Justin Sandercoe of justinguitar.com lends GT his insight as one of the world’s most successful guitar teachers. This month: Making music history maps.
Justin Sandercoe, Scott Henderson, Mitch Dalton, Jam Tracks, One-Minute Lick and more.
I’ve been listening to the blues since I first got a guitar and spent hundreds of hours trying to absorb the licks and songs of Freddie and BB King, Stevie Ray Vaughan, T-Bone Walker, Robben Ford and many more besides… but a major turning point in my understanding of the blues was when I started to make my own ‘Blues History Maps’ and it’s something I highly recommend you also check out.
I was touring with The Counterfeit Stones and wanted to deepen my knowledge and understanding of the blues (the rest of the guys were older and really knew their stuff!) so I bought a blues history book called The Devil’s Music: A History Of The Blues, by Giles Oakley. As I read the book I would pick an artist or two and search for some albums in whatever town I was and listen to them as I read the related chapters. Today with Spotify or YouTube it’s a whole lot easier to find the music instantly, but using a book to offer guidance on what to listen to really helps.
There are many other books on the history of the blues and, while I really like Oakley’s tome, Deep Blues by Robert Palmer is also excellent, as is The History Of The Blues: The Roots, The Music, The People by Francis Davis. I’m sure there are many more. Dip into a few and find a style of writing you find engaging, because you don’t want to have to trudge through it; it needs to excite you.
My understanding of blues grew in ways that would not have been possible had I not been tracing the development of the language. I heard the influence of travelling musicians and how a whole scene could change after the arrival of a new one, and the movement of licks, phrases, chord progressions and even chord shapes.
Once you have a kind of framework, things fall into place a lot better and you’ll find it easier to lock in new things you learn. Watching ‘Martin Scorsese Presents’ excellent blues film series is made even richer when you know a bit of the history. Learning about the hardships of many of the blues pioneers and how they lived gave me a whole new level of respect for what they achieved – not surprising that they ‘had the blues’ with the incredible prejudice they faced.
I would recommend you make your own notes and get to know your Chicago blues from your Memphis blues and listen for similarities between West Coast and Texas blues. Get the names of the pioneers in each city and then read about where they travelled, how they lived.. and LISTEN. Reading on its own is great, but I think listening as you go (and even taking notes) is the big deal. Check out the British blues players of the 60s, who they were listening to and trace it back – the lineage becomes pretty obvious sometimes.
I took it a step further and spent most days transcribing at least a bit of what I was listening to so I could better remember the phases and language tools people were using. It expanded my blues vocabulary and also helped if I was on a session and wanted to do something ‘in the style of’. It also helped see influences of players I liked; listen to some early Albert King and you can clearly hear where Stevie Ray Vaughan got a load of his lick ideas. Or check out T-Bone Walker and then Chuck Berry and you’ll clearly hear where the rock and roller nicked his licks (and moves) from.
Listening and reading about the subject will introduce all the important blues players you might not have encountered as a casual listener – the great Chess Records’ house musician Willie Dixon who not only played bass on many of the greatest Chicago blues records, but also wrote many of the greatest songs. It wasn’t until this research that I realised that it wasn’t Howlin’ Wolf’s playing that I loved. Wolf didn’t play guitar, it was the incredible Hubert Sumlin. Things like that made me feel a bit ignorant but we all have a lot to learn and this kind of study can create as many holes as it fills. The more you know, the more you realise you don’t know!
It was (and is) a fascinating journey and I really can’t encourage you enough to give it a go. It helped me realise that blues is a language that we can all speak and understand - if indeed we take the time to learn it - and for sure this kind of musical study will make you a better musician. And it’s not just for blues; it works just as well for whatever style tickles your ears. Which reminds me, I must find a great jazz history book and get started with that. Happy trails!
i realised it wasn’t howlin’ wolf’s playing that i loved. wolf didn’t play guitar, it was hubert sumlin
Research into blues lineage and geography gave Justin new insight