100 years of the greats

Guitar Techniques - - CONTENTS -

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.


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!

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