- Arthur Blind Blake – Food For Thought
- Blind Blake Guitar Style – Why Was He So Special?
- Top 20 Blind Blake Songs
- Blake’s Dancing Thumb Bass Pattern
- Blind Blake West Coast Blues Fingerstyle
- Anybody Know What Diddie Wah Diddie Means?
- Other Blake Tricks – Triplets
- Another Dancing Bass Pattern
- Doubling Up On The Tempo
Arthur Blind Blake – King Of Ragtime Guitar
By all accounts, and the testimony of Rev Gary Davis, Blind Willie Walker was ‘the best that ever done it’, but after only cutting a couple of sides, we don’t really have enough material to comment on Walker’s overall skill. However, Blind Blake cut 126 sides and so we have many examples of that impeccable technique in a variety of keys and tempos.
Before moving on to the meat and potatoes of Blake’s fingerpicking style, I think it’s worthwhile to reflect a little on what kind of guy he was, and the times he lived in. For me, it’s not enough just to play this great old blues music, but it’s necessary to get some idea of what the blues man as all about. It isn’t enough to describe all the blues men in the same way – we are all different as individuals, and so were they, stands to reason.
Blind Arthur Blake, or simply Blind Blake, originated from Florida and there’s some evidence to suggest his real name was Arthur Phelps, because he mentions that ‘Phelps is my right name’ to another person he’s making a record with and we can hear it plainly. Other than bits of information like this, we really don’t have a clue how he developed that formidable way of playing.
Blake also mentions Geechee music in a coupe of his tracks. The Gullah Geechee people were descendant of African slaves that lived in an area covering the coastal part of Georgia, Carolina and Florida and the islands associated with the region. If he wasn’t born there, then he probably traveled around during his formative years and the lively music popular in the area was transformed into his guitar style.
Blind Blake’s Guitar Technique – How Was It Special?
Blind Blake guitar tabs, although a fantastic way to learn his techniques, don’t really do the sound of this ragtime guitar justice. All ragtime guitar players of that time were basically trying to copy the sound of the ragtime piano, which was tall order as the piano had 88 keys while the guitar has just 6 strings.
We ought to mention here that without the introduction of buying at a distance by the Sears company, and the fact that they offered a cheap Stella Harmony guitar for just $1, ragtime guitar might never have taken off. The only guitar around at that time were small European guitars bought by the richer classes, the celebrated parlor models, or various home made type instruments.
Home made instruments often had less than 6 string, so not much good for complex fingerstyle arrangements. With the cheap guitars offered by the Sears catalog, mass produced instruments were suddenly available. Musicians like Blake who needed to make money by their craft, particularly if they were blind, grabbed the opportunity and honed their craft.
We’ll get into some detail later on down the page, but Blake was unique firstly because he was so fast and accurate. When I first heard West Coast Blues on an old vinyl record, I was sure that it was a duet with two similar guitars, one playing the basses and the other the trebles. After realizing that it was indeed just two hands that created this sounds, I was determined to find out how to do it myself.
Blake’s most well known pieces are played in the keys of C and G, but he could also play in other keys, as some of his recordings confirm. However, the guitar style was generally the same as in the primary keys, and was probably done to try an give a different flavor. A major problem for all guitarists with a particular style is that their trademark licks and techniques tend to be repeated again and again throughout their work. Artists used various strategies to try and vary their sound, such as varying the tempo, rhythm and the key.
- West Coast Blues
- Diddie Wah Diddie
- That’ll Never Happen No More
- Southern Rag
- Tootie Blues
- Too Tight Blues
- Early Morning Blues
- Police Dog Blues Click To Play MP3
- Guitar Chimes
- Seaboard Stomp
By far Blake’s most inventive and complex arrangements are in the keys of C (West Coast Blues, Southern Rag, Seaboard Stomp, Tootie Blues, Diddie Wah Diddie, Guitar Chimes) and G (That’ll Never Happen, Too Tight Blues). The notable exception in the list is the stunning Police Dog Blues, which is played in open D. It’s incredibly difficult to copy and very few people have done it just, except maybe Ry Cooder.
Blake’s Finger Picking Techniques – The Dancing Thumb Bass Pattern
The most important thing that determines how well any guitar player can fingerpick is thumb control, which has to be total – that’s to say that it’s movements are completely independent of the fingers. For most students, the big breakthrough in there fingerstyle learning occurs when they start to automatically play an alternating bass pattern with their thumb.
It adds a complexity to the sound, and once learned, frees up the fingers to create interesting melodies on the treble strings, the best alternating bass action is on you can ‘set and forget’, just being careful to hit the right strings when the chords change. The guitar tab image below shows what this looks like in it’s simplest form using the C chord:
As you can see, the thumb hits the B string, then the G, back to the bass E before going back to the G. The whole cycle starts again on B string. The thumb ‘alternates’ between three bass strings.
When fingers strokes are included, this pattern produces quite a complex sound, particularly if it’s played fast, but Blake wasn’t satisfied with this, he wanted something more and tried to get the same amount of syncopation that we can hear in some of the old piano rags.
He did this by hitting some of the bass strings twice per beat instead of one. The result was much more complicated and can easily sound a mess unless done properly. The key is to play it super slow and build up speed focusing on that all-important timing. The guitar tab below shows what it looks like using the C chord again:
This kind of picking is called a ‘thumb roll’, as the thumb doesn’t really separate the double strikes, but rolls from one string to the next rather than jumping between them. It’s hard to do with thumb pick, but it really needs a lot of hard practice before a hard callous grows where the thumb contacts the strings so it doesn’t get too sore. Blake actually had a hole at the contact point, because he played so much!
