One century of Blues Music (part 1)

Blues marks the beginning of modern music, and with “modern music” I mean non-classical or symphonic, operistic music, but Popular music, meant for the masses, played by people with different levels of musical education- from basic to high education.

Originated by African Americans in the Deep South of the United States, this genre took its musical influences from:

African musical traditions, African-American work songs and European-American folk music, incorporating spirituals, work songs, field hollers, shouts, chants, and rhymed simple narrative ballads.

Based on very simple structures (being the 12 bar blues the most famous one) and repetitive tunes/melodies, it’s one of the most important musical models that contributed to shape Pop music, all through the last century, and the new millennium. Blues has got a strange lure that attracts people, still now, after many decades.

Blues had different eras: the first important guitarists, were singers who also played guitar (legends like Blind Lemon Jefferson,during the 20s or Robert Johnson, in the 30s )blind-lemon

Blind Lemon’s style consisted of a balanced mix between strumming chords and playing single notes musical phrases, often improvised. Singing melodies were often indipendent, free (rhythmically) from playing, and the songs had a naive but “hypnotizing” mood, also because of this strange timing.

Guitarists like Lonnie Johnson brought modernity to Blues music, with his precise phrasing. Listen to this songs –A Broken Heart That Never Smiles (1927)- Baby Please Don’t Leave Home No More (1929)or his cover version of Gershwin’s “Summertime”-amazing, jazzy and dynamic-and you’ll find licks that surely influenced Rhythm and Blues, and also future musical styles.Johnson kept on playing guitar ‘for several years- his great song “Stormy Weather” (1960) shows an incredible maturity, an elegant touch and a melodic taste out of the ordinary.

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Let’s talk of one, if not, the most important blues guitarist, one who is considered a legend:

robert-ohnson

His great ability to simultaneously play two or three independent guitar parts while singing is very difficult to duplicate on the instrument or the printed page. With a innovative and dynamaic style, made of fast (for that era) melodies, often in doubled harmony, and licks that now are considered “classic patterns-like the famous blues intros with dominant 7th chords and the descending bass (listen to Kind Hearted Woman, for example)

and let’s not forget Charlie Patton, who was considered the “father of Delta blues” : listen to Rattlesnake Blues– or Goin to move to Alabama– that contains small guitar phrases that influenced early Rock n Roll (or the guitarists who contributed to create it)

charlie-patton

A guitarist that I like very much of the 1930s/’40s is Minnie Memphis. She was a nice lady, singing and playing blues guitar with a strong attitude, and this time (after many years of guitarists who would play out of synch- this time, finally…Rhythm ! Precise timing, great technique (for that era) and a sound that could be modern today, or at least, in the last 50 years of blues. Incredible, innit?

minnie.jpg

But let’s fast forward a few years, and talk about the second era of Blues: when the music adds great drum beats, bass players and it gets a little bit stronger: I’m talking about Bo Diddley (check a song that you surely know : “I am a man” –

bo diddley.jpg

-even because years later, this song’s main riff was used for another song (probably more famous to the younger generations) “Bad to the Bone”-recorded by George Thorogood and the Destroyers in 1982- And let’s not forget legends like Muddy Waters (video: “I just wanna make love to you -1961)whose’ style influenced many bands -the Rolling Stones being one of the most famous- a man who recorded songs like

Long Distance Call , Rock me Baby-(one of the most classic blues riffs in history) – and let’s not forget of the great Hound Dog Taylor, ,and his incredible use of the slide technique (with the bottleneck) Wild About You Baby

waers

Another great blues guitarist that I cannot not mention, is  John Lee Hooker,  whose technique and precision was very high, and over the average blues guitarist , listen to this one: boom boom boom and this one:John Lee Hooker -Dimples

leee-kooker

Now listen to B.B.King’s “Early in the morning “ with its “Rock n Roll” mood. At the beginning you can clearly notice the similarity with a fast tempo that is common in jazz (swing) -so I suspect (just my opinion) that during those years of changes, blues was leaving its “introspective” aura, for something more “entertainment-oriented”, and swing jazz, country music helped to melt the genres for something new, that was, as a matter of fact, called, Rhythm and Blues (R&B) …

With its origins in some compositions of the 30s/40s , Minor Blues (basically the same structure, but with all minor chords) has got a particular melancholy flavour, something that makes the blues more blue…and I talk about the super classic “The Thrill is gone” recorded as a terrific cover versionby B.B.King in 1970.

