The musical genre “Blues” has been with us now for more than a century. Always very popular, it grew from a background of slavery in the southern states ao the USA, principally in the Mississippi delta. As the slaves worked they sang chants and labour songs, and also used “hollers” too communicate in the fields. With the abolition of slavery there remained a legacy of African American communities which still did the same kind of work as their enslaved ancestors. As people had more freedom to seek their own lifestyle, many turned to music, using the aforementioned characteristics to develop a new style. Legend has it that a bandleader who also played cornet, by the name of Willaim Christopher Handy wrote a song called Yellow Dog Blues, and from this the new style took it’s name. The song was published in the year 1912.
The Blues soon became popular and the preferred style for performers from a working class background, singing about their hard lives and sad stories of their own experiences. As such it’s popularity spread and gave more amd more people the urge to learn to play the guitar and sing the blues themselves. Of course the guitar is not the only instrument, but is probably identified more with the blues than any other. It really is the ideal instrument for the blues and gives a gritty “bluesy” sound, whether it is electric or acoustic. In the latter case it should have steel strings, not nylon, and many people find that thicker strings give a better tone with more sustain.
Blues music is often referred to as “12-bar blues”, which although not the only, is the most common form. There is also 8,16 or even 24 bar blues forms. A 12-bar blues song, quite simply is divided up into 12 bars , or measures. There are 4 beats to the bar. A beat is like each time you tap your foot to the rhyrhm of a song. There must be a minimum of 3 chords, which will be played in combination over the 12 bars. Once that sequence is completed, it is then replayed over and over up to the end of the song. To start with, have your 12-bar, 3 chord sequence prepared, and practice strumming through the sequence. Only strum on the downward stroke for each beat until you get familiar with the rhythm and the chord changes.
Blues music can be played only using major chords, but many variations are possible using combinations of scales. These are normally referred to as mixolydian, dorian and the major and minor pentatonic scales. Theoretically these combinations should not work, for example playing major seventh chords over minor pentatonic scales, but in practice, in the blues it sounds great!
There are 3 types of rhythm “feel” in the blues, 12/8 feel, shuffle feel, and straight feel. It is important to pay attention to all 3 feels and to practise them, even though you are a beginner. Straight feel uses the “eighth-note” rhythm with evenly spaced beats; shuffle feel can be to stress the 1st and 3rd* beats (think of the bass drum beat), or the 2nd and 4th** beats (*Chicago shuffle and **Texas shuffle). 12/8 feel, also known as “slow blues” means twelve “eighth notes” to the bar.
A repeated chord sequence is referred to as a riff, a combination which can make a song instantly recognisable. The use of these, as well as other features such as intros, turnarounds and endings, are compiled in a way to give a song it’s character and style. A turnaround is often played as the last bar of a blues progression. It’s a kind of transition back to the tonic, which is where the next verse starts. Many turnarounds are similar to the intro. Another technique important to blues guitar playing is vibrato. This is achieved by “bending” the string to raise the pitch and then letting it back to it’s normal pitch and string tension.
Lastly, it must be noted that, although we try to create and compile classes in an easier-to-learn way, at the end of the day you must be dedicated, and prepared to practice regularly and persevere with mastering the more difficult aspects. With this dedication and our classes, you will soon be on the way to becoming an accomplished blues guitar player.
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