Wednesday, February 27, 2013

How To Play Blues Guitar - The Finger Picking Way

Big Bill Broonzy
It kind of goes without explaining that basic finger picking is not too difficult – you hit a string with your thumb and then another with your finger, or strike  two (or more) strings simultaneously with thumb and one of more finger! OK? Nevertheless, it’s the way in which we strike with the thumb and fingers which creates that special feeling. Acoustic blues finger picking is a tad different. It tends to be difficult to play blues effortlessly so that it moves freely and sounds natural.

I’ve commented before that many revered blues guitar masters just used one finger on their picking hand – Big Bill Broonzy, Reverend Gary Davis, Scrapper Blackwell, Blind Boy Fuller, Doc Watson, Floyd Council, and many more. Its fantastic that we have access to those old film clips on Youtube of blues men like Davis - it gives us some idea of how these men created those wonderful sounds. The picking thumb can be used for the treble strings also, which helps to 'syncopate' the sound. We begin to appreciate that the picking thumb provides the drive behind the most appealing acoustic blues songs. We can double up on  the tempo to give the sound of a heart beating, pluck a string slightly in front of or behind the beat , strike two or more strings simultaneously and produce runs on single strings using the thumb and finger alternating. 

Reverend Gary Davis was a particular expert in this technique. 
Davis could play with finger picks or bare fingers, but favored a big plastic pick for his thumb and a steel finger pick on his fore finger. The combination makes a penetrating sound which allowed his music to be heard on noisy streets in Harlem where it was his habit to play. His amazingly fast single string runs plucked with finger and thumb are tough to copy exactly. Davis was universally admired as an effective teacher as well. For the new student passionate about learning the blues, Reverend Davis was heaven sent. (See a free Gary Davis guitar lesson online here.) 

Some other incredible guitarists like Chet Atkins and Doc Watson, had a more or less Travis-style picking technique, but Doc Watson used a plastic thumb with a plastic finger pick, while Mr Atkins preferred a plastic thumb-pick and his finger nails. Sometimes it seems as though he either varnished them, or might have sometimes super-glued plastic nails onto his own - I've heard that this is done, but never tried it. Other differences are that Doc used just one finger, and Chet Atkins used two or three, depending on what he was playing.

In the folk blues boom of the late fifties and sixties, young guitar players were searching out the old blues men, and some of the old guys came back into the spotlight to play finger style blues guitar one more time, sometimes for the public and often as teachers of the original blues. Of course, nowadays they are now almost all gone, so its harder to find a real original blues guitar stylist who can play it like it was.

Over recent years, the resources available to the acoustic blues player thirsty to learn finger picking the blues are huge. This can sometimes slow you down.  How to start the quest? Where to find a guitarist who plays in the old way? On top of that, which technique should you concentrate on, delta or ragtime blues guitar? 

Present day acoustic blues can get a bit overly complex and sometimes it seems that the equation "More complicated = Better" holds sway with newbies. More and more, many guitarists are looking increasingly in the direction of the real roots once more and listeners want to hear the authentic sound of acoustic blues guitar. In my opinion, reaching back into the roots is a great path for learning to play the blues in an authentic way.

That isn't to infer that these original blues guitar masters couldn’t create some very complicated sounds, but the feeling behind the music is what it’s really all about. Texan blues giant, Lightnin’  Hopkins often played an easy pattern in the key of E, with a strong bass rhythm played in his distinctive monotonic thumb style. Now and again he'd double up on the beat and then the bass took on the feel of a heart beating - a real pull on the emotions of the listeners.

Other times, he'd slide right up the neck of his guitar rapidly (like ‘lightnin’) and bend those high strings over, creating whining notes with hypnotic appeal. The effect was the music spoke directly to your heart and it spoke the truth – it's the blues. Let's try a little Hopkins style picking ...

Take it easy - Jim

Monday, February 11, 2013

Mother Always Said I'd End Up On The Streets ...

Some years ago, after several life changing crises, I found myself at a crossroads - which is great for a blues man!

After bankruptcy, divorce, loss of employment and finding myself with no where to live, I had a stroke just to put the icing on the cake.

After coming out of hospital, I remember thinking that if I'm going to end up on the streets, I'll do it in style ... and that's where the whole story began. I borrowed enough money to buy a cheap black suit, a battery amplifier and I started my new career.

First Of All, Some Basics! 


I remember reading year ago about the lives of the old blues men, who played guitar on street corners and in parking lots near tobacco warehouses to scrape a living together. They would also play at 'house rent' parties and bars, where often the recompense was a meal, some drinks and a bed for the night. As they moved around from town to town, their music developed and adapted to the needs of their audience. A street blues guitar player was at best a distraction from a hard, drab life and at worst, a beggar, who could be pitied and ignored.

In the folk boom of the 60s, the life of a street musician was romanticized even more. What is the reality of making a living playing blues guitar, and what do we need to make it a success?

 What To Wear!


