Stu­art Ryan ex­am­ines the style of per­haps the most tech­ni­cally adept acous­tic blues­man of all time, the ‘King Of Rag­time’, Blind Blake.

Guitar Techniques - - CONTENTS -

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?

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