Almost by definition, acoustic blues guitar has a dark side - it was born from suffering, after all. This course presents 6 songs by blues legends Robert Johnson and Scrapper Blackwell, two giants of acoustic blues guitar. You will learn all songs in great detail.
Each song is covered in one video lasting between 15 and 25 minutes, which also includes on-screen guitar tablature and a PDF file for downloading for later study. Everything needed to learn and play the song is included.
Scrapper Blackwell songs - Blues Day Blues, Down and Out, Kokomo Blues and Blues Before Sunrise.
Robert Johnson - Me and the Devil, and Love In Vain.
The level is not super complex, but you should have some experience in finger picking guitar techniques and changing basic chords - you will also be learning (probably) some new blues chord structures.
Jim Bruce was voted N°2 Internet Guitar Instructor by Truefire in 2013.
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.
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 andd 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 - the challenge is to give it the intensity of the original.
As far as I know, Blackwell created this song, which is in a standard tuning in the key of A. As usual, the challenge when playing A or E is how to make it sound different from all the others?
Scrapper used several techniques to make his music a little different and interesting, one of which was a strong rhythmic monotonic bass line, which was often damped with the palm of his picking hand. This technique was used by many blues guitar players, such as Hopkins, Broonzy, and Mance Lipscombe. It means that you can strike the bass strings hard without worrying about the string buzzing, and the resulting 'thud' gives the impression of a drum beat.
Another trick used in blues songs is to repeat a particular riff, which sticks in the mind and becomes representative of the song. Blackwell does this with all the chords, but is most striking when fretting the A. On the face of it, the picking structure is easy, but it's deceptive. He might break out of the monotonic bass line to use his thumb on the treble strings (when playing an instrumental break, for example).
As in many of his songs, he adds a couple of instrumental breaks to make the song more interesting and they are generally a little different in their timing or structure.
The words to this song are particularly powerful:
'I'm sittin' here thinking, as the rain comes pouring down - The more I'm thinkin', the more I feel like cryin''
You can almost see him sitting there, and the words have a sadness that evokes the internal state of this lonely blues man, often villified for his anti-social behavior.
The chord structure is pretty standard with no surprises, using a long A (I fret both the last two strings on teh 5th fret with my pinky), a D7 chord and E/E7. In one place he also used a diminished chord on the 4th fret to make progression between chords more interesting. Like many blues men, he is economical when fretting some chords.
For example, when playing a D7 he didn't fret the high E string if he didn't pluck it - why bother? He generally did fret the bass notes, as sometimes he didn't damp them, but let them ring a little. Other blues men, like Broonzy or Lipscombe sometimes didn't even bother to fret the basses, as they always damped them and so it wasn't too important.
Interestingly enough, Robert Johnson's Sweet Home Chicago was a straight copy of Kokomo Blues, an original song penned by Blackwell and rcorded before Sweet Home. I feel that Scrapper was far more inventive than Johnson, but didn't make it to the legendary status for some reason.
Listen to the way he put his chords together and you'll find intersting variations that are quite rare in the blues - Kokomo Blues is a masterpiece of understatement and deserves to be known as the real 'Sweet Home Chicago'.
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 stickwith 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 is 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.
Scrapper Blackwell was a giant of acoustic blues guitar, as far as I'm concerned, and he's hardly ever included in any blues guitar lessons or courses, for some reason. When you listen to him singing the words to Sunrise, you can feel the deep down anguish that is the hallmark of the real blues. Of course, when he played with Leroy Carr in the twenties, their repertoire included raggy type songs and up-temp swing blues, but he basically Scrapper wasn't a very up-tempo person by all accounts.
He got the name Scrapper from his grandmother, because he was argumentative and liked to fight with other kids, basically. Even when he was older he wasn't sociable at all and the name Scrapper just stuck. He partnered Carr for some years before falling out and returning back to his home in Indianapolis. Two thing strike me about his style. First of all his words.
When he sang it was very easy to feel the truth and the reality of the times he must have lived while working as a blues musician. His voice was real and on his late recordings in the sixties he also developed a slur which could possibly be attributed to drinking too much. You could tell that he was living his music and it was an expression of frustration and anger. For example, in Blues Before Sunrise he sings 'everybody's down on me, I'm going to blow away my troubles, in the deep blue sea' - not a happy ragtime blues songs at all!
His guitar style was rich compared to many other blues guitarists and was probably due to the fact that his arrangements were influenced by the greater musical range of Leroy's piano playing. Often when breaking down Blackwell's music, we come across a chord that just shouldn't be in the progression, or at the very least, is a little out of place, but it works! Listen to the progressions in 'Down and Out' and you'll see that Clapton's version is a poor watered down example of this song. Scrapper gives a gritty rawness that is difficult to capture.
He wrote several songs that were copied by other blues men - a practice that was rife in those days. A blues man would copy a song and slightly change it, calling it his own. Robert Johnson's Sweet Home Chicago was a very thinly disguised version of Blackwell's Kokomo Blues, for instance. The slow and driving Blues Day Blues was a template ready made for others to plagiarize, while Back Door Woman in dropped D was used many times by lots of artists.
Scrapper survived into the sixties and probably didn't play for many years, but his career was revived a little in the folk boom of the late fifties. He cut a few tracks and his style was largely undiminished, but unfortunately he was robbed and killed in an alley way in the Indianapolis suburb where he lived at the time. He left us a legacy that stands as the best blues music there is - for me he is a far greater blues man than House or Robert Johnson.
Blues Before Sunrise is played in standard tuning in the key of E and is rich in chord variations and interesting progressions. The verses follow the standard chord progression of E/E7-A7-B7, but often half-chords are played and he will use tricks such as moving to the B7 from the second fret down to the first fret (basically C7 to B7) amongst many others. His picking style used a thumb in a monotonic bass style, with his fingers on the trebles strings, and sometimes developing a richer sound and more volume by strumming the full chord with his thumb (I think!)
As is common in his work, the verses were punctuated by at least two musical breaks, which loosely followed the chord structure of the verses, but mostly used inversions higher up the fret board to make the music richer and more varied for the audience. It's interesting to explore the guitar technique and discover how he could take a basic chord , and with just a a couple of very original movements of his picking and fretting fingers, produce something unique and typically Blackwell blues.
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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