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Acoustic Blues Guitar Lessons – Where Did The Blues Come From? – The Mississippi Roots
The roots of blues guitar stretches right back to the end of slavery and beyond, when workers would ease their sorrows and work load by singing the so-called ‘field holler’, which was a very rhythmic song without music that followed a call and response form. The idea was that the cadence of the lyrics would coincide with the tempo of the work and make team work more effective.
Gandy Dancers was the name given to teams of men who’s job it was to put rails back into place for the many local railroads from the Mississippi Delta right up to Chicago. One man might lead the singing, and the rest joining in on the chorus. At the end of a line of verse, or chorus, the whole team would push on the end of a long steel lever and the rail would move over an inch or two.
For many years, slaves were simply not allowed to own or even touch a musical instrument such as a guitar or a drum, never mind learn blues guitar. Apart from spending 12 to 14 hours a day doing gut-busting hard work, the masters simply didn’t want their workers to engage in any activity that raised their spirits and fostered thoughts of freedom. This is why drums in particular were banned. Drums were a powerful feature of African life and played a big role in maintaining the social fabric. However, it seems that some slave owners did allow some musicians to play at their private parties and no doubt the natural interest in music just can’t be stifled like that.
After the end of slavery, the negro was in general extremely poor and couldn’t afford to buy guitars or fiddles, so they made their own. Lightnin’ Hopkins recalls making a one string fiddle with a broom handle, cigar box and length of wire pulled from the screen door! Most of these rudimentary guitars and fiddles had between one and four strings, and must have been incredibly hard to tune and keep in tune. Obviously, they wouldn’t have frets and there wasn’t a lot of finesse about the blues music that emanated from these home made efforts. Often they were played with a bow or a bottleneck. Bottleneck or slide (sometimes they were fretted with a knife) Delta blues guitar is perhaps the sound we most think of when thinking of those times in the Southern States in general and the Delta in particular.
A huge event in the history of blues guitar was purely commercial, as it often is. The Sears company began a sales project that would become a modern phenomenon by offering sales of products at a distance using catalogs that were distributed far and wide across the United States. For many people living out in the country areas, it was Godsend as they could buy things without trekking 100 miles to the nearest big store.
The range of things to buy was indeed broad, and growing monthly it seemed. One of the items on sale a basic steel strung Stella Harmony Guitar, which was priced at just one dollar. Elizabeth Cotton bought here first guitar by saving for many weeks from her earning as a maid and the rest, as they say, is history. It’s part of folk legend that she didn’t realize it was for right handed players, and so she started to learn how to play blues guitar by playing it upside down as a leftie, having no access to anyone able to give here guitar lessons! (Stella Image Src: Wiki Commons )
It isn’t known how many budding blues men and women were created because of the availability of mass produced cheap instruments like the Stella, but it was probably a deciding factor in how the blues evolved in those early days. It’s also probable that a guitarist ‘chanced his arm’ by buying what he could afford and hoping that the guitar that arrived played well! The specifications for such mass produced instruments must have allowed for a lot leeway in tolerances, for example. If you bought a bad one, you didn’t complain but just learn how to play it, simple as that. A legend like Muddy Waters was quite scornful about local guitar teacher anchorage quality ‘Just give me any guitar and I’ll make you cry’, he was reported to have said.
The following article was taken from Britannica.com and gives a basic history of Delta Blues:
The Mississippi Delta style of blues—or, simply, Delta blues—emphasized solo performances by singers accompanying themselves on guitar and relying on a host of distinctive techniques, such as the sliding of a bottleneck or metal object (such as a knife) along the fingerboard to bend notes, the use of melodic phrases on the guitar to respond to the voice in an improvised call-and-response pattern, and a reliance on vamps (repeated chord progressions that precede the entrance of the voice) and melodic and rhythmic figures that often deviated from the typical chord progressions and formal 12-bar (measure) structure found in most blues performances.
Above all, Delta blues music was marked by a particular intensity of vision that was both projected through the lyrics of the songs and underscored by the players’ often aggressive attack on the guitar strings. Song topics encompassed familiar laments of failed romance, stories of sexual escapades (often described in double-entendre references), and tales of rambling and life on the road, as well as apocalyptic musings on salvation and damnation.Performance venues were often informal and happenstance. W.C. Handy, composer of the classic “”St. Louis Blues”” (1914), recalled an early encounter with blues music about 1903 at a train station in Tutwiler, Mississippi, where he heard a man dressed in rags singing while playing the guitar with a knife.