Blind Blake West Coast Blues
The thumb roll was used in almost every Blake piece, but in some, such as West Coast Blues, it was the backbone of the sound. He also talked over the top of this highly syncopated sound, which sounds almost unbelievable. I’ve broken down the first few bars of WCB in the video below and the tabs appear on the screen:
It’s a free-wheelin’ piece that belies the incredible control necessary to make it work – sometimes I play it almost right, and sometimes it’ just isn’t there! I must have listened to WCB a thousand times over the years and it never fails to fascinate me. It isn’t just the technical excellence of hitting those strings so accurately (I can’t detect one fluffed note) but the accenting is nothing short of supernatural!
You’ll need to already be a pretty good picker to tackle this piece, and the key is to play it everyday for 30 mins, no matter what it sounds like. Take it as slow as you like and build up speed when you can without spoiling the rhythm – too fast a pace just kills it stone dead if you’re not ready to handle it. I’ve heard many people try to nail this song and very, very few succeed, often trying to add more complication with the fingers instead of getting that thumb action right. It just makes the timing all wrong (IMO).
Thumb rolls do appear in Blakes’ songs in the key of C, but not to the same extent as WCB. In Diddie Wah Diddie, it’s the combination of the dancing thumb and the lightning fast finger work that weaves the magic.
While Blake’s songs are brilliant, some of them are really frustrating, and the learning of them happens in three distinct stages. First of all, we have to figure out where he put his fingers and of course, which fingers. Working out the chord structure soon follows, although most of his stuff, including Diddie Wah Diddie, follows a fairly standard ragtime blues standard format.
After that, we need to play around with the thumb/finger strikes and work out which ones are hitting the strings for each phrase. This is important – if you don’t have it right from the beginning, those fast and slick single string runs picked with alternating thumb and finger strokes just don’t work.
Next, we try, try and try to get this thing up to speed. This in itself is a massive task and DWD is very difficult to play fluidly up to tempo. Most people, pros and noodlers alike, dumb it down to get the speed, or play it slower than it should be (although Blake did record it at different speeds) and it doesn’t quite work. No, there’s nothing else for it, but to try and play it properly, taking lots of time to get it as right as you possibly can – if you want to play authentic blues guitar, that is?
To finish, we have to learn to sing along while maintaining that smooth fast fingerpicking pace. It’s a tall order, I know, but what a lot of fun it is! I first learned this in the 70s from an old Biograph vinyl LP, by simply dropping the stylus onto the right place, listening carefully (I had to do this maybe 8 to 10 times before nailing it) and writing down the first attempt in tablature.
After a day or so, I had the first draft and began to play it painfully slowly, while making adjustments to the tab as I went. After some weeks, I realized it wasn’t getting any better, and I moved on to something else. There are some techniques you have to mature into and can’t do straight away, and I think DWD is one of these type of songs.
Of course it’s worth sticking with it , and coming back to it every year or so until you can play it up to speed, but it’s best to wait to give yourself the time – there’s nothing worse than watching someone play knowing that they are right at the end of their capability and could mess it up anytime. It’s not comfortable for the audience at all. Generally, a good rule is play in public only the things you can do almost blindfold.
Start with easy stuff, and once you feel those nerves releasing their grip on your motor skills, you gradually move into the more complex things of this kind, which need relaxed hands to do it. Diddie Wah Diddie is in C – take it slow, have fun and you’ll get there. When you’re not having fun learning it, stop and come back to in a few weeks.
Last word from Reverend Gary Davis “Blake sure had a sportin’ right hand” – ’nuff said.
It’s ironic that Blake’s first recording, West Coast Blues, (with Early Morning Blues in the B side) was probably the absolute best of his fingerstyle prowess, which I think presented him with a bit of a problem – how was he going to top that! He exploded onto the Chicago scene and his contemporary guitar players in the city and around must have been a bit shell-shocked with his amazing dexterity.
He must have been constantly looking for new tricks to impress his audience and some of his best work happens when he combines the dancing thumb with great finger work, as in Southern Rag.
See how Blake does it in the video below:
Although some of the best acoustic blues guitar fingerstylists used their thumb and one finger (Doc Watson Reverend Gary Davis, Big Bill Broonzy, Lightnin’ Hopkins) it just isn’t possible to play Blake’s style without using two (or more) fingers. The movements between the strings is just too rapid.
Although we don’t have old film of his playing, I’m thinking that it was probably like Mississippi John Hurt’s technique, where he kept his pinkie on the sound board while picking with the first two fingers. It means that the finger act independently and are very flexible in their movements.
One of the ways in which Blake tried to add variations to his music was by devising different rhythms for his bass patterns. While playing along with a standard alternating bass thumb technique, he might suddenly reverse the order of the strings picked or introduce some stop timing in different places, often after a line of verse. Syncopation can be described as an unexpected variation in note order or rhythm that surprises the listener without confusing them. he certainly does that. The video below explains this technique:
Blake Plays With The Tempo – Step It Up There!
On of my favorite pieces is also in C, which is by far the favored key for Blake, for a variety of reasons. The chords shapes of the progressions associated with C are rich in variations, and small changes in finger positions readily introduce interesting counterpoint melodies and additional opportunities for more syncopation. Blake used all of these devices plus his formidable finger work to push the boundaries of fingerstyle blues guitar.
Tootie Blues is another medium paced playful song that laments about his favorite girl called Tootie, although the allusions and similarity with ‘Tootie Roll’ are obvious. Miss Tootie will ‘take all your money, and spend the night with you!’ It moves along easily enough, with Blake playing some nice single string runs after each line of verse, probably using his thumb and forefinger. Suddenly, everything changes!
Blake sings a line and the effortlessly doubles up on the timing and slipping in some lightning fast runs at the same time. I’ve experimenting playing these riffs with different thumb/finger combinations and I think I’ve got it down – you can be the judge.