Blues music grew from the experience of the African-American communities in the Deep South of the USA in the late 1800s, often featuring tales of despair or hardship. Mixing African song with spirituals, work songs and European folk influences, the style often uses simple forms and common chord structures, such as the 12-bar blues harmonic sequence, or the AAB form.
Originally the music of African-American slaves and poverty-stricken folk, the music was adopted in the second half of the 1900s by mainstream Americans and Europeans, as the style developed. We still hear aspects of the blues style in most forms of popular music today, including jazz, pop, folk, dance, rock and country.
Early blues and many subsequent styles are often associated with acoustic guitar and vocals; with singers such as Robert Johnson and Bessie Smith widely recognised as pioneers in this style. Use of slide guitar sounds is also synonymous with the style. Later forms of blues developed using the electric guitar, with artists such as Eric Clapton and the more boogie-woogie orientated pianist Jools Holland, performing blues music and its sub-genres in a more contemporary manner.
Improvising in the style
The first thing for any instrumentalist or vocalist to think about is whether the music is ‘straight’ or ‘swung’ (with a triplet feel, like the song ‘Humpty Dumpty’). This will have a huge bearing on how you perform your improvisation rhythmically, and should be taken into account immediately. Blues music historically can be performed both ways, although older styles often have more of a swung feel. Sometimes, even on straight-feel blues, singers and instrumentalists like to add a slight ‘swing’ to their rhythms, to create a laid-back, bluesy feel. This takes practice and it’s worth listening to recordings of how artists do this, such as Chris Rea.
Melodically, it is a good idea to check out the ‘blues scale’ as a basis for improvisation. Unlike a normal major or minor scale, the basic version of this focuses on just 6 notes of the scale, taking the key of the song and using the minor pentatonic (1-flat 3-4-5-flat 7), then adding the diminished 5th into the mix. For example, for a blues in C, we might focus our attention on the notes of; C (1st degree of the scale), Eb (flat 3), F (4), F#/Gb (diminished 5th), G (5th) and Bb (flat 7). Try running up and down this scale, playing arpeggios using these notes, then creating melodies and lines jumping around different points of the scale. It’s also quite common to flicker between 2 notes of the scale which are only a semi-tone apart. Using the above example in the key of C, this might be the G and the F#.
When creating an improvised accompaniment, it is worth making sure you know the common extensions and harmonic trends of blues music. For example, there is a lot of use of minor chords and dominant 7ths (meaning the flat 7, a whole tone below the root). We also sometimes come across the diminished chord, which uses both the flat 3 and the b5. Make sure you understand these chord symbols, how to play them correctly on your instrument, and the chord-scale relationship. A common accompaniment technique used in many blues songs for guitar and keyboards is the shuffle accompaniment. This is featured in the syllabus on songs such as ‘I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom’ by Robert Johnson. It’s worth checking out how this works and applying it to all twelve keys.
In terms of basic stylistic traits, blues music tends to be quite simple, with the aim of conveying a tale of sorrow, hardship or regret as clearly as possible. The style generally has quite a laid-back feel, although more up-beat variations occur in sub-genres such as boogie-woogie. Use of techniques such as slides, slurs, note-bends and breathy, softer tones can create an effective blues sound.
Watch videos with session musicians and Rock & Pop examiners JJ Wheeler and Tom Fleming, and session musicians Harry the Piano, Sam Edgington and Brendan Reilly:
Despite dying at the tender age of 27 in 1938, Robert Johnson is widely recognised as one of the most influential voices of the early blues style. Usually performing solo on acoustic guitar and vocals on street corners, in bars or at night dances, he gained little exposure in his lifetime, but has since become revered following re-issue of his recordings since 1961. He is known as a master of the Mississippi Delta blues and his recordings of songs such as ‘Crossroad’, ‘Me and the Devil Blues’ and ‘Sweet Home Chicago’ have influenced generations of blues and popular music artists since.
B. B. King., born in 1925, is described as the ‘King of Blues’. Over his career he developed one of the world’s most identifiable guitar styles and was ranked sixth in Rolling Stone magazine’s list of all time guitarists in 2011. His soloing style was described by Edward Komara as ‘a sophisticated style of soloing based on fluid string bending and shimmering vibrato that would influence virtually every electric blues guitarist that followed’. Hits such as ‘The Thrill Is Gone’, ‘How Blue Can You Get’ and ‘Lucille’ are just a few examples of his virtuoso guitar playing and singing. B. B. King died in May 2015.
In the later 20th century, blues was adopted and fused with rock to popular acclaim; particularly by British artists such as Eric Clapton. Guitarist/vocalist Clapton came to fame with the bands ‘The Yardbirds’ and ‘Cream’ in the 1960s and 70s. Also influenced by genres such as reggae and rock, his hits such as ‘Layla’, and ‘Tears In Heaven’ hold worldwide attention. Clapton still tours to sell-out arenas and stadiums and received a CBE from the Queen for services to music in 2004.
Examples of blues songs in the syllabus are:
‘Black Betty’ by Lead Belly (bass, keyboards, drums, guitar, vocals), ‘I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom’ by Robert Johnson (bass, keyboards, drums, guitar, vocals), ‘Mean Jumper Blues’ by Blind Lemon Jefferson (bass, keyboards, drums, guitar, vocals), ‘Hide Away’ by John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers (guitar) and ‘What’d I Say’ by Ray Charles (keyboards)
Blog post written by: JJ Wheeler, Trinity Rock & Pop Examiner