Performances also took place at juke joints (informal roadside taverns for drinking and dancing) on plantations and street corners. Folk music scholars John and Alan Lomax, meanwhile, documented Delta blues music in field recordings made at the Mississippi State Penitentiary, colloquially known as “Parchman Farm,” in Sunflower county, Mississippi.Scattered accounts by travelers and researchers indicate the prevalence of blues music in the Delta region since at least the turn of the 20th century, although no commercial recordings were made until the late 1920s. Associated primarily with male singer-guitarists, the Delta sound stood in marked contrast to earlier recordings of the “classic” blues singers, such as Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey, which had emphasized female vocalists working with small combo accompaniment.
The Paramount record label enjoyed great success with the Delta blues recordings of Charley Patton, who had been a farmworker on Dockery Farms cotton plantation in Sunflower county, especially his “”Pony Blues,”” which was released in 1929. The following year, Paramount made a series of recordings by Eddie (“Son”) House, whose music failed to find a large audience at the time but exerted a powerful influence on later blues performers, notably Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters. Tommy Johnson, who recorded for both the Victor and Paramount labels, also contributed to the Delta legacy with his widely emulated guitar style; his “”Big Road Blues”” (1928) inspired the Mississippi Sheiks’ “”Stop and Listen Blues”” (1930) as well as the 1968 rock hit “”On the Road Again”” by the band Canned Heat.
The recording of blues music was sharply curtailed during the Great Depression, yet a few traditional blues musicians from Mississippi continued to find opportunities to record. Skip James developed a deeply personal blues style on guitar—often using an unconventional tuning—as well as on piano. Although his 1931 recordings for Paramount sold poorly at the time, songs such as “”Hard Time Killing Floor Blues,”” “”Devil Got My Woman,”” and “”I’m So Glad”” later gained recognition as blues classics; the latter song was featured on a 1966 hit album by the rock-music trio Cream. Booker (“Bukka”) White, another prominent Mississippi guitarist, enjoyed commercial success with his 1937 recording “”Shake ’Em on Down,”” and in 1940 he recorded an especially influential group of songs, including “”Parchman Farm Blues”” and “”District Attorney Blues,”” both of which addressed issues of social justice that were typically avoided in traditional blues music.
Robert Johnson, born in Hazelhurst, Mississippi, in 1911, was the most important Delta musician of the era, although his recorded legacy is limited to 29 songs—the output of sessions held in Dallas and San Antonio, Texas, during the last few years of his life. Drawing on the work of earlier Mississippi blues artists, notably Son House and Skip James, as well as on techniques learned from various recordings, Johnson crafted a polished, fluid guitar style that was widely emulated by later blues and rock musicians.
Only his “”Terraplane Blues”” sold well during his lifetime, but in later decades, many musicians recorded Johnson’s other compositions, such as “”Sweet Home Chicago,”” “”Love in Vain,”” “”I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom,”” and “”Come On in My Kitchen.”” Robert Johnson, The Complete Recordings, released by Columbia in 1990, became a surprise crossover hit, ultimately selling more than a million copies and earning a Grammy Award for best historical album.
Characteristics Of The Delta Blues Guitar Playing Style.
The drum was an important part of the African slave heritage. That and the strong rhythm were the foundations of this new music. The guitar was the perfect instrument, as it was light and easily carried anywhere for parties or gigs, and was becoming at the same time cheaper buy also better quality. Fingerpicking appeared very early on and there is evidence that this style of playing stringed instruments existed in Africa for a long time before. However the new acoustic blues rhythm wasn’t as complicated and leaned heavily on simple verse structures. The thumb very often played in the monotonic bass style, where one or more bass string was plucked with the picking thumb and then damped heavily with the palm of the hand.
The sound was more of a ‘thud’ or ‘thrum’ than a musical note and it probably replaced the drum within this musical form. At the same time, the fingers played a separate melody on the treble strings. It could be very basic or quite complex, à la Skip James. Other blues men, like Son house, only had one basic style of playing and only in one tuning, open G. Listen to Death Letter Blues video from Youtube below:
By far the biggest component of the classic blues is the emotional feel of the music, and any acoustic blues guitar lessons need to focus on this aspect of the blues. When Son House is playing his National Steel Guitar in that wild thrashing style, he closes hi eyes while singing and he has simply gone to another place! You can’t fake it, or try to sound ‘bluesy’, it’s either in your soul or it’s not. Incidentally, Son House was so nervous after being re-discovered in the 60s, after 30 years of obscurity, on his first gig he had to play facing a corner while on stage – he couldn’t face the audience! Incredible for such a genius.
The monotonic style of playing wasn’t limited to the Southern States by any means. Lightnin’ Hopkins and Mance Lipscombe perfected the style and in particular Big Bill Broonzy in Chicago (who was also from the South by the way) adapted the technique to produce an exciting swing style fingerpicking style which is incredibly difficult to copy.