Delta blues guitar came from the Mississippi Delta area in the Southern States, and was created during and after the end of slavery in America. This article is too short to really go into the full history of the blues guitar, and so we’ll focus on people, rather than facts. It’s very common to talk about the big names that represent this music, which is a shame as there are many, many so-called minor Delta blues guitar men that deserve attention. They never recorded and some are just mysterious names with testimony form surviving guitarists that the real masters never made records at all. That said, it’s still useful to focus on names such as Son House, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters and Mississippi John Hurt to help us understand the feeling of the times and how the music developed.
The above video gallery show-cases four of the all-time great Delta blues guitar players, three of them with the delta sound we come to expect, and balance by the delicate rhythmic finger-picking style of John Hurt. Muddy Waters is best known for his electric blues guitar style which was the pre-cursor of modern rock. At the time that he moved up North from the Southern plantations, Broonzy was the king of Chicago swing blues, playing with several bands around the city, but he never successfully made the transition from acoustic to electric. Muddy’s sound was testimony to what the younger people wanted – more noise and excitement!
Delta Blues Guitar Masters – Muddy Waters
Muddy Waters learned to play Delta blues guitar while working on the plantations and field recordings have him playing some very fine blues guitar in different styles. For example, he maintained that he was playing Walkin’ Blues, the song made famous by Robert Johnson well before he recorded it. This is well possible, as Son House also played the song in his early career and had contact with Johnson at some point. Waters said that as soon as he realized he could make a living playing music and live away from the South, he caught the next train to Chicago, and the rest is folk blues history. During his illustrious career such songs as ‘Can’t Be Satisfied’, ‘Houchie Couchie Man’ and ‘Mannish Boy’ thrilled two generations while he was alive, and will continue to do so for generations to come. One of the foremost blues men who carries the Delta right inside his name was Mississippi John Hurt, who played a style of guitar very different from most of the others.
The Gentle Delta Blues Guitar Style Of Mississippi John Hurt
Unlike the other blues men mentioned, John Hurt wasn’t an itinerate artist, but a farm worker who made his living in his preferred way. When times were good, he would play for parties and at various places and at one time may hev earned his living this way. When the blues fell out of favor, Hurt simply went back to work as a railroad worker. When he was re-discovered in the sixties, he was in demand for folk festivals, TV and other venues and enjoyed a few years of relative fame before passing away – a fitting end for a very influential guitarist.
Hurt’s style was a little bit different from most of the delta blues men, who adopted a monotonic bass style of picking, where one bass note (or more) was hit rhythmically and often damped heavily with the thumb, so that the sound was more like a drum than a musical note. John Hurt used an alternating bass pattern in various keys, where he would move his thumb between two or more bass strings with the beat, a style more common to Piedmont or ragtime blues. His fingers were very flexible, and he could pick with both fingers of his right hand while resting his pinky on the guitar sound board – most people find this difficult to do. Songs such as ‘Satisfied and Ticked Too’ and ‘Spike Driver Blues’ became classic blues tracks and assured John’s place in music history.
Son House and Robert Johnson – Delta Blues Guitar Heroes
Some people maintain Johnson’s recordings are played back at the wrong speed, that they are faster than they should be, and in fact sound a lot like Son House if slowed down a few revolutions. This makes complete sense as they played around the same area in the Mississipi for a number of years. Story goes that RJ would follow the older man around and ask to play a few songs where he was performing, which might be a juke joint or party somewhere out in the boondocks. Generally, Johnson almost cleared the place when he played, as he wasn’t a very good Delta blues guitar player at all.
He disappeared and suddenly turned up months later asking to play. Son House relented, as he need a break, and listened with his mouth open as Robert delivered a stunning performance, which is how the stupid ‘Sold His Soul To The Devil’ legend started. I don’t want to talk about this kind of nonsense that people to this day use to sell Johnson’s excellence and mystique, for their own financial gain, I might add. RJ traveled during that time, obviously picking up ideas from all the Delta blues guitar players he met along the way and spending hours a day ‘in the woodshed’ perfecting that formidable technique.
Johnson received some notoriety, but no fame during his lifetime. Only ‘Terraplane Blues’ did well as a record, and the other 26 sides had to wait some decades before being hailed as the result of genius. His traveling partner at that time, Johhny Shines, said that Robert would grab a train and go anywhere, anytime, even back to a town they’d just left – he was footloose and reckless, which is what killed him early – the definitive Delta Blues Guitar player.