Blues Guitar/Singers – a brief survey

Another response to a project question for my American Music course. It’s a shame I can’t put the music up to go with it, but it’s well worth tracking down. Listening is worth a thousand words.

Q. Collect recorded examples of at least three blues-guitarist singers. Describe and compare their original guitar technique and styles, especially in their treatment of the “breaks”.

On the face of it, this is relatively simple assignment. One can easily find three blues guitarists who, on the surface, seem to have original and unique styles and ‘break’ or solo in a distinctive manner. But, as I thought about this more and more, I began to consider the underlying assumptions behind this question.

Firstly, just what is ‘original’? Original in terms of difference from prior performing styles or original in terms of technique? To answer this question fairly, one needs an encyclopedic knowledge of blues guitar forms. Reading any album note, you’ll find names of influential musicians dropped everywhere. Does this mean that to find a truly ‘original’ blues musician, you have to return to the dawn of the music? Perhaps – and perhaps not.

Secondly, I began to wonder exactly what a blues-guitarist singer is. Obviously there is a vocal component. Equally obviously there is a guitar component. But what else, and if there is something else, what role does it play? If one considers the blues, and certainly on listening to it you get this impression, as an effective melodic ‘call and response’ interplay between the voice and instruments or instruments, how is that practically realized? Then there are the harmonic and rhythmic components of the blues song. Are these to be carried on the guitar as well, or allocated elsewhere?

Already we see a marked complexity emerging as we consider the blues guitarist-singer. The temptation, then, would be to restrict this study to the singer-guitarist who works with no other instrument, either on his own account or by adding extra musicians. But that would be restrictive, and missing many ways that a guitar can be used to play blues.

So lets us begin with a musician who stands on the threshold between older African-American musical styles and the blues. A musician who recorded very few blues songs, preferring minstrel, vaudeville, dance tunes (square dances), and ‘rag’ ditties[1].

The exact birthdate of Henry Thomas seems to be unknown, but is conjectured to be 1874. This would put him in into his fifties by the time he recorded 24 songs, only four of which are blues. One of these is Texas Easy Street[2] . Aside from a short introduction which establishes the characteristic blues harmonic progression, the guitar is used as rhythmic and harmonic accompaniment to the voice. Where the voice drops out, the guitar is used solely to maintain the flow of the song. There is a call and response component, illustrated 54 seconds into the recording, where Thomas sings:

Oooooh, tell me what is the matter now? – ain’t nothing the matter

Please tell me what is the matter now? – tell you what, nothing’s the matter

I’m going back to Texas

Live on Easy Street

Another blues by Thomas, Bull Doze Blues[3] , does contain instrumental breaks – but not on the guitar. Here Thomas uses quills, a pan-pipe-like instrument used often in American South but apparently under-recorded, to provide a catchy, distinctive introduction and a singing melodic response to his vocals. Transferring such melodic elements to the guitar would require a playing technique that could provide rhythm, harmony and melody.

Ironically, it appears that some of this movement towards solo accompaniment was driven by commercial considerations. Record companies preferred to record black blues musicians on their own – it was cheaper that way. Many early blues musicians would normally perform with a string band[4]. A field recording of one such was made by Alan Lomax in 1941. This features Son House (guitar, vocal) with Fiddlin’ Joe Martin (mandolin, vocal interjections), Willie Brown (guitar) and Leroy Williams (harmonica).

The first thing that strikes you about this recording of Walking Blues[5] is how busy it sounds. Over a moderately paced rhythmic strumming, you hear frenetic mandolin, second guitar runs, and impassioned harmonica (the train – horn at 1’ 48”, wheels at 2’ 08” was accidental but a wonderful sound effect nonetheless). House’s vocal delivery stands in complete contrast to Thomas’s more measured performance. House swoops, hollers, growls, moans and slurs all around the lyric. Much in the manner of a Southern black preacher in full flow. The song seems on the verge of collapse from time to time but holds together. Remove the backing band, and how is House going to replicate this?

The answer is to make the guitar sing as much as possible while maintaining a driving rhythm and the basic harmonic underpinning. On the 1930 recording, Preaching The Blues Parts 1 & 2[6] , House uses a bottleneck or slide to generate a sliding and singing high note sound, while slashing at the guitar to generate a fierce and forceful, yet flexible, rhythm. Note how he uses a steady foot tap (evident in Part 1, not in Part 2) over which the guitar drops syncopated chords. In this way, he makes his guitar talk to him and to us, carry the harmony, and give the song a series of powerful rhythmic surges.

