Learning to REALLY Play the Blues—Keys for finding your groove

Fenton Robinson

As we officially get back into the blues world after primarily being a rock, funk and soul band (Go here for more information on our band Big Road), I’ve done a bit of reflecting on this art form, how it works, the community that surrounds and supports it and everything involved in playing this music with the integrity it demands—or at least doing so to the best of our ability. Contrary to unfortunate popular opinion, playing the blues—REALLY playing the blues—is not easy. There are worlds of difference between bands who occasionally play a blues song, and bands that play THE blues. Learning this was initially a hard lesson, but we were blessed to have amazing teachers who helped us find the soul of the music and figure out how to grab a piece of it for real.

My Blues Story

I first gained a sense of this while in college in Stevens Point, WI. Lonnie Brooks was just starting to make a name for himself was playing the college circuit. I had heard some blues up to that point—but mostly blues songs played by Cream, Led Zeppelin or other rock bands. I loved that feel and vibe—or at least as much as they could deliver. I also knew that many of the songs I loved by those rock artists were written by other people—people with names like McKinley Morganfield (Muddy Waters), Chester Burnett (Howlin Wolf) or Robert Johnson. I didn’t know much about those people, but I was intrigued. I had just never had the opportunity to get close to the real thing. Lonnie blew me away. There was something different in what he did—a haunting depth. Sure there were parts of what he did that were similar to what my rock heroes played, but there was something else too. This experience started me on a search—a search that introduced me to a world. A search that continues to this day.

Lonnie Brooks

Over the next few years I got to stand close to some great players including Bryan Lee, Fenton Robinson, Willie Dixon, Taj Mahal, etc. One night in Madison, WI had had a chance to stand feet away from Fenton Robinson as he played. It sent shivers down my spine. It was like I was in the presence of royalty. I wasn’t sure anyone else there at the UW memorial Union heard it or felt it, but I did. I had decided shortly before that that somehow, some way I was going to learn to do that. It was honestly a struggle though and it wasn’t until much later that I had a chance to even get close.

After college I played in a few bands we called “blues bands.” We did blues songs and worked hard at it. I listened hard to records I found or borrowed and tried to get close to the sound, feel and timing. I wore out a lot of vinyl but still felt miles away. It wasn’t until a chance meeting and connection with a harmonica player who played with us for a couple of years before moving on to much bigger things. We met totally by accident. He had been mentored by a Milwaukee based guitar player—Bryan Lee–that I had seen many times and had tried to emulate. In the short time we worked together though, he helped immensely with a focus on what to play and when and (more importantly) what NOT to play. We also learned how a blues band worked. We played out a fair amount and it seemed that each time we played, something new came up. We grew a lot and by the time we parted ways, I had some sense for the first time of how things worked. His departure for the much bigger stage was also my motivation to learn to play harmonica. It was a sound I loved once it wasn’t with us. I think that learning that instrument also changed some of how I play guitar. Either way, it was a next step in the process.

Bryan Lee

What I Learned and How to Apply it

This brings me to some key lessons that I think are often lost as people try to learn blues today. There are things available that I certainly didn’t have. But also pitfalls and “rabbit holes” that can distract and confuse. This idea that buying a “Strat,” putting heavy strings on it (like Stevie Ray Vaughn did) cranking up a Fender amp of some kind and blowing pentatonic licks to a 12-bar backing track someone else created is “playing the blues.” It’s really about the same as what “paint by numbers” is to the art world. That isn’t to take anything away from Mr. Vaughn. He re-introduced the world to his heroes and the world they had handed him and brought blues to the mainstream. I think he would agree though that there is more to that world than even just the part he played in it, and he hinted at it in interviews and in his own body of work.

So what do you do? Here are a few things that I think can help base on my own experiences:

  • Listen to the masters. Magic Sam, Muddy Waters (McKinley Morganfield), Howlin Wolf (Chester Burnett), Freddie King, Albert King, BB King, T-Bone Walker, Willie Dixon, Little Walter Jacobs, etc. Those are the people that wrote the book. Go to the source.
  • Learn songs—especially the songs from the masters listed above. All of the key things are there—grooves and riffs, progressions (there is much more than standard just 12 bar), “turnarounds”, themes or “heads,”, etc.
  • Learn the language of the music. There is a language that blues players speak. Players “play by numbers,” know what shuffles (of all kinds) are (along with other rhythms), know a range of “turnarounds” and have a catalogue of songs, riffs and grooves that they can apply as they come up in other people’s music. Blues bands rarely practice and often, in many bands, there are rotating members who can step in and just do what needs to be done.
  • Listen to instruments other than your own. It is famously said that the great Duane Allman learned many of his slide licks by listening to harmonica players like Little Walter Jacobs. I always heard too that Little Walter picked up his tone and phrasing by listening to horn players. As I mentioned above, I believe that learning to play harmonica (or harp as it is typically referred to) made me a better guitar player. As I often tell students, there is a note that Little Walter played in the original Muddy Waters version of I Just Want to Make Love to You that kills me every time. It is the first note in his solo. It will change your life, and I don’t care what instrument you play.  
  • Hang out with other players: As I mentioned above, having a mentor in this world makes all the difference. Go to blues jams. Hang out with the people who seem to get how things are. Ask for help and advice. It is how you find your way.
  • Go to a LOT of Blues Jams: Speaking of blues jams, this is a key aspect of every music scene. Look for them. If you go, show up early, meet people and stay after you get up to play. If you know songs and can lead and sing those songs you will get to play more. I have a whole document on rules for success at blues jams. Send me an email and I can get that to you.
  • Repeat: This is a lifelong endeavor. I’ve been doing it for a long time and still feel like I have a lot to learn. As I said above, stepping back into this world has meant that I have to relearn some things, work on timing and phrasing again. It’s different than playing rock, soul, funk or any other similar music—even if that music is blues based, and even if bands you play in do an occasional “blues” song. 
Freddie King

Lastly it seems that, just as soon as you have things figured out, something new shows up. There are great new players out there now and a growing number of blues festivals that provide opportunities to listen, play and connect. There also seems to be more and more blues societies forming as a way to keep the music alive. Get involved if there is one near you or start your own. There are also a number of social media groups and forums that can provide support and ideas. Search around to find the right ones. They are not all created equal.

In future posts I will elaborate a bit on some of the details I listed above.

Play on!

For in-person or virtual lessons, coaching and mentoring with Mark, contact him at: imwiththebandmz@gmail.com and visit his website at: www.im-with-the-band.org

Mark Zanoni

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