Before you get defensive, I want to assure you that I am a fan—a huge fan. I was a fan before his albums came out. I heard him on David Bowie’s Let’s Dance and I was hooked. I remember walking into a mall record store (there was such thing back then) and asking the person at the counter if they had the new record by David Bowie’s guitar player, some guy named Stevie Vaughan. She looked puzzled, asked a manager and I was told curtly, “No.” I found Texas Flood a week or so later at another store and wore it out. I bought a Strat shortly after (I’d been a Gibson guy before that), and a bit after that an old Black Faced Fender and a Tube Screamer and tried, in vain, to cop that sound. As other records came, like before, I couldn’t get enough. I did my best to absorb the songs, licks, feel and energy the best of my ability. Without a doubt therefor, the day after the helicopter crash that took Stevie’s life was one of the worst days of my life. It was surreal and stunning in a way I couldn’t describe. Especially because I knew that he had recently walked onto a good life path of sobriety.
Without a doubt Stevie Ray Vaughan had incalculable impacts on music during his career. Primarily, Stevie brought blues back to the mainstream with an energy that had not been seen since maybe Jimi Hendrix. If you didn’t know about blues before, chances are the whirlwind that was Stevie Ray Vaughan pulled you in at some point. In fact, I believe this is still the case. I would say that the number one most requested and played blues songs that I hear played in bars by a range of cover bands from rock to country, remain SRV tunes. People know these songs and they dance. I also know many people who picked up a guitar for the first time because of Stevie’s influence. I really believe that it is safe to say that it is possible that no other artist since the Beatles have had that kind of influence and impact.
With all of that said though, I began to see a familiar pattern emerge around the time of Soul to Soul—familiar because there is an industry pattern to replicate success and keep the money flowing from that success. Essentially a long string of Strat wielding (mostly) dudes (and more recently women), slinging overdrive drenched Albert King licks, some even wearing cowboy hats and boots emerged on the music scene with promotion and money behind them and claims they were the next big thing. They were fixtures at every blues fest and club. Many were forgettable and faded quickly. Some stuck and still grace the music scene–and have even carved out their own niche and identity. But either way, the industry continues to churn out the latest attempt at “the next SRV.” Even as the blues world shrinks, this trend continues. This is one lasting negative that Stevie, of course, really had nothing to do with. It was inevitable. That’s the way the business works.
There is, however, one other issue that seems to have evolved from his legacy, and that is, for many up and coming players, SRV is also where their blues world begins and ends. It’s as if nothing came before Stevie, and there is nothing worthy that has happened since. That is certainly not how Stevie saw it. He gave constant credit to his heroes and mentors, and did his best to use his new found fame to give them the spotlight as well. Stevie was a true blues ambassador, carrying on the work of giving homage and credit to the living and late legends upon whose shoulders he stood. He knew this, took his work seriously, and never forgot where he came from.
As I see it, these are exactly the things missing in so much of today’s blues world—history, connections, homage and original voices. There is a lot of shredding, pyrotechnical prowess and stereotypical song and lyric themes—but not much feel, heart or original creativity, the very things Stevie had in spades. He also understood the legacy AND the responsibility that came with that. Another thing often missing in big parts of todays “blues world.”
In fairness, this isn’t always true. There are some very original and creative artists out there today. However, so often, those getting the kudos and support are exactly the kinds of players I described above. There are specific artists that come to mind, and controversy has erupted in recent years because of what I think are some of these missing pieces, along with the tendency of most in the media industries to focus on the flashy and familiar first.
Partly because of all that I mention, there are students of music history who believe the time is coming soon for a music “revolution,” that will impact how is produced, recorded and distributed, and likely how we listen to it (Go here for an example of this discussion). I also believe that that “blues sound” (click here for an article on what this is and why it’s important) will be at the heart of that revolution. Maybe a modern version of the “British Invasion,” or something like that. The need is there, and I believe the time is right.
The Blues had a baby, and they named it Rock and Roll—McKinley Morganfield (Muddy Waters)
Does The Blues have “the blues?”
I have had several conversations recently about the relevancy of blues music today. Sometimes these statements and conversations surprise me–but they probably shouldn’t. Several once vibrant and thriving blues scenes are now remnants of their former selves (clubs have shut down or don’t do music anymore, OR do music but not blues, regional agents say that they can’t book blues acts, etc.). I can also think of at least two blues festivals that have announced they are no longer going to operate. In addition, attendance at festivals that are in operation are clearly lower than in past years. You also don’t hear “blues-based music” (I will define this below) on the radio as much—or it is rare.
