might in addition reverse the picking pattern in mid flow, which shows impressive control. Learning how to play in this style is an art in itself.
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.
Many years ago I heard a song called Mobile Texas Line played by Tom Rush (written by blues piano player Leroy Carr) which was flat picked in open G tuning.
It had a great feel and I wanted to keep the Tom Rush sound, but finger pick it. After trying several patterns I realized I'd have to create something new, and this was the result.
The overall pattern is a kind of mixture of finger style and finger brush, and I tend to use a monotonic bass line throughout; although this is never a hard and fast rule.
Try and listen to the original by Tom Rush - the challenge is to play it with that same laid back feeling.
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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.
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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