Fingerpicking Blues Guitar – Big Bill Broonzy

The Fingerpicking Blues Guitar Of Big Bill Broonzy

Learning the fingerpicking blues guitar style of Big Bill Broonzy is no easy task – Big Bill was the King of Chicago Swing Blues Guitar, and anyone wanting to learn how to play blues guitar in his style really needs to study his basic fingerstyle techniques, which were really unique. In Hey Hey (see above video), we can see his magic at work and although I show ways of simplifying the technique while still keeping that famous swing, of course it’s necessary to understand what he was doing before we can adapt the style to suit our own level of proficiency.

Big-Bill-Broonzy - Fingerpicking Blues GuitarMany acoustic blues guitar lessons are presented by guitar teachers with a broad experience of many styles, which is great, but the acoustic blues takes such an in-depth study to get the basics right, that it’s probably best to look for somebody who concentrates on the roots. When starting to learn blues guitar in the Broonzy style, the first thing that strikes you is that very appealing swing feel he gets, so that’s a good place to start – where does that effect come from? Basically, it’s all in the thumb, but of course without the occasional ‘grace’ note slipped in by the finger, it wouldn’t be the same at all.

Details of Broonzy’s Fingerpicking Blues Guitar Technique

Broonzy picked in the so-called Monotonic Bass style, which means that his thumb struck one or two bass strings without alternating the thumb strikes between two or three bass strings. He mostly damped the strings after striking them, dropping the palm if his picking hand into contact with them. If the damping was quick and heavy, then the resulting sound was more like a ‘thunk’ than a clear musical note, so it took the form of a drum beat keeping the rhythm providing the swing for the melody played on the treble strings. Acoustic guitar lessons in this style really do need a lot of practice time, because although this technique is easy to start off, it’s difficult to play with the right feel. As you light think, there are also more subtle things going on here – surprise, surprise!

Big Bill once told a journalist that you can either play that bass before the beat, on the beat or after the beat, and playing it after the beat produces that famous swing sound. He called it ‘sittin’ on the back o’ the hoss’ – it doesn’t matter wherever you sit on a horse, you still get there at the same speed. The only piece of film we can see is from Pete Seeger’s ranch in Canada, where Broonzy worked as a cook in his later years. The movie is a bit dark, so it’s difficult to see his fingerpicking blues guitar technique, although his thumb strike is evident. It seems to me tat he played with just one finger, his forefinger, which makes sense as many master blues guitar players used this technique – Reverend Gary Davis, Doc Watson, Blind Boy Fuller, Floyd Council. “Why do you play with just your forefinger?”, Gary Davis was asked. “Because that’s all you need!”, he replied.

Big Bill Broonzy

by Ellen Harold and Peter Stone

Big Bill Broonzy, one of the most important of the pre-World War II Chicago blues singers, recorded over 250 songs from 1925 to 1952, including “Key to the Highway,” “Black, Brown, and White,” “Just a Dream,” “Hard Hearted Woman,” “Looking Up at Down,” “Romance Without Finance,” and “When Will I Get to Be Called a Man” and is listed as composer of even more. His recording career, which began with Paramount and continued with countless other labels (Vocalion, Chess, Verve, and Folkways, to name a few), spanned more than three decades, progressing from the Maxwell Street blues of Chicago, passing en route through “hokum songs” (up-beat, ragtime-based, and with sexually suggestive lyrics) to the songs of the folk revival of the 1950s. As one of the most important performers for Bluebird records in the late 1930s, Broonzy usually played in small ensembles in which alto or tenor sax, clarinet, or sometimes trumpet carried the melody. This, writes Paul Oliver, “gave a jazz inflection to the music and anticipated later developments in the blues, but it was still blues that they played, though often of the hokum variety, or with a hard-driving swinging dance rhythm.” (The Story of the Blues, Massachusetts: Northeastern University Press, 1998) p. 129). Broonzy was a natural leader, who in the 1940s advised and helped younger musicians such as Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Jimmy Rodgers (James A. Lane), and Memphis Slim. In the 1950s and 60s he influenced British rock and blues performers, notably Eric Clapton and Keith Richards.

Broonzy played an important role in shaping Alan Lomax’s thoughts about the origins and role of the blues. Lomax’s final book, The Land Where the Blues Began (New York: Pantheon Books, 1993), draws extensively on material from transcribed interviews with Broonzy. Broonzy’s life and times have now been chronicled in a new and definitive biography by Bob Reisman, I Feel So Good: The Life and Times of Big Bill, scheduled for publication by the University of Chicago Press later this year (2010).

One of Broonzy’s best known songs, the protest song, “Black, Brown, and White”, addressed the experiences of black war vets and the painful issue of preferential treatment by gradations of skin color:

This little song that I’m singing about,
Brother you know it’s true.
If you’re black and gotta work for a living
This is what they will say to you.


They say if you’s white, should be all right,
If you’s brown, stick around,
But if you’s black, well, brothers, get back, get back, get back.


I was in a place one night,
They was all having fun.
They was all buyin’ beer and wine
But they would not sell me none.

Me and a man was workin’ side by side.
This is what it meant:
He was making a dollar an hour,
They was paying me fifty cent.

I helped build this country,
I fought for it too.
Now I guess you can see
What a black man have to do


(Lyrics from a previously unreleased recording issued on Blues in the Mississippi Night, Rounder CD, [1999], in the Alan Lomax Collection. A slightly different fragment is quoted in Lomax’s Land Where the Blues Began, 1993, pp. 442-43).

Though this song became a staple of his live repertoire, Bill reported that for years no company would record it, giving as a reason that it wouldn’t sell, “after I had played it, they would refuse,” he said./p>

“What’s wrong with it, I would like to know? What I say is just about the way the working Negro is treated in this country on all jobs in the North, in the East and in the West, and you all know it’s true.”


Section of article taken from