Interestingly, I do hear cover bands of all kinds frequently playing blues-based songs. They tend to be predictable ones (usually one of a couple of Stevie Ray Vaughn songs), HOWEVER those songs DO tend to get very enthusiastic crowd responses—and responses from people of ALL ages. That alone should tell us something.
I have also attended, or run sound for, small festivals in the past couple of years that featured solo artists and bands doing what can only be described as “blues on steroids”—basically rocked up delta-like blues with massively overdriven slide guitar in spades, and variations on “12 bar” or similar progressions, with vocals and lyrics undoubtedly influenced by traditional artists of the past. These fests and artists avoid the “blues” label, or color it with words such as “swamp” or “stomp,” likely because the grooves are closer to heavy metal than anything a traditional blues band would do. Surprisingly, the crowds are young (20s to 30s) and very, very enthusiastic—with a higher percentage of female fans than many would assume.
As I will discuss later, I think clearly people respond to that spark and energy on an almost visceral and unconscious level. This is true despite the responses I often get when I ask people if they like blues. Usually I get a shrug and a tepid response—even from musicians. I have been told things like, “it’s alright…but I like to dance,” (something you should tell the people filling the dance floor and singing along to the latest bar band version of Pride and Joy), or, “I’m trying to get beyond the whole ’12 bar’ thing. It just gets old.” I think it’s vital, therefore, that we get to the root of the issues that are affecting blues and blues-based music, in all its forms, and contemplate some solutions. Clearly the spark is still there, even if it suffers from some confusion and needs a burst of “air” to bring it to full flame again.
One part of the problem may be a LOT of confusion about what blues actually is, how it works, and the history and impacts on music of many kinds. Let’s begin with a definition…
Definition Time: What do I mean by “The Blues?”
What is “the blues?” This definition may, in part, be the main source of confusion and prejudice. Bear with me though, because the definition involves some elements that may be challenging to understand. Look for upcoming posts and videos to clarify this, or email me at the address below:
Blues is not just about “12 bars” and “pentatonic scales,” (although understanding what those scales are, and why they work in this art form, and would generally not work in most standard western music, is critical). “Blues” is a distinct art form with origins, form and essential elements that fall outside of standard western music in most regards. Without diving too deep into the world of “Tri-tone intervals, etc.” (here and here for more on that), it is important to recognize that blues is based on modes, scales and harmony that tends to be dissonant and even “unresolved” by conventional definition. Most blues progressions, because of the unique harmony and modes upon which they are based, also fall outside of conventional western harmony, chord voicings and progressions. Accordingly, a pentatonic scale (a basic blues building block) and the harmony, chords and chord voicings that underlie that scale, are built around certain sounds and intervals. Many people and players refer to it as a “b7 sound” (or the sound made when the seventh note in a standard major or minor scale, is lowered a half step). Sometimes the modes and scales employed, because of the inclusion of that b7 (and sometimes b5) sound, can often also include minor (b3rd) sounds, that are included even in songs with major 3rds in most chords (something very rare in western music). This is true regardless of the form and format in which these chords are employed (not all blues songs have a “12 bar” format). These sounds and other aspects of the art form are also found in other blues-based music, including rock, soul, R&B, country, reggae, etc.
Is it REALLY Gone?
In part because of the elements mentioned in the definition, the blues sound has an impact and energy that is unique. This may actually be because of the music’s very nature, and a sort of unconscious, primal response to the emotion, tension, release of that tension, etc. that are critical elements of music, harmony and corresponding energy. It is fascinating either way, and something that I believe will ultimately carry the music back to the mainstream. I know there are many that scoff at this, but I think part of the assumption is based on a misunderstanding of what blues is, its impacts and presence in music they currently love and follow.
With all of that said, I still believe that the response and understanding has its greatest power and impact when people experience blues in its most basic and rawest form (I recently wrote an article on the difference between bands that play occasional blues songs and “blues bands.” You can find that here), but either way—whether it’s a standard “lumpty shuffle (think Pride and Joy)” played by a bar band, or the opening riff of an AC/DC song (unquestionably blues-based), people respond to this stuff. Look at the impacts that artists like Chris Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson have already had on the Country music world—Chris in particular is steeped in blues, soul and R&B. There’s also a reason that blues-based rock bands like Rival Sons, Tedeschi-Trucks and others have music in heavy rotation TV commercials and are now the chosen opening acts for big names like (another blues-based band) The Rolling Stones (a band named after a Muddy Waters song). Jack White was also just recently raging in all his blues-based glory as the musical act on Saturday Night Live and Larkin Poe just graced the stage on Jimmy Kimmel Live. There’s a spark here. We need to fan that flame and lead the charge in the next music revolution.
