The Blues

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Recently, performers like Eric Clapton have been returning to their acoustic origins and have started once again to play in a blues style. The screaming guitar sounds of the electric blues have become an indelible part of our music. Before that, there was the quieter though no less powerful blues of the acoustic guitar, played on front porches and at backwoods gatherings by itinerant musicians for whom sung lyrics were just as important as their inventive guitar parts.

The blues began as a folkloric music in rural African-American communities in the last decades of the nineteenth century. By the twenties, the style was perfected by specialized singer-songwriter-guitarists. But blues was also performed by songsters like Leadbelly and Henry Thomas, who also sang story songs, children’s songs, comic songs, and even spirituals. The blues was also quickly assimilated by early jazz and rural dance bands and even Tin Pan Alley.

This chapter teaches you the basics of the blues: from the funda-mental underlying 12-bar pattern that fits thousands of songs, to learning blues chords, and then finally mastering a blues instru-mental.

Taking Measure of the 12-Bar Blues

Most blues songs take the form of the 12-bar blues, so called because it consists of 12 bars (i.e., measures) of four beats each. There are three sung lines, each one fitting into a four-bar section. Almost always, the first line is sung twice, and then the thought is completed or answered by the final line.

A usual blues verse, with the chord changes in the key of E, looks like this:

Trouble last night and trouble the night before
Trouble last night and trouble the night before
Trouble in my home and trouble knocking at my door.

The words fit against a chord structure that you would strum out like this, with each slash representing one beat:

Represented in music, the melody and strumming looks like this:

12-Bar Blues

Seventh Chords

We’ve just strummed through a blues using the E, A, and B7 chords. Perhaps you find that it doesn’t sound all that bluesy yet. Play it again, but this time use a seventh chord every time, using these chord shapes.

Seventh chords sound bluesy because—depending on exactly which chords they are—they include some extra notes called blue notes.

Practice strumming these chord changes until you can play them smoothly before we go further. Keep the beat even, and try experiment-ing by choosing to play any given measure with either a plain chord or the seventh. If you don’t know a plain B yet, just use B7. Once you get these chord changes automatic, you’ve got the blues.

Getting Down to the Blues

Now let’s build a blues solo. It will be based on a characteristic rhythm called a shuffle that also appears in rock, pop, country, and jazz. The shuffle beat has a loping feeling that comes from each foot-tap being divided evenly into thirds, or in musical language, triplets.

Tap your foot or clap your hands slowly and evenly. With each beat, say to yourself one-two-three, one-two-three as if you were saying rock-a-bye, rock-a-bye.

Now, instead of calling out three parts of the beat, let’s work with two parts in a LONG-short rhythm. The LONG part takes up the first two- thirds of the beat, as if you were saying BA-by. You can go back and fourth between one-two-three and LONG-short in different combinations
by reciting the syllables “rock-a-bye, rock-a-bye, BA-by, BA-by,” “rock-a-bye BA-by, rock-a-bye BA-by,” and so on, in different combinations. Try reciting these syllables to yourself as you play the following example. To get a blues sound, sound all three notes by brushing upward with your index finger.

Now that we’ve got the basic beat, let’s play the same music, adding a steady bass beat to reinforce the rhythm. Do this by playing a bass note steadily along with each foot tap, like so:

Shuffle with Bass

Keeping that thumb absolutely steady should be your goal. Even the greatest guitarists sometimes miss a beat now and then, but they don’t like it any more than you do.

Once the shuffle beat and the steady bass are under control, we can move on to some real blues playing. This piece has a classic country blues sound recalling the Delta and Texas styles. You’ll be using these chord shapes. Learn them first and reading the piece will be easier.

Classic Country Blues

In Chapter, “Rythm Practice,” you learned about syncopation. Here is an example of a 12-bar blues with what is called a “Walking Bass.” Just as in Travis picking, you keep the thumb beats steady and lightly accent all the off-beats with the fingers.