Blooz I can Yooz.
March 1, 2008 7:44 PM   Subscribe

I'm a good guitar player, but I can't play the blues. I mean, the real blues. Help me learn.

I've been playing guitar for more than 20 years. I've played hundreds of gigs, made commercial CDs, national radio play, been reviewed in NME... but I've never really mastered the blues. Mostly because I wasn't interested in playing it, even though I listened to it.

But now I'd like to learn.

The problem is that almost everything I look at, I already know. I know the blues scale. I know mixolydian. You show me a ZZ top tab, I can play it. I can even fake a BB King solo over 'The Thrill is Gone'.

But I can't play the blues. I can't vamp a 12 bar, not really. I get lost in the turnarounds. I just sound like a white guy faking it, which I am.

So, assuming that I can read any tab you throw at me, that I have the technical chops required, that I know my scales and chords, what are the best resources for actually sounding like I know what I'm doing?

(I'm really good at playing by ear but I find that when I hear a huge flurry of blues notes I tend to vague out..)

Data point: I love Freddie King and Albert King. Lightnin' Hopkins and John Lee Hooker. Hubert Sumlin. ZZ Top.

BB King, not so much. Eric Clapton, not at all.
posted by unSane to Media & Arts (18 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
When Joe Perry, a white dude, wanted to get back to blues basics for his next album, he asked Wolf Marshall, his longtime friend and another white dude. This book is pretty good as a white dude's perspective on how other white dudes can learn to play the blues.

Freddie King and Albert King are great. Check out Albert Collins and Robert Johnson and Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters and T-Bone Walker and as many of their contemporaries as you can identify - no one ever went deaf listening to too many blues. Listen to SRV and Jimi for a more modern take. I like most Clapton tepidly if at all, but a few years ago he put out a record called 'Me and Mr Clapton' that is firmly entrenched on my list of best ever favorite albums, basically a bunch of barrelhouse covers of old blues classics, played on a Strat without any distortion as well as his old OOO-35.

When you're practicing, shut the fuzz off. Turn the gain down. If you have some flexibility in your setup, use a neck single coil - roll the tone off if you're really brave - and play through a clean channel with the treble boosted and just a touch of gain to brighten the sound without fuzzing it. Then the trick becomes to use your fingers - especially your left hand vibrato and bends and pull-offs and hammer-ons - to express your phrasing in the way that is individually you. Ten blues guys might play the same lick and you would know who was who just from the way they vibrato'd the bent note. Make the excitement come through your fingers through the amp, don't rely on the guitar and amp to do it for you.

I, however, am no expert, as my sorry single MeFi Music contribution will attest.
posted by ikkyu2 at 8:02 PM on March 1, 2008

Lose your wife, get your truck stolen, and dog run over...Oh wait that's country.

Have you tried any of the Smithsonian recordings. They have some original delta blues. and some lessons
posted by Gungho at 8:08 PM on March 1, 2008

You're probably overthinking this.

Blues is not about being clever, or having lots of technical chops.

Start by seeing just how much feeling you can get out of one sustained note.
posted by flabdablet at 8:10 PM on March 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

Let me give you an example. This stupidly simple lick:


where you slide up to the G on the E string and then vibrato the E on the D string

it's just the kind of thing I never come up with when I'm running through the pentatonic scale.

Once I'm given that idea I can develop it and work with it all over the neck, but it never really occurs to me when I'm simply noodling.
posted by unSane at 8:18 PM on March 1, 2008

(sorry, I left out the top E string in that tab but you get the idea)
posted by unSane at 8:18 PM on March 1, 2008

Did you click that link I posted? The book is pretty much called 101 Blues Licks To Expand The Repertoire of White Dudes. You need it.
posted by ikkyu2 at 8:24 PM on March 1, 2008

What helped me a lot when I was learning to play blues was...walking. The steady rhythym of my feet hitting the ground provided a framework for where I wanted to hang which sound. Also how I wanted those sounds to emphasize the rhythym of my steps. I'm not suggesting walking with your instrument, but just walk and sing and hum to yourself and come up with some simple stuff without worrying about mixolydian or the blues scale, then see if you can make that sound when you're back with your instument. Feeling sad and frustrated doesn't hurt.

When you consider how much walking early blues players did, this is probably not a bad way to imitate how they came up with the stuff they did.
posted by telstar at 8:24 PM on March 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I did, Ikkyu. Thanks.
posted by unSane at 8:28 PM on March 1, 2008

I also recommend listening to Chester Burnett, aka Howlin' Wolf to learn the MOOD, not necessarily the chops of the blues. Moaning at Midnight is a definitive collection, and IMHO forms the rhythmic and harmonic basis of at least half of what became known as "rock and roll".
posted by telstar at 8:49 PM on March 1, 2008

I think the basic way to learn a lot of kinds of music is to screw the tabs and sit there with a recording and learn the stuff you want to play, note by note. Then phrase by phrase and then you get a whole piece.

When you know something like that, you are not faking it. You have it in your ear, and that's where music should come from.