How Did We Get Here? The roots of American music, the “British Invasion” and why all of this matters
I believe the first key to making this happen is to go back and find the roots that have defined so much of what we consider “American music,” and recent “revolutions” that made this possible. In a recent video done by YouTuber Rick Beato, he leads a discussion on this very topic (you can find it here). All involved agreed that popular music has lost something since corporate consolidation of media in the mid-90s (primarily as a result of the Telecommunications Act of 1996) and advent of Pro Tools (recording software) and the accompanying pitch correcting software. In Rick’s opinion, producers within these mega companies that have taken over media of all kinds, like clean, reproducible formulas and formats that fit into neat “grids” and boxes (like in most recording software). The “song products” of all genres that result are predictable, polished and neat, mostly all written by a handful of “ghost writers,” and created by computers and a handful of producers and studio people. The blues cannot fit into boxes like that—especially with regards to the mentioned pitch correction software. This music, and all offshoots of this music, are imperfect, often improvised, and based around musical “tension” and finding notes “in between”—notes that don’t fit neatly into western musical rules and forms, or grids and software. This is in part what makes the music exciting and what pulls the listener in, and gives it that deep, human element. It drips of angst and pain, the rawness of the history. It is what makes the music real and so much more than “12 bars” and a “pentatonic box.” This is true for traditional blues, as well as the “blues baby” mentioned above—rock and roll. As discussed in the video, this is what captivated the British artists in the 1960s, who took everything they could from American blues records and created something completely new that, ironically, took America by storm when it made the return trip (hence the description generally assigned—The British Invasion). Those British artists new all too well who they owed for their success and, as a result, many of their African American blues heroes, found new audiences and success with the assistance of the British kids who had named bands after their songs, covered their songs and, later, gave them top billing at rock venues. All of this revolutionized music in American and around the world.
Where Do We Go From Here?
So, what does this mean for us today?
We need to go back to our roots—take a tip from Jack White, The Black Keys, Rival Sons, Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson, Alabama Shakes, Larkin Poe and many R&B artists who found their voices and inspiration from Aretha Franklin, Etta James, Koko Taylor, James Brown and other blues and soul voices—and go back to where it started. Learn the songs, and the “vocabulary” of the music (beyond pentatonic scales and “12 bars”)
If you are a player or aspiring player, learn songs—traditional standard blues songs (contact me for a list). The art form is in those songs. This becomes the foundation you can build on. All the great rock players you know, especially those greats from the 60s and 70s who we see as “rock icons” today started exactly in this place too. They also borrowed (in some cases without credit) riffs and even songs from those traditional artists. This is controversial in itself, but it does show the depth of the influence.
Listen deeply and with our hearts to the power and essence of the music—especially those elements that carried over to soul, funk, rock, reggae, etc. and made American music what it is–“call and response,” “tension and release,” etc.
Learn the history of the music and the unique places and artists that brought a range of elements from African, Native and European music forms and cultural elements together to create the American folk, jazz, and blues traditions that became the foundations for American music in ALL its forms.
Support artists that are carrying these traditions forward. There are a lot of young, new artists who are going deep and bringing these elements back into the mainstream (see some of the artists already listed above), including Marcus King, Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, Jackie Venson, King Solomon Hicks, Shemekia Copeland, Joanne Shaw Taylor, Josh Smith, and many more.
Join or help organize a local blues society in your area. Seek out clubs and other venues open to hosting shows and blues jams and work to get them involved along with any local artists and that are keeping the blues and other blues-based music alive. Hosted blues jams can be a key element for building a scene.
Share this music with young people every chance you get. I have had some astounding experiences as I share Muddy Waters or Aretha Franklin with young people in some of the work I do. This music has power.
Lastly, keep hope alive. Lately I have seen a lot of YouTube videos, Podcasts, etc. that seem to paint a picture of hopelessness with regards to music today and the elements of corporate power and mediocrity that are hell bent on keeping things as they are. People have always found a way to dig deep and find the next horizon. In fact, it often comes out of the depths of desperation and angst. In fact, in this instance, I think the power can’t be contained by its very nature. Let’s do this!