House does not greatly vary his melodic responses to each of his bellowed lines greatly, in essence sticking to a single riff, but there are subtle fluctuations in rhythm and attack that maintain musical interest. The sole break occurs in Part 2 at 5’ 05”, and is marked more than anything else by a heightened rhythmic insistence, giving the song a rocking quality.

Son House was one of the first blues artists to make commercial recordings, and these influenced later blues men such as Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters. Indeed, his records are so forceful it is hard to see how any blues guitarist who heard them would not be influenced. But House’s approach is not the only way to make an acoustic guitar talk the blues – or emulate a string band. Consider the approach Blind Lemon Jefferson uses for his oft-covered Matchbox Blues[7] (1927) . Here was also have an insistent guitar rhythm over steady foot tapping, but Lemon does not slash and attack the guitar with anything approaching House’s ferocity. Instead, Jefferson uses the guitar to embellish his vocals, which are noticeably smoother (although still impassioned) than those of House. Jefferson fingerpicks runs all around his vocals (much in the style of mandolin playing, good example at 2’ 39”). He varies his accompaniment constantly, even introducing boogie-woogie riffs (at 1’ 30” and 2’13”). Much more melodic action on the guitar here than with the House recording, which, in turn, is rhythmically more forceful. Two artists generating individual styles by altering the blend of the guitar’s melodic and rhythmic qualities to complement their differing vocal styles. Another outstandingly proficient blues guitarist, Blind Willie McTell, finger-picks in a decorous style with fast arpeggio runs, stylistically hewing closer to Anglo-American folk styles, as illustrated in Statesboro Blues[8], recorded in 1928. The stylistic variation among these early blues guitarists is as individual as their singing voices, and one could devote a book to them. The most famous and lauded acoustic blues singer/guitarist was Robert Johnson who laid down most his recordings late in the acoustic blues recording boom. Phonograph Blues[9] is illustrative both of Johnson’s strumming/picking style that combines styles ranging from Son House through Blind Willie McTell, as well as a telling comment that Johnson was learning his licks from existing recordings. Technology was helping broaden the bluesman’s influences far beyond the confines of his region.

The 1920s and 1930s saw considerable demographic changes among the African-American population. Seeking better paying jobs and a daily existence that was not smothered by the overwhelming taint of institutionalized racism, large numbers of blacks migrated north to the big cities such as Chicago and Detroit. Cities provided clubs and steady work for the musicians who followed this migration. The close proximity of these clubs allowed musicians to check each other out, listen and jam.

The blues guitar playing underwent a radical change at the end of the 1930s. Two factors, one musical and one technical, lay behind this. Firstly, jazz music had co-opted blues forms and had generated a series of outstanding blues musicians such as Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, and Earl Hines. But these were primarily trumpet, saxophone and piano players – musicians who could solo above a drum and bass rhythm section and still be heard. The quieter acoustic guitar was suited more for the role of rhythm. All this changed with the introduction of electrically powered amplification that, for the first time, allowed a guitar to be clearly heard above the propulsive rhythm section. One of the very earliest, if not the earliest, electric guitar blues was performed by jazz guitarist, trombonist and arranger Eddie Durham. Good Mornin’ Blues[10] from 1938 is a good example of jazz blues playing. Over a swing solid rhythm, courtesy of Count Basie’s rhythm section, Durham solos along with trumpet player Buck Clayton and bassist Walter Page, and provides warm, resonant harmonic underpinning elsewhere. His solo, 38 seconds into the song, packs a lot into a short period of time. A swift introductory phrase moves into lower register picking, then climbs up, utilizing both picked notes and strummed chords, and ends on a fast flourish. It’s perfectly proportioned and fits seamlessly into the overall jazz performance.

It’s worth emphasizing the radical differences that amplification allowed. With the introduction of a jazz-derived rhythm section, the guitarist was freed from rhythmic and harmonic duties if he wished to be. He could now solo freely in much the same way as a horn player.

Whether Eddie Durham prompted blues guitarist T-Bone Walker to switch form acoustic to electric or whether he picked it simply because ‘it was in the air’, the result was a series of groundbreaking performances that, growing from similar jazz roots, provided a stylistic blueprint for much of later blues and rock and roll guitar grew. With Walker, the electric guitar assumed an overarching prominence.

