Stuart Ryan examines the style of perhaps the most technically adept acoustic bluesman of all time, the ‘King Of Ragtime’, Blind Blake.
Stuart Ryan investigates the style of a musician whose abilities were years ahead of their time, the frankly remarkable Blind Blake.
Often referred to as ‘The King of Ragtime Guitar’, Blind Blake is one of the finest old-time blues guitarists you are likely to hear. Indeed, his playing is so impressive that jaws still hit the floor in disbelief at his technical prowess, speed and swagger. As with many of the blues greats, little is known about Blake’s life. His birthplace is thought to be Jacksonville, Florida and it is possible that his name is either Arthur Blake or Arthur Phelps. What we do know is that he recorded around 80 songs for Paramount Records during the 1920s and early 1930s. As with Robert Johnson there is very little photographic evidence with, as far as we know, only one authenticated shot of Blake in existence.
However, his musical voice still shouts loudly down the annals of music history, and if you listen to his playing style you’ll realise why he is still relevant all these years later. Not surprisingly, given the era in which he was active, Blake’s technique is reminiscent of ragtime piano. But those striding bass lines and funky chords, played with an immense energy and speed can be hard to capture. This approach makes Blake the consummate solo blues guitarist as bass lines often interplay with tightly woven melodies. If you are familiar with Merle Travis, Chet Atkins and Tommy Emmanuel, you’ll have an idea of the level of technique required to get Blake’s style under your fingers. However, the verve and snap of his playing is very difficult to capture, and while a basic familiarity with Travis picking will get you started, this is as much about attitude as anything else.
Like his life, Blake’s musical influences are a curiosity and probably far removed from the standard blues man - it is likely that the pop music of the time coupled with the birth of jazz and ensemble playing had as much influence on Blake as blues did. Indeed, the influence of ragtime piano on his playing is an object lesson in the adage of taking influence from instruments other than your own.
Given the complexity of his playing, Blake probably used three fingers on the picking hand and may even have worn fingerpicks to give the percussive attack that is a hallmark of his style. I performed this one with reenforced natural fingernails and I would suggest either nails or picks to get the definition and attack required. Blake was a genuine guitar phenomenon and well worth looking into if you are seeking some blues inspiration - and perhaps a surprise or two!
All that said, not everything Blake did was up-tempo, even though we guitarists are most often immediately impressed with his faster work. While a lot of it is based around the picking of notes out of chord shapes, you will really want to work on the strength, stamina and rhythm in the picking hand to keep this stuff going fluently. I suggest starting very slowly, breaking each section down into manageable sections to really get to grips with it. And remember to warm up first!
NEXT MONTH Stuart looks at the impressive acoustic style of the mighty Nick Harper
It is likely that the pop music of the time coupled with the birth of jazz had as much influence on Blake as blues did
Is there a pick on the thumb in this only known shot of Blake?