There is a language that is common in blues music—terms and concepts commonly understood by players as way of communicating and talking about the music. Some terms mentioned may vary slightly, and I will note that as I discuss specific things below. Knowing these things will help you go a long way as a player at whatever level you operate—from an occasional jam session participant to a professional level player. In my experience though, much of this is not completely understood by all players today. I believe there are reasons for this, but primary among them is that people are not being taught in the way many of us learned things in years past–that person to person process of coaching and mentoring. Also, many available resources for learning “the blues” right now focus on things that may not ultimately be helpful or complete. Some these approaches can even become confusing distractions or “rabbit holes” that leave players with not much more than a “paint by numbers” understanding that barely resembles the real thing. I think it is the responsibility of all of us who care about the future of the blues to step up and do what we can to fill the void. There are many players hungry to learn and struggling to find a way in.
Here are some key terms and information you need to know. Look for videos here that will be out soon to fill in more specific details on each of these points:
“Playing by Numbers”: This is a common question at many jams (“Do you play by numbers?”) and learning what this means, and how it works, is critical. The concept is based on something called the “Nashville numbering system,” and essentially is based around the idea that there are chords associated with each note in a major and minor scale or mode. Blues differs from standard western music in some ways, owing in large part to the unique harmonic structure. I have done videos in the past that explain this and will do some additional articles and videos in the future. To keep things simple for our purposes here, many blues songs operate out of a progression of three main chords associated with the first, fourth and fifth notes in the scale or mode. Sometimes other chords are added in specific songs and progressions, however to start, it is important to Understand what the “one,” “four” and “five” chords (often written with Roman numerals) are, and where they fall within various progressions. Often on a band stand someone may call out a song and say something like (as an example), “this song starts on the five, walks to the four and to the one, follows a “straight 12,” but has a stop at the “turnaround” under the verses. The chorus goes to the four. Straight 12s for the solos.” Often the person leading a song on a bandstand or at a jam will hold up fingers to signal changes in chords that are coming—especially if the progression or specific song departs from a standard 12 bar format (see below). As you can see, there are also other terms that are used in this process. Here are a few more…
“The Turnaround:” The turnaround is essential what happens at the ending of each 8 or 12 bar progression. As the name implies, you are turning things around and coming back to a “beginning.” The blues is often cyclical in this way—although there are exceptions in specific songs that do not really have a turnaround in the strict sense. There are also many kinds of turnarounds. As you build your musical vocabulary and learn songs, you will add an array of turnarounds to your tool kit. Look for a video out soon on turnarounds, how they work and different kinds and approaches. You will find it here.
“Head:” This idea really comes from the jazz world and is essentially a theme or tune that comes into the song in the beginning and usually again at the end to close the song. Sometimes it is a tune or riff based on the song’s verses that may be played all or in part by an instrument in the beginning before the vocals come in. There are songs with very distinct heads that are known to many players and may be reprised and built upon with variations during solos. Examples include the introduction to T-Bone Shuffle, Little Walter’s Off the Wall, or the old jazz blues song Love Me or Leave Me that has been covered by many blues artists. Little Walter’s version of the Willie Dixon song My Babe also has a kind of head that is a repeated phrase that is a part hint towards the verse and tune to come. These are important parts of the blues vocabulary to learn for reasons I will touch on later.
“Straight 12” and other alternatives: A “straight 12” is a commonly understood progression of chords as described in the section on “playing by numbers.” There are many songs that follow this straight 12 format, however there are also variations, including something called “fast to the four,” and 8 bar and even 16 bar progressions. It is important to understand the standard progression as a path towards understanding the variations and exceptions. If you go to this video and either go to the links in the description, or scroll to 29:24 you will find a detailed description of what all of this means.
“It sounds like…:” Common riffs, Heads, etc.: Most all blues players have a catalogue of riffs, grooves, songs, etc. to draw from that are also often referred to as players communicate. Very often someone will say something like (as an example), “this song is sort of like Scratch My Back and follows the same progression. Watch me at the turnaround.” Most blues players will know what that is and be able to play the riff and adjust to changes that may be taking place. This catalogue is built by knowing songs. As I have mentioned before, this is critical for understanding and learning the genre.