All of this in evidence in one of Walker’s earliest recordings Mean Old World[11], cut in 1942. After a brief descending chordal strummed introduction, T-Bone solos throughout the first verse of the blues, introducing phrases that would be recycled endlessly in blues and rock playing. He plays on and around the beat, leaves holes in the music, and 30 seconds into the song introduces a signature up-tempo flurry of notes that creates a rush of excitement – and would form one of the bedrocks of Chuck Berry’s playing style and, thus by extension, practically all of rock and roll guitar. At 43 seconds, he sets up a brief high register ostinato, again generating musical tension and excitement. By the time he starts singing, you have been completely drawn into the performance and he continues to punctuate his vocals with apt guitar phrases, fast finger picked runs or bell-like chords or simply no guitar at all. T-Bone, like the finest musicians, knows the value of silence.

T-Bone Walker’s style was a major influence on a far more celebrated blues guitarist/singer, B.B. King, as is evident from this 1951 recording Three O’Clock Blues[12] but that’s hardly a bad thing. Note the horn backing, again illustrating the invigorating influence of jazz upon the blues, but now integrated into the musical texture to provide a solid backdrop over which King sings and solos. From this, King’s playing evolved a highly individual high register stinging tone that soars above the increasingly loud amplified rhythm sections of 1950’s R&B bands. It is a style capable of floating evocatively over a ‘60s soul string and electric piano arrangement such as is found on The Thrill Is Gone[13].

One supremely individual blues electric guitar stylist emerged out the Detroit scene. John Lee Hooker was a throwback to the acoustic guitar styles of the deep South, but he chose to play them on the electric guitar. Thus Boogie Chillun [14] from 1949 emerges a beast clearly in the acoustic tradition, but the single string-led riffing – a riff that one might find on the horns in a small band and that continues throughout the whole song, punctuated only by rapidly strummed high register chords – is loud and in your face. Changing the dynamic between the voice and the accompaniment gives the performance a charged quality, hypnotic in its effect. Likewise the more conventional delta style – in a Robert Johnson/Delta Blues tradition – that Hooker uses on Crawling King Snake[15] emerges as altogether more menacing in this electric performance. These recordings provide yet another blueprint for the rock styles that would emerge most prominently in the 1960s and beyond.

So far finger picking, riffing and strumming. What happens if you add a blues bottleneck or slide to the electric guitar? Look no further than Elmore James. I Believe[16] , recorded in 1952, illustrates James’ roaring slide playing, drawn from Robert Johnson’s acoustic slide, that dominates the rocking small R&B group. Again, insistent ostinato guitar patterns underlie the performance, heavy with the vibrato that only a slide can produce, generating tension that releases only as the blues verses resolve. Plus it is in-your-face loud!

Listening to later performances by blues artists, it’s clear that whatever sheer musicianship is involved in placing the notes or generating a distinctive individual tone, almost everything that you hear has its clear antecedents in the music. Perhaps only in the 1960s was there a re-infusion of truly original creativity into blues guitar playing, and much of this was the product of even more technological innovation in the electric guitar. Although blues guitarist were not averse to making good use of the sonic qualities generated by a malfunctioning amp, truly reproducible electronic enhancements were the by-product of the burgeoning electronic music scene in the 1950s and 1960s. Hitherto uncontrolled elements, such as amplifier feedback, achieved startling precision in the hands of a guitarist such as Peter Green. The Supernatural[17], a track recorded in 1967 with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, an extraordinary example of controlled sustain (and a track that is a blueprint for Carlos Santana’s entire early career!). Note that this is an instrumental. Whether by accident or by design, the close link between guitar playing and singing established by the earliest pioneers was progressively loosened as the blues moved through the R&B phase of the 1940s and 1950s and this continued as blues became integrated into rock. Simply, there were not very many rock blues singers who could play guitar well and vice versa.

One exception towers above them all. The musician who most definitively blended a large gamut of electronic sounds into blues guitar playing is, of course, Jimi Hendrix. No recording better illustrates this than Voodoo Child (Slight Return)[18] with its opening wah-wah effects, crashingly distorted chords and waves of highly amplified sound permeating the performance. Yet this is still guitar blues. Hendrix also brought a highly individual singing style to his performances, laconic rather than impassioned in the Son House manner, but the contrast suited his guitar technique perfectly.