It's real hard, and I've been doing it for a long time, but that's kinda the only way to learn because that's how all those great people learned, either from recordings or from someone sitting there showing them how to play.
posted by sully75 at 9:08 PM on March 1, 2008

Listen to Jimmy Lee Williams, "Hoot Your Belly." He played for neighbors in Porlan, Georgia, for thirty years before some kid showed up with a microphone and reel-to-reel; his influences are legit and obscure. After hearing some bluesman or other here or there, Williams would take what he heard and come up with his own version, in many cases turning the blues upside-down. He'll work a Skip James moan in with a contrapuntal and rhythmically baffling guitar riff; his lyrics tend towards barnyard sexual metaphor. But he's pure blues, woodshed blues.

Jimmy Lee Williams teaches us that the blues is not a matter of playing just like so-and-so, but taking what so-and-so played and taking it home, of working through someone else's chops in your own hands, and finding out what you yourself have to say about the blues.

It starts simple, don't even swing it. Just slap the same chord out, with the beat, until you're deep in the pocket. Then you can feel the swing from anywhere on the beat, from triplets to the tiniest grace note.

Blues is about rhythm guitar and singing. The great blues lead guitarists all have fantastic voices and singing styles that are as unique and moving as their guitar playing.

So start singing. You can't just play the blues. You gotta sing the blues, too.
posted by breezeway at 9:09 PM on March 1, 2008 [2 favorites]

Here is a classic blues turnaround I learned from watching Jimmy Johnson in Chicago. Blues in the key of A. When you get to the V chord (E):

----5-5-5-----7-bend up to 9--------------------

Repeat the pattern only a full step down on the IV chord:

----3-3-3-----5-bend up to 7--------------------

This is a very simplified version because to complete the riff you'd ideally like to reverse the bend but that's my own personal taste.

And to get back to the I chord:


Another thing he used to do that blew my mind in it's simplicity (same key):

------------------------------------5-(trill on the 7th fret)----
-------5--(trill on the 7th fret)--------------------------------

He would do that over the entire 12 bars and it sounded bad ass over a shuffle. Just keep the trill going.

Here is a cool turnaround that I still stumble with but when you hit it, it's awesome (key of A):


......then back to the I or A chord. These are just a few to get you started.
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 1:11 AM on March 2, 2008 [4 favorites]

Kevin, that rawked, and thanks. This might be a good time to point out a dichotomy in the blues. There is the more practiced, somewhat slicker, more polished "Chicago blues" like that excellent GateMouth Brown number, and then there is the earlier, rougher, more "country" blues or "delta" blues as practiced by the likes of Robert Johnson, who was doubtless inspired by the likes of Jelly Roll Morton and ole' Satchmo himself, Louis Armstrong (among several other storied and illustrious characters). You can spend all day, week, month, year on studying these cats, but (and this is my final comment on the post), it don't mean much until you've put yourself in the breach and put out what you feel is the blues. Not much else matters, no matter how much history there is. Good luck.
posted by telstar at 3:44 AM on March 2, 2008

Wait, Robert Johnson was inspired by Louis Armstrong? NOT. I'd bet you anything that those two dudes never heard each other, ever.
posted by sully75 at 4:41 AM on March 2, 2008

All right...I'm not a musician, but I'll give advice as best I can. (And I can't *believe* I'm the first to say this one!)

What you need to do, see, is go to a crossroads. Should be far from everything. Be there at midnight, and you will meet a man. He is not a man. Offer him your soul, and he'll make sure you can play the blues. After all, you're not using it right now, right?

Okay, so what I'm trying to say is...when I listen to the blues, and when I sing the blues, it's not about how to hit the right notes, because whatever I'm singing is the right note. It's about sweetness from grief, and being tired and beat-down and even if you're happy today you might not be tomorrow -- and, conversely, if the world has you down today, tomorrow could be better (but it probably won't be.)

Start at the beginning. Listen to Blind Lemon Jefferson, read "Tell My Horse" to get a feel for that hard, sad feeling in his music and for what might've been going on in his head. Remember heartbreak, and let that get played out in the way you hold your guitar, and in every note that comes out, remember when you were tired and kept on going, because the blues, the best blues -- it always lifts you up.

(I feel like this might be useless, but this is what it is to me, so I'm offering this advice anyway. Like as not, the actual charted chords will do you better.)
posted by kalimac at 6:41 AM on March 2, 2008

Just heard a great anecdote from Bob Ezrin (producer of Alice Cooper, Kiss, Pink Floyd, etc.). When he was a teenager, his dad hired Lonnie Johnson to play in his bar for an extended engagement.

One night, Bob was sitting there, soaking up the music, and something came over him. He went up to Lonnie after the set, and asked him, "Can you teach me how to play blues guitar like that?"

Lonnie responded instantly: "Fuck, no!"

This probably doesn't help you. Sorry.
posted by Aquaman at 8:35 AM on March 2, 2008 [3 favorites]

If you go to the crossroads, make sure you cut your fingernails.
posted by billtron at 11:55 AM on March 2, 2008

« Older What's a really really light weight jacket with...   |   How do I find my match? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.