“Lumpty”, “Texas,” “Uptown,” and more: “Shuffles” and other grooves you need to know: In many ways, the “the shuffle” is the quintessential blues groove. There are many kinds of shuffles and many of us have been taught terms to describe how to play them, and have a catalogue of songs that we can reference when someone calls up (for example) a “Texas” or “rub” shuffle as a way to describe the groove for a particular song. Here is a video with a rudimentary description of a shuffles of various kinds and standard rhythms to play with those grooves. Go to 4:40 in the video for this.
Other Common Rhythms and Grooves: The blues has a wide variety of other common rhythms and grooves from “latin” beats to “country type” 2/4 rhythms. Learning songs is the best way to familiarize yourself with how all of these work. If you go to 15:33 in this video you will find descriptions and examples of many common blues grooves and ways to play them as a guitar player.
“Stops,”” Choruses,” and other things to watch for: Specific songs have certain things that are critical parts of the song. A stop is just what it sounds like—a point where the background music stops and usually the vocals continue. There are also blues songs that have a distinct verse and chorus format. Sometimes that is also a point of a key chord change in the song (often going to the “four” chord), or a point where a stop happens. Sometimes these things are signaled by the person leading the song and sometimes it is just assumed that you know where these changes take place.
The things listed here are really a starting point, but will give you a good foundation to build from as a way of learning about the blues genre and finding a way in as a player or fan. It is important to note that as you learn songs and all of the key parts of those songs, you may encounter variations and other key aspects that will build your blues vocabulary and knowledge base. In upcoming posts and videos, I will cover application of all of these things in the context of a blues band, key songs to learn, how to play common licks, riffs and grooves and much more.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A friend alerted me to something on YouTube recently that has become a favorite of mine. This channel has also brought me back in touch with what could arguably be two of the greatest records in the history of rock. A tall order I know but bear with me. The YouTube channel is Bobby Whitlock and CoCo Carmel. Bobby was a major force in music in the late 60s and 70s and beyond. A monster talent who wrote or co-wrote some of the great music of that era. He was a part of two of the most influential collaborations in music history—George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass and Derek and the Domino’s Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. Bobby and Eric Clapton wrote most of the music on Layla and other Love Songs. He was also the primary keyboard player, assisting with arrangements and horn parts, etc. on All Things Must Pass. CoCo is Bobby’s wife and is an amazing musician in her own right–A soulful singer, sax player and guitarist. The two of them have been writing and recording new music and doing acoustic and band renditions of music Bobby recorded in previous bands—especially those listed above. As it turns out she is also a great interviewer and prompts incredible insight, honesty, and depth from the series of interview sessions which have been going on for a few years. The interviews cover history, relationships, challenges, and successes (in music and beyond), personalities, collaborations, and many other aspects of Bobby’s storied career.
The interviews have taken me back to the two recordings mentioned above. It is amazing how fresh and powerful they remain, even today. Artistic creations even in their conceptions. Both fresh and full of soul and life.
These are masterful records. Mostly written and arranged on the spot–many songs the product of band jam sessions that were luckily captured on tape (real tape). This was especially true for Layla, but as Bobby points out, lots of the songs on All Things were arranged via similar sessions—but there were at least 3 songs that were products of jam sessions. Harrison of course also utilized the unique talents and vision of Phil Spector to produce the “wall of sound” energy for All Things Must Pass. However, it was the unique blend of musicians, many of whom would go on to celebrated careers of their own, including Whitlock, Eric Clapton, Gary Brooker (Procol Harum), Gary Wright, Alan White (Yes), Jim Gordon, Klaus Voormann (Plastic Ono Band), the members of Badfinger, Billy Preston and others. There was also guest appearances and visitations (Whitlock explains) by a handful of other famous artists of the time, including Ginger Baker, John Lennon, Yoko Ono and Peter Frampton. The record and its recording sessions were true “happenings” in the London music scene and defined an era. For many well-known artists, George’s All Things Must Pass sessions were memorable “where were you when” moments, and numerous people claim to have a been a part of the process as a result. It should be noted that Bobby disputes some of these oft repeated claims. His involvement cannot be disputed, however.