Is this important? You bet! Try to put yourself in the shoes of someone walking down a busy street, presented by a man or woman playing blues guitar on the street. The first impression is extremely important, no matter how good the music. Of course, the music itself has to be top class - just because it's street music doesn't mean it can be a lower standard. If anything , the music has to be higher quality, so that people are attracted to the sound.

Your visual impression at first sight speaks volumes. You 're not a bum, but a musician playing the old blues music, so dress with respect to yourself and also your audience. It also helps a lot if you stand out from the crowd a little. I wear a black suit, white shirt, black tie and a wide brimmed black hat. This outfit reminds me of the old standard studio photos of classic blues men, and is also a little different in today's world. Give yourself a name (maybe invent an alter ego) and display this name on a poster attached to you amp, for example.

The Equipment


Here's a list of the equipment I consider to be indispensable for a street playing blues guitar man:

Blues Guitar (duuuh!)

Of course, you can add any items you feel you need, but bear in mind that you'll have to transport it all. I use as simple trolley and strap everything to it with elasticated bungie chords. I can pack it all away in less than five minutes (if I have to!)

What Kind Of Amplifier Do I need? 


 A basic guitar amp with two channels, assuming that you are going to sing. I started out with microphone on a stand, but it's a bit heavy and cumbersome. I now favour a headset mic, which comes in at around $50 for a reasonable sound.

My current amplifier is a 30 watt job bought from Thomann. There's a lead acid battery inside which takes around six hours to charge, giving a playing time (both channels) of between 6 to 8 hours, depending on the volume used. It's quite heavy at 10kg, hence the trolley.
Channel has basic tone and volume controls - use for the voice, and channel two has volume, gain, low medium, high gain controls. The second channel is ideal for balancing the string sounds of an acoustic guitar. Price is a very reasonable $120.

The Guitar


Bear in mind where you are taking this guitar. For example, could it get knocked? Very easily! Could it get stolen? Of course - anything's possible.

I once left a favorite guitar on the subway by mistake, as I was tired and distracted. It goes without saying that I never saw it again. Happily, it's possible to buy a perfectly good guitar nowadays without breaking the bank. For some time I used a Vintage parlor model, complete with on board Shadow equalizer and tuner, which cost around $200!

My current street guitar (see photograph) is a Martin 000X1AE, which incorporates a strip pickup under the saddle and volume/tone controls inside the sound hole. The spruce top is not varnished (or hardly) and can be delicate, but the neck, and rest of the body is artificial - not wood at all! Martin don't say what it is, except that it's not plastic or a wood pulp derivative. Whatever it is, it's extremely tough. I've knocked it a few times without any evidence of the contact. I carry it in a soft case strapped to my back.

The sound is definitely Martin through and through, with very nice basses. This small bodied guitar is great for blues finger picking, which is all I do. Current price is around $600 - get one! (No, I don't have shares in the company.)

Where To Play 


This is a tough one, as it depends on you and your town. Let me tell you how I approach it. First of all, if you see a few people playing in the street, then you can assume that it's at least tolerated by the police. After this initial assessment, there's nothing left to do but try it out!
I walk around a good deal and watch people as they cross intersections,etc, or on the edge of a pedestrian shopping precinct. It helps a lot if people can stop and listen without obstructing the flow of other people, or of traffic. The picture shows a market in the center of a city - an ideal venue for a street musician and a great place to play blues guitar.

Ready To Go!


Here I am set up on the edge of the city market square shown in the last section. I like to have something at my back (there's always the chance of someone doing something you don't like behind you, or trying to steal something while you are distracted. After all, this is the city!)

You attract some attention while setting up, as people are naturally curious. It takes a little courage the first few times, but gets easier every time. It helps if you bring an attitude to you work. For example, I'm always smiling and chatting to people and give the impression that I belong there. It's my street, it's where I play and I have every right to be there. Of course, I don't have any right to be there, but if you play OK, and not too loud, the police will (probably) leave you alone as it adds a little color to the activities and to the general ambiance.

Start with something simple and attractive - it won't help your cause if you try and play to your maximum ability and mess it up! Play to 75% of your capabilities until you get into it. This way, your playing will be sure and sound great for the passers by.

Can You Make A living? 


Making a living playing blues guitar is always difficult and can only be achieved by earning relatively small amounts from several related activities. For me, street playing has always played a significant role.

However, playing on the street just for tips won't cut it. It's best to offer something else, such as CD at a very reasonable price. This option doubles the amount earned on the street..

My other activities include live gigs and teaching, and I get many contacts from the street. Often people ask me about teaching blues guitar and others offer me gigs at private functions, parties and in their bars or cafes. I'm happy to say that blues is the way I make my living.

I hope you enjoyed this insight into the life of a street musician - take a look at the video below to see more.






Saturday, February 9, 2013

I came across a photo while surfing - Robert Johnson

I came across a photo while surfing and thought it might interest you. It's verified and shows Robert Johnson posing with Johhny Shines.

