This month Jim Clark examines a player that’s a veritable encyclopedia of blues history, vocal and guitar styles - the mighty Joe Louis Walker!
Jim Clark looks at the electric guitar approach of blues singer-songwriter Joe Louis Walker.
Joe Louis Walker is the real deal; a genuine living legend of the blues. We’ve all read about Clapton, Beck, Green etc, cutting their teeth as teenagers, painstakingly lifting licks by the blues greats, attempting to capture the essence of the blues from vinyl. By contrast our artist this month has it written in his DNA; he was born into it, fortunate enough to live and breathe the music his whole life, and developing a deep subconscious understanding.
Growing up in San Francisco in the 50s, Joe Louis Walker was surrounded by blues and gospel music on a daily basis, as a result of a highly musical family - he took up the guitar aged just 8. It’s no wonder then that, by the early part of his teens, he was treading the boards nightly as part of the Bay Area blues scene after spending several years immersed in the music of T-Bone Walker, BB King and Amos Milburn. By the time he was 19 he would receive further education onstage with legends such as Jimi Hendrix, John Lee Hooker and Thelonius Monk.
During this period he struck up a close friendship with blues giant Mike Bloomfield, who was his roommate for several years and a pivotal figure in his musical growth. Bloomfield’s tragic death affected Joe deeply and sparked a complete change of lifestyle. He took time away from the music scene and enrolled at college, where he gained degrees in English and Music, and broadening his understanding of harmony.
In 1985, fronting a new band called The Bosstalkers, he returned to the blues scene, going on to release five albums for the Hightone label before being signed to Polygram and putting out another six.
Joe’s playing is steeped in blues tradition ranging from the early jazz-blues stylings of T-Bone Walker, to wailing overdriven Hendrix pyrotechnics. What sets him aside from many others who may simply churn out pre-learned licks lifted from their heroes, is his innate understanding of music as a language, demonstrated by the strong sense of continuity always present in his lead work.
When listening to Joe solo, you hear tremendous musical clarity in his phrases. He often uses simple melodic motifs numerous times within a chorus, adding harmonic and rhythmic decoration, but without ever sounding boring or repetitive. He changes his picking hand placement to vary the attack and dynamics many times within a single solo.
His rhythmic phrasing displays a keen use of space, as well as sophisticated, displaced repetitious figures; harmonically he always manages to target the underlying chords while sounding uninhibited and expressive; never contrived or sterile.
Our two solo studies show contrasting facets of Joe’s style. The first is in the T-Bone vein, where you can see how a simple idea can be developed on a chorus while maintaining the integrity of the harmony. Secondly, we have a more fiery Hendrix vibe; this ably demonstrates Joe’s use of space, rhythmic phrasing and expression.
When nabbing ideas by your favourite players (which we all do), try not to just learn a lick in isolation; also aim to get to grips with the context within which it is used. Where is it placed in a solo? What happens before and after it? Why? What’s the relationship? Is it rhythmic or harmonic? Is it an opening statement or better suited to the climax? What chord is it outlining? And so on… You get the picture? This may seem a little ‘trainspotterish’, but the fact is, interpreting music like this is crucial if you are to gain fuller understanding of it as a language and art form - as all the greats clearly do.
Joe Louis Walker is the real deal; a genuine living legend of the blues.
Joe Louis Walker: sophisticated to fiery, he has it all