Derek and the Dominos developed out of the core band for All Things Must Pass as Eric, Bobby, Carl Radle and Jim Gordon—who had all met a few years before as members of Delaney and Bonnie and Friends—forged a unit and vision during the All Things sessions. Clapton had grown tired of the “guitar God” image and had been searching for a more song driven, yet energetic collaboration—something he had failed to find in other previous endeavors, including Cream or Blind Faith. This amalgamation came together with a common vision, but according to Bobby, nothing solid as far as songs in the beginning. The songs and arrangements were born in jams, similar to how parts of the All Things sessions had been worked out, and the jams happened in two segments—pre-Duane, and with Duane. The Duane being Duane Allman of the Allman Brothers, who came on the project at the request of Eric Clapton after the band had attended a local Allman Brothers show. Duane was looking for something new at the time and was only too happy to join this crew. He joined the sessions in mid-stream and, according to Bobby, no effort was made to go back and have him add parts to any of the previously recorded songs.
The overall sound of Layla is intentionally quite different from All Things, even though many of the musicians were the same. For one thing, it was recorded in the US at Criteria Studios and not at Abbey Road in London. Also, the players made conscious effort to move away from the Spector “wall of sound” concept and relied instead on executive producer Tom Dowd of Allman Brothers fame and a sound forged in collaboration, not design.
Why do these records matter though and why I personally return to them time and again for inspiration:
For the most part they are recorded live, with a full band all in a studio at the same time. There were some overdubs done—especially some heavily overdubbed vocal parts on All Things—but much of the basic recording was done by musicians in the same room recording complete takes. Not that this was unique necessarily, it is just a key element that forged what the finished products ultimately became. They were collaborative pieces in the truest sense.
Both records are musical collaborations on the highest order. Bobby’s story of the song Keep on Growing (from Layla) is an example. The song was an impromptu jam captured on tape. Eric Clapton liked it and added some guitar parts in successive overdubs. Tom Dowd wanted to shelve the song, but Bobby Whitlock told him to hold on and ran out into the entryway where he wrote the lyrics in just a few minutes. He went back into the studio, called Eric in, and they recorded the vocals together off Bobby’s lyric sheet. This run-through included a mistake as Bobby came in too early on one section. The mistake stayed.
Mistakes and other imperfections are included, and you can hear them played repeatedly on classic rock stations. Listen to the outro section with the slide guitars over Bobby’s piano part (Updated correction: Bobby added to an original piano part that drummer Jim Gordon had recorded. The last section of Layla was Gordon’s idea added two weeks after the original session, an addition not supported by other band members) on the song Layla. Duane is noticeably “outside” many times. BUT this has remained an iconic part of the song…and history.
Songwriting was king. There are beautiful and masterful songs on both albums and the instrumentation fits everything. It isn’t just a set of two chord or classic “four sacred chords” formula songs (see my video here for more information). There are complex chords and key changes and solos that supported the songs—especially on All Things Must Pass. George’s slide work no doubt had a huge impact on other artists that followed, including the work of Badfinger who were present for the All Things sessions and worked with George on songs with similar parts on their album Straight Up.
Other improvised solos were full of passion and imperfections. There are missed notes here, and outside notes there. It was all included.
These albums influenced many that came after and songs from both projects are still radio staples. Listen to Straight Up or No Dice by Badfinger or Something/Anything by Todd Rundgren. There were connections between all these musicians and the legacy and musical lineage is obvious.
Energy and feeling is everything and you can feel it, warts and all—especially on Layla and other Assorted Love Songs (most every song),or on George’s impassioned vocals on many of the songs on All Things Must Pass.
We need to find a way to return to more of this kind of thing. Music is art after all. There are old sacred art traditions from around the world, where things created purposefully have imperfections woven or added in. I love this. It fits beautifully with the origins and philosophy of Rock and Roll—rebellion, non-convention, emotion and expression of life, spirit, and humanness. We are by definition imperfect. How is it possible to create true, honest art where perfection of any kind is the goal? Check these records out. You will not be disappointed
I was listening to a great YouTube discussion between John Meyer and Paul Reed Smith. At one point during this very interesting and far-ranging discussion, John asked Paul, if he could go back in time and play through any rig, what would it be? (go to 20:00 for the question) Paul went with either Hendrix at Woodstock when he played Star Spangled Banner, OR David Gilmour’s rig during the Comfortably Numb solo. John went with Stevie Ray Vaughn’s rig at the 1983 El Mocambo in Toronto gig, just to (as he put it) “feel the air move.”
