VINTAGE TO MODERN BLUES
100 years of the greats
It’s such a compelling style to play, so here we cover a century of music via those that created the genre and others that continue it today.
INTERNATIONALLY RENOWNED ARTISTS SUCH AS BILL BROONZY WOULD INSPIRE AND PAVE THE WAY FOR NEW GENERATIONS OF ACOUSTIC BLUES GUITARISTS
Few playing styles provide us with the same level of satisfaction as acoustic blues. In spite of the sorrowful tales the lyrics often tell, there is something deeply appealing about the image of sitting on the front porch with nothing but three chords and a beat-up Gibson, Harmony or Kay. With that in mind, for this feature, we’ll be looking in depth at the tricks and idiosyncrasies of the acoustic blues greats from the likes of Robert Johnson and Blind Blake, right up to date with modern day masters such as Eric Bibb and Kelly Joe Phelps.
One classic sound identifying early Delta Blues was bottleneck or slide guitar, in which players would adopt an open tuning, typically open E or A, and move an object such as the neck of a bottle, a piece of copper tubing or even a knife up and down the neck creating rudimentary harmonies, and microtonal increments. Charley Patton, Son House and Bukka White were influential exponents of this style who used National resonators to play repetitive open- and single-finger chords interspersed with slide fills, usually with a simple bass-string accompaniment.
Possibly the greatest of all the bluesmen (certainly according to Eric Clapton) was the enigmatic Robert Johnson, whom Son House strongly influenced. Johnson’s mysterious demise at the young age of 27 is one of the great legends of music. Johnson made just a handful of recordings, notably Sweet Home Chicago and, of course, Crossroad Blues.
Much of the early blues fingerstyle repertoire was based on ragtime – a style borne out of classical idioms such as a leaping bass pattern offset by a syncopated melody. The most notable exponent of ragtime guitar was Blind Blake – a player with speed and dexterity that’s considered remarkable even by today’s standards.
In contrast to the mournful rural sounds of the Mississippi Delta, the lighter side of blues was demonstrated by figures such as Big Bill Broonzy, whose more urban, populist sound would see him perform at prestigious venues to black and white audiences alike (at a time when segregation was still rife in certain areas of America). Broonzy’s sound was muscular and forceful, sometimes plucking so firmly that the strings bent sharp. He was, however, a highly rhythmic and articulate player, with songs such as Hey, Hey encapsulating his light-hearted approach perfectly.
Internationally renowned artists such as Broonzy would inspire and pave the way for new generations of acoustic blues singers and guitarists: Kelly Joe Phelps, a former jazz musician converted to the blues after listening to the old masters such as Mississippi Fred McDowell, brought the skilful touch and precise intonation of a modern virtuoso to the blues. And Martin Simpson, inspired by the likes of Big Joe Williams, switches from English ballads to authentic Delta blues with ease. Another notable contemporary figure is New Yorker, Eric Bibb, a wonderfully tasteful player with a smooth vocal style. His playing is a mixture of Travis-style alternating bass, with chord changes implied by improvised fills.
The following pages aim to demonstrate a wealth of blues ideas, with examples of slide, ragtime and self-accompanied fingerstyle, culminating in a sort of ‘ultimate blues’ that incorporates a bit of everything.
As ever, our aim is for you to use these examples as a launch pad for your own creativity. This is such a wonderful style to have under your fingers – even if blues itself is not particularly your thing – that everyone can enhance their breadth and repertoire by adopting some of these ideas. Check out some of the fabulous footage that’s now accessible on YouTube too. Have fun!