For years it was thought that there was only two photos of Johnson, a small low quality one probably taken in a booth (so I read - I didn't know booths existed in the 30s?)

This studio photo was taken at (Hook's Brothers photography shop on Beale Street) and shows him holding a Gibson L1 Flat Top guitar, although contemporaries such as Johnny Shines recalled that he played either Stella or Kalamazoo guitars.

It seems he also played resonator models later on in his career - maybe the guitar shown in this photo was just a prop from the studio, or borrowed from a friend.

A common characteristic of all the photos are those long fingers.

Johnson is on the left in the photo below.

 Speaking for myself, I'm not too interested in Johnson, although I do include a few of his main songs in my street repertoire - they're just so cool! Some of his contemporaries, like Johnny Shines were absolute masters of the genre and such people got pushed into the sidelines a bit - 'cos they were not dead! (Just an idea.)

It's seems amazing to me that so few photos, and particularly old film clips, were recorded for these talents. Obviously, for much of the main stream media, these guys were just important enough, but the legacy they left is huge.

Even blues men such as Scrapper Blackwell, who survived until 1962 has no film footage credited to him and precious few photos. Blackwell was incredibly important and creative in his blues work - far more inventive than Johnson, who mostly adapted traditional songs and adapted other people's work - he was just very good at it, that's all. For example, Johnson's 'Sweet Home Chicago' seems a straight copy of Blackwell's 'Kokomo Blues' - check it out.

Take the King of Ragtime Blind Blake - what I wouldn't give to see a short clip of him playing West Coast Blues, or similar. There are some old clips of some blues men, like Gary Davis, Broonzy, Sleepy John Estes, Mississippi John Hurt, J.B. Lenoir and Johnny Shines, for which we are truly grateful.  I'd be interested in any posts featuring old clips or photos of any blues men.

Friday, February 8, 2013

The Day I Met A Blues Legend (Almost ...)

Pine Top Perkins and the story of how I came across him in a bar - and I didn't even realize it! We frequently hear stories about the old blues legends, but usually we don't get to meet one. I did get to meet one, but it didn't work out in the way I thought it would be. A long time ago in a Galaxy far, far away ...

Anyone interested in the original blues, either guitar or piano, know the names of the 'blues legends', such as Pine Top Perkins. They were the guys that started it all. None of them had to try and understand the blues , they were the blues! Names like Lightnin' Hopkins, Robert Johnson and Big Bill Broonzy come to mind.

 In 1998, when I was living in Indiana, I was often thirsty for the sound of old-style blues. Someone told me that there was a blues bar called 'Buck's Working Man's Pub' in a town an hour's drive away in the town of La Porte. After work, I eagerly climbed into the car and set off.

Given directions by the locals, I made my way down main street, turned left at the second corner past the town hall and crossed the railroad tracks to the more disreputable side of town. At last, I'd get to see a slice of the real blues. The bar wasn't up to much. I got myself a beer and found my way to room at the back, following the sound of a loud electric band.

The place was about half full. Chicago blues wasn't really what I was looking for anyway - I was always more interested in learning how to play the blues in the old acoustic style.. The old fellow at my table told me the locals had hired the band as it was the bar's owner's birthday today. He didn't say much after that. The band finished the number and the singer addressed the audience. "Happy Birthday, Pinetop", he shouted, and carried on "Ladies and gentlemen, Pinetop has agreed to play a couple of numbers for us."

The old guy next to me got up and walked up to the stage, sitting down in front of a grand piano. He played a slow boogie which became increasingly complex with each passing bar. I mentally kicked myself as I realized I'd been sitting next to a real master, an original
blues man. Pinetop played only a couple songs and then walked past me out of the room. He didn't appear again the rest of the night.

With hindsight, I thought questions I should have asked him, but maybe it's just as well. It was the guys birthday and he could have been bothered by a stranger's questions. Legends are just people, you know.

How Long Blues

Thursday, February 7, 2013

One of the problems with committing to keep a journal is that fear that we won't have anything to say one day! Well, this is mostly nonsense - none of us are so boring. Out minds are full of thoughts rushing around like demons - unfortunately, many of them are not too constructive.

After encountering the famous 'guitarist's block' a few weeks ago, I found myself languishing a little. You know the feeling, just tired of playing the same old thing. Of course, we love the music, but change is important. What to do when you hit the 'wall' ?

Sometimes, I'll play tunes right out of my style, like old pop tunes or swing jazz (not that I can play it very well) and thing just might kick me out of the lethargy. Just lately I find myself going back to the roots again and again.

Even after playing complex ragtime for many years, it's refreshing to listen to the old guys and hear again how it all started. A few weeks ago I started to play a couple of old Reverend Gary Davis songs - then another, then another and I soon found my old enthusiasm coming back.

What artistry! The old man's chord structure and picking patterns are very interesting and a challenge for all of us. I even found a couple of clips on Youtube featuring songs that I hadn't heard before - treasure indeed. Here's  a clip of 'Feel Like Going On'.