What would I do? Like Paul, I think it would be tough to choose just one. Maybe it would be in the studio with Eric Clapton when he did the Mayall and the Bluesbreakers “Beano” session, OR at the Cream show later when he played the famous version of Crossroads that appeared on Wheels of Fire. There are questions and controversy with both. If I had to choose one, it probably would have been the “Beano” Album session. I would love to feel what a note coming out of that small Marshall amp Clapton used in that studio, especially from THAT guitar, was like. My other option would be Rory Gallagher’s rig the night he met a young Brian May. May, by his own account, was blown away and heard the future from that Vox AC30 amp of Rory’s. Was there a Dallas Rangemaster involved? What was that magic Brian heard?
We all have questions like that. What first moved you to pick up a guitar and get motivated to figure out how to play it—and more than that dive into rock–or like me, the blues world? I missed the first Beatles extravaganza on the Ed Sullivan show—at least the first time around. I do know that 75 million Americans were glued to their TVs that night and that, by their own accounts, MANY famous American guitar heroes found their calling that night. For me it was the return of the “Fab Four” to the Sullivan show in 1970 with a movie (maybe the first music video) of them doing Hey Jude. I was in early middle school, had dabbled some with guitar but found most folk songs boring. BUT I wanted to do THAT. I felt chills. I wanted to sing like that too. The next big kick was hearing Cream’s version of Crossroads. At that point I was already digesting and trying to learn as many rock guitar songs as I could. I would sit listening to a local alternative station and try to play along (unsuccessfully) with everything. Hearing that song though, done that way, set me on a path. That next summer, attending a music clinic as a violin player, I stumbled into an evening lounge jam session where some older guys were jamming on a funky fusion song. The next day I wandered into my first guitar class taught by a local rock legend who helped me find some substance. I was hooked. To my mom’s dismay, I moved immediately from classical violin to rock and blues guitar. Shortly after that, Jeff Beck became my idol after I heard Blow by Blow. Then I heard BB King at Cook County Jail. I never looked back.
What were some of the big music moments that inspired you?
What artist would you like to spend one day with?
What questions would you ask?
Is there an instrument you didn’t learn in the past, that you would like to become proficient on now?
What other skills would you like to learn that may help you improve your work, grow your brand or improve your sound? Instrument set-up? Amp and pedal repair, modifying and maintenance? Video editing? Live sound? Livestreaming?
There are certainly others. We live in a golden age of learning today. Online courses with pros are easily accessible, even booking private lessons is possible. The pandemic may have really opened those doors as every artist was looking for creative ways to pay the bills. What I hope is that the personal connections that were so instrumental in my development and progress isn’t lost. There is no substitute for sitting in a room—whether in a jam session or in a private lesson or coaching session—and watching things happen in real time, being able to ask questions, get feedback and encouragement, etc. I learned how to set up gear, plug in and fire up a PA system.
I have been privileged to have experienced all of that, be inspired by people I knew and met, and later, meet world class players and wander back stages or hang out in green rooms as I got to know them. I have actually been able to spend days with some of my heroes and, in reality, I didn’t ask any of the questions I had always envisioned I would—and that was alright. There is something to be said for just being, talking, sharing, laughing and being able to see that they are like you, struggle with some of the same things, aspiring always to more, and that they came from where you are now—and not that long ago. For me, that brought what I often saw in my youth as insurmountable heights, down to a real and attainable level. Someone has to make it. That someone could be you.
I posed this question on our Facebook page recently and got some interesting answers, all of which we will address in future posts. Most of what people posted were, interestingly, what I would call “soft skills.” In other words, skills related to interaction and connections within the band context. I agree that collaborative skills, personal responsibility, and commitment, being present and aware, etc. are all important things. In fact, regardless of playing skills, these may be some of the most important things to keep bands together and make bands stay together and grow together. However, I thin there are also some basic concepts, information and skills that also need to be present. That is what I want to address now, and I want to begin with something that I learned about after being in the business for several years. When I learned it, I initially discounted the importance of it, partly because I just assumed that this all of this may be self-evident to some extent—at least in the blues world where I first started. As my connections and opportunities expanded though, I found myself in other situations where knowledge of the concept I am going to address became essential and its importance and implications clearer, and I also discovered that I was missing some important pieces in the beginning and learning about those pieces opened a path forward that I didn’t know existed.
So, in this video I address one of the key things I see as foundational and also a doorway in many ways to understanding and applying many other concepts and skills—especially related to a working knowledge of music theory—especially awareness of modes, alternate chord voicings and inversions, creative rhythm, and soloing techniques etc.
