This is a question I’ve been pondering for a while. There are a number of well-known rock bands that dive into “Blues songs,” from Jackyl to Van Halen and even AC/DC. There are also many bands of different kinds who will toss out the occasional (or maybe frequent) “blues songs,”—often a straight 12 slow blues or a “lumpty” like groove. Stevie Ray’s song Pride and Joy is common fare for many bands, as just one example. To my ear, there is a world of difference between the sound and feel of a blues song played by a rock band, and a blues song played by a real “stone” blues band—even if it’s the same song, or something structurally similar. But what are those differences?
(Note: I want to point out that, in no way is this a condemnation of rock, rock bands or the innovation and creativity in the rock world that has, and continues to, inspire all of us. I play in a rock band too and love most all aspects of that genre—including modern heavier rock. There are differences though, even when bands like this play “12 bar,” or other blues based songs, and I believe it is important to recognize this fact—hence the article. Here is a related article on rock, old and new, and my perspectives in that arena.)
To look at that, I want to go back to some things I have referenced in other posts. I have mentioned some of this before, but I want to fill in a few pieces to that story.
In my formative years, I was attracted to a particular sound that I came to understand as “blues.” Most of my favorite bands were “blues based” — Bands like Cream, Led Zeppelin, Humble Pie, The Rolling Stones, etc. and others. In liner notes I could see names like Robert Johnson, McKinley Morganfield, Chester Burnett, etc. listed and, while I had no idea who those people were, I was attracted to the form and feel of the songs attributed to them.
Several things happened that opened my eyes to new possibilities. I was a young college guy trying to figure out life, hooked on music, playing guitar when I could and listening to a LOT of different kinds of music. First, Lonnie Brooks appeared at my college—in the cafeteria right behind my dorm no less. I was stunned to my core. I had never heard anything like that. This set me on a mission. Over the next couple of years, I was able see shows by the great Magic Slim Holt, Jimmy Johnson, Bryan Lee, Sugar Blue and others. These experiences inspired me, but as much as I listened and practiced, I still struggled to get close to anything like that sound and feel.
It wasn’t until a chance encounter with Mark “Madison Slim” Koenig in a basement “jam session” in Stevens Point, Wisconsin that I at least understood a few things I was doing wrong. Mark (of The Legendary Blues Band, Jimmy Rogers band and others) told us in no uncertain terms that we were actually playing things wrong. It either wasn’t “swinging” OR we needed to “open things up,” “give space” and not play so ponderously and aggressively. I took the lessons to heart, went back to my records, took jazz lessons from a local guitar legend and tried to find some other chords and sounds that seemed closer to what I was hearing and what Mark was talking about.
In time, I met some other players, learned a few more things, was encouraged to focus on learning songs (something that I found was key), and was given some tips on things to listen for and learn in those songs. Around that same time, we actually did start a band that we called “a blues band” and did our best with what we had and what we knew.
With an actual band to call our own, my bass player wife and I were on a mission, and for years we listened to nothing other than older blues artists– or modern players seeking that “older” sound–people like James Harman, Kim Wilson, Junior Watson, Ronnie Earl, etc. were in constant rotation on our stereo, along with Otis Rush, Albert King, Albert Collins, Little Walter Jacobs, etc. However, it wasn’t until a chance meeting with the great Cadillac Pete Rahn that things began to click for us. Pete joined our band and for two years schooled us on what to play, what not to play and how to make it work, before moving to New Orleans to play with the aforementioned Bryan Lee. Pete was my inspiration to pick up the harmonica too after he moved south, and taking up this other instrument opened some doors as I was forced to listen to other parts of the music and focus on other key things.
So, what were the differences that we discovered along this challenging, but amazing road to discover the blues. What made it different?
- The Rhythm: Blues bands swing and sway: There is a unique feel when a blues band dives into a “shuffle,” or even a slow blues. It swings in a cool way, and the rocking, often behind the beat, rhythm pulls you in. This is hard to describe. It’s something that needs to be felt. Rock bands that play blues type songs hit heavily and without much nuance, and often way on top of the beat. There is also often an emphasis on certain parts of the groove that make it hard to feel that “sway” and “swing”—or at the very least, an emphasis on aspects of the rhythm that makes it “heavy” (as Madison Slim described it), repetitive and ponderous. A blues band approaches many of those same grooves in a very different way.
- Variety in the Kinds of Grooves and Rhythms Used: A shuffle played in one of 100s of ways may be followed by a rhumba, a 6/8 slow blues, a tune with a rock beat, etc. This is a part of what comes from understanding the history of the genre and being immersed in everything related to that awareness.
- Dynamics and Motion: A blues band playing even a slow blues uses dramatic shifts in volume and movement to create tension and energy. Build ups, “drops,” and massive shifts in the way a “line” or rhythm moves will add energy and subtle (or not so subtle) shifts that pull the listener along.
- Chords and Chord Voicings: Great blues keyboard players or rhythm guitar players find ways to use creative chord voicings, double stops or other rhythm figures to add tension, emphasis, “space” and color to the overall soundscape. Very often those chord voicings, inversions, etc. come from the jazz world, but are applied in unique ways in a blues context not typical in most rock bands.
- Different ways of Playing with Certain Grooves: The other thing that great blues rhythm players do is find ways to pull the groove along by emphasizing “off beats” and “syncopation,” OR giving space by–as just one example–pushing the first beat in a measure and then an offbeat to give the groove that “swing” and “sway” motion mentioned above. Great players also vary things so that each time around on the 12 or 8 bar (or however the particular song is structured) is slightly different, especially under solos.
- A Sense of History and “Vocabulary” of the Music: Great blues players know the genre and all of the subtle pieces of language and vocabulary that goes with it. You can hear in the variety of things played, the variations on “turnarounds,” “chord voicings” and rhythm figures, etc. It isn’t just ponderously one dimensional. There is “depth” to things and an obvious catalogue of riffs, rhythm figures, particular lines or “heads,” etc. to draw upon. These things are woven into the fabric of the music intentionally too—and not just haphazardly thrown against the musical wall.
- A Clear Understanding of the Language and Vocabulary of the Music: This comes out clearly as players communicate about grooves and song structure. Everyone knows what it means if you are told the song (as an example) is sort of “swinging” or “uptown” “shuffle”, that starts on the “V”, goes to the “IV” for the chorus and has “straight 12 solos.” Much of that awareness comes from having that sense of history mentioned, but also…
- A Song Library: As mentioned in a previous post, learning songs from the great legends of the blues world was key to building the history and vocabulary. I believe strongly that the genre is in those songs—a catalogue of “turnarounds,”” heads,” grooves, rhythm figures, etc. comes from that catalogue. This is where all of that comes from and what helps carry the music forward. Knowing (as an example) how The Aces played Blues with a Feeling with Little Walter or the variations in structure that take place in My Babe or the incredible Mellow Down Easy, are things every player needs to know. I’m a big fan of The Aces by the way and will do an article soon just on their work and influence. This certainly isn’t where it ever ends though, but it is one thing that can make a difference between a player that “plays blues songs” and a player that plays The Blues.
One additional thing I will address in future posts is also the state of the blues world today. Even in the blues world, it is possible to miss many things I mentioned above, get stuck in assumption, stereotype in form, style, lyrical content, etc., and attempt to play this music missing many critical historical and foundational elements that I believe are vital to the art form.
Also, I am still learning and may always be. I did this article to begin a discussion about this, and I am curious what things you have noticed—either from experience as a player, or as a follower and fan of the music.
Join the discussion on this topic on the Real Blues You Can Use Facebook page. We will see you there.