On one level, we could leave this overview just where it stands. But that would by most unsatisfying and the true reward of any undertaken project is the unexpected insight. This brief but intense listening survey has served to finally answer a conundrum that has bothered me ever since I was a young man – why are so many lengthy rock, blues, boogie and heavy metal guitar performances so stupefyingly boring? Finally I have the answer. The most convincing blues performances rely on maintaining a balance between the rock solid harmonic underpinning of the blues structure and the tension-generating methods of playing that have been elucidated above. Most extended rock performances fall into the trap of over-extending the stock guitar motifs and/or losing the solidity of the blues harmonic base. In live performance – when the very high volume levels effectively amplify every overtone to produce effectively a grounding drone – or under the influence of mind altering drugs, these musical shortcomings may not be shortcomings at all. But removed from such environments, the music – and I am thinking of the live recordings of Cream as an example here – falls flat.

Only one extended blues-rock recording convinces me on all levels and that is The Velvet Underground’s Sister Ray[19]. Sister Ray, which is based on a basic blues chord pattern much in the manner of Louie Louie, succeeds completely not least because John Cale, importing drone and monotony techniques drawn directly from LaMonte Young’s Dream Syndicate, establishes a true trance-like atmosphere. But above Cale’s organ cacophony (Cale very carefully generates his extreme dissonance by progressively modifying the basic blues chords of the song), we hear blues licks galore, and seven and a half minutes into the performance a perfectly proportioned blues guitar solo, rich in sustain and feedback, from Lou Reed. A second solo at 13’ 25” is even more stunning, not least because Maureen Tucker’s drumming, which has been maintaining a steady foot tap throughout, starts to break up and the rhythm guitar is progressively amplified giving us a series of Son House-style slashing chords. This is one performance from a band (that is not considered a blues-rock band at all!) that suggests a deep and profound understanding of the music. Nor would Lou Reed be considered a blues singer, but his vocal style is not that far removed from Jimi Hendrix and again suits perfectly the extraordinary noise that his band generated. I have played this track perhaps over one thousand times since I first came across it in the early 1970s, and still find surprises and extraordinary touches within. Tracing the roots of the blues as I have done here is revealing many more.



[1] Calt, Stephen. Liner notes to Henry Thomas – Texas Worries Blues, Yazoo CD 1080/0 1989

[2] From Henry Thomas – Texas Worries Blues, Yazoo CD 1080/0 1989

[3] From Henry Thomas – Texas Worries Blues, Yazoo CD 1080/0, 1989

[4] Lomax, Alan. Notes from CD The Land Where The Blues Began Rounder CD 82121-1861-2, 2002

[5] House, Son, with Fiddlin’ Joe Martin, Willie Brown & Leroy Williams Walking Blues from The Land Where The Blues Began Rounder CD 82121-1861-2, 2002

[6] House, Son from Blues Masters, Volume 8:Mississippi Delta Blues Rhino R2 71130

[7] Jefferson, Blind Willie Matchbox Blues from The Best Of Blind Lemon Jefferson Yazoo 2057

[8] McTell, Blind Willie Statesboro Blues from The Classic Years 1227-1940: Atlanta JSP Records 77114

[9] Johnson, Robert Phonograph Blues (Take 2) from The Complete Recordings Columbia Legacy C2K 46222

[10] Kansas City Six featuring Eddie Durham, Good Mornin’ Blues from Away From Base JSP Records 923C

[11] Walker, T-Bone Mean Old World from The Original Source – T-Bone Blues Proper Records Properbox 38

[12] King, B.B. Three O’Clock Blues from The Modern Records Blues Story Fuel Records 302 061 345 2

[13] King, B.B. The Thrill Is Gone from Anthology MCA 088 112 410-2. Interestingly the original version of this song by Roy Hawkins was a contemporary release on Modern Records with King’s Three O’Clock Blues

[14] Hooker, John Lee Boogie Chillen from The Modern Records Blues Story Fuel Records 302 061 345 2

[15] Hooker, John Lee Crawling King Snake from The Classic Early Years 1948-1951 JSP Records JSPCD7703

[16] James, Elmore I Believe from Blues Masters, Volume 8:Mississippi Delta Blues Rhino R2 71130

[17] Mayall, John with Peter Green The Supernatural from London Blues 1964-1969 Deram P2 44302

[18] Hendrix, Jimi Voodoo Child (Slight Return) from Electric Ladyland Reprise W2-6307

[19] The Velvet Underground Sister Ray from Peel Slowly And See Polydor 31452 7078-2

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