The concept is the Nashville Number System. Check out this VIDEO for more details on this concept, ways to apply and use the information and knowledge, tips and tricks for applying the concept in understanding jazz, pop and country chord progressions, finding common tones for soloing, using creating and efficient chord shapes for creative comping and rhythm playing, etc.
Let us know in the comments what you see as the #1 thing or things all guitarists need to know for success in bands.
I get this question all the time: How do I REALLY learn to play an instrument, learn how to play with others, learn to be in a band, etc.? There are SO many choices and options and nothing seems to help. It was a question I had at one time as well and I know options were much more limited then. We live in a world of information and sometimes the information is overwhelming. Just the process of learning an instrument these days gives you a withering array of choices. Is this YouTube instructor the best? Is YouTube the place to learn? If I decide to buy this method for my chosen instrument, is it going to help me learn? How can I learn how to be in a band and play in a band if I’m not actually in a band? How do I find others to play with? If I play with people of just my skill level, how will I ever get better?
I understand all of this. I follow a lot of singers, guitarists and harmonica players on YouTube and Instagram. All of them focus on particular things and it is hard to know IF that is actually important, if it is just their personal take on things, how I start to learn that thing from where I am right now, etc. Are they REALLY sharing (as is often claimed) the “secret sauce,” the keys to effortless mastery,” etc.? There are lots of good nuggets being shared on these sites. It is at least interesting and gives you inspiration often and something to work for. I think there are also some usable pieces of information shared and sometimes it is in a usable and accessible form for the average player—but sometimes not. Things can be confusing and sometimes contradictory, and there is just SO much. How can the average player even know where to start?
I was on this search before there were such things as YouTube and Instagram. I do respect those platforms and sometimes wish things like this were available when I was learning. I do think there is value there—up to a point. However…
There is no substitute for personal coaching and mentoring in most regards. Learning to be a musician, especially if you are looking to find mastery in particular genres, is best done person to person.
My big focus for years was the blues world. Blues is an art form. There is a history, a catalogue, language, and culture surrounding this music. I remember being coached on something as specific as how to play behind a harmonica player and all the right ways to play shuffles. Just that one groove has a range of subtle approaches and you can really learn it in the context of working with someone else who can guide and mentor you. There is just way too much involved in this process for it to happen any other way. I know for a fact that this is true for most any genre of music that you may want to really live and go deep with.
No method or video series, regardless of the knowledge and skill of the person doing it knows where any other person is on this journey NOW. This is important. I have coached and mentored several players over the years. It was the relationship that partly contributed to the success of our work together. Also, when I have taken on students in a more structured way, I was able to assess where they were, what they knew and could plan out a process of tailored lessons to help them meet their goals and learn the subtle things that can make a difference and contribute to the next aha moment. No video series can do that really. In my experience you can also spend a LOT of money getting video series after video series and, at best, have a bit of a knowledge base and some pieces to the puzzle. This can be helpful, but I have always found it incomplete and sometimes incredibly frustrating. I also think players who have only learned this way are missing critical experiences and information that help things to fit together.
Lastly, I want to talk more about formal mentoring relationships—their importance and the necessity of these relationships for the future of many music genres. It is a part of our history. As just one example, the legendary stories of how players in the London music scene mentored and supported young and up-and-comers are incredible. There was literally half a degree of separation between most of the great players you recognize as as legends of British blues and rock–Clapton, Beck, Page, Green, Richards, Frampton, etc. Peter Frampton has great stories of relationships with older players like Keith Richards and later George Harrison. One of my favorite stories involved the great Rory Gallagher when a young kid named Brian May (later of Queen) asked him what the secret to his guitar sound was. Brian literally built an entire career from the information he got in that meeting and Rory was only to happy to help.
This same thing has been true in my own life. I made connections with and asked for help from key players in the music scenes I was around and got a real education about everything related to music, being in a band, instrument and amp set up, etc. It requires that sometimes you are a bit (to put it nicely) persistent. It also may require that you approach people and formally ask for help and be prepared to do a lot of work and pay something for the privilege of being around the music. I humped a lot of gear for other people’s bands, cleaned beer bottles up from practice spaces, etc. just to be around the music, learn what things were and see how pro players approached this work. I helped set up and watched band rehearsals and was part of pre and post gig conversations. This is invaluable experience. I am not sure this is as common today as it once was, however, for me personally I see this as a mission– to pass it on to others in the same way it was passed on to me. I know for a fact that this is how these good things will continue.