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I will use this fine gentleman’s artistic repertoire again, in order to explain the transition, the mutation from Blues, to Rhythm and Blues, showing how this song “Why I Sing the Blues “ is, so to speak, an early example of Funky music -if you pay close attention to the rhythm guitar, now the strumming sound more stopped, muted, the guitar fills are more simple, more basic, and in general the mood is more “urban” and happy, dynamic.

Let’s not forget that more or less in this period (60s) another fine gentleman is having a huge success with a similar sound, Mr.James Brown!

james

Rhythm & Blues, Soul, Funky and House

In the mid 40s, Urbane, rocking, jazz oriented artists with a heavy, strong beat” were becoming more popular, and record companies were excited of these new currents coming from the early blues, but stronger, more dynamic, and overall, more commercial.

Important guitarists who contributed to the creation of this new style, were the aforementioned Lonnie Johnson, the legendary T-Bone Walker, especially with this song : Call it Stormy Monday– and its smooth, slow, jazzy mood, where an elegant guitar interacts with a piano and  two horn players (plus the super smooth rhtythm session of drums and bass.- One Important album for the Rhythm & Blues genre is James Brown’s think (1960) that I view as a special flava of bluesy rock ‘n’ roll, with a great beat, amazing brasses, a cool rhythm guitar (sometimes rock n roll, sweet and clean in the soul ballads) – In that era, guitarists began to play rhythm guitar with more stops and muted sounds, more and more nervous, dynamic, creating that “funky” sound that was gonna dominate the R&B /Black Music world for several decades on…(listen to his masterpieces Hot Pants -with a repetitive interplay between horns melody and a precise, funky guitar- or sex machine, with that classic 2 fast chords -). Funky style was the brand new thing, from the late 60s, to all the 70s, when it melted into Disco (listen to Chic -Everybody dance– where Nile Rodgers plays a difficult sequence of chords with a modified bass-or Chic -Good Times– with a more laidback approach to the rhtyhm guitar)

Bands who played R&B with a funky influence

Ides Of March

Vehicle

This song is incredible. it never cease to amaze me after years…that funky rhythm guitar with the stunning solo, the horns’ riff and work all thru’ the song, the urban feel…

very, very “Rocky”!

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-Fast forward the time ten, fifteen yrs later…and all those funky guitar riffs, rhythms will be perfect for House Music. LIsten to Modjo-Lady– and you can notice to the rhytmic pattern of the guitar, funky, but cutted- without “release” of the sound- it’s that robotic interpretation of something very organic, originally, that makes this music great- I mean, you know that the song has written “1979” s all around, but still, it is a product of its times- listen to Spiller-Groove Jet– and the basic idea is the same

From Blues to Rock n Roll:

It’s been said a thousand times that one of the most happy, positive and energy-driven music genres is a clash of blues (in his sub-genre of Jump Blues, gospel (especially the vocals) and country music-plus a little bit of jazz, I would add- not that complex, full of chord changes jazz music, but more a mild influence on some drum grooves and the horn section, something more like the boogie woogie : Big Joe Turner – Ooo Ouch Stop, where you can notice a guitar style already doing fast melody lines, precise, jazzy but also simple- it seems to me that in the 40s there already were the basics for the birth of future genres…listen also to this song Boogie Woogie Country Girl and tell me if it doesn’t sound like a rock n roll song…Let’s fast forward some years and listen to Elvis Presley- Hound Dog : the Scotty Moore’s guitar solo is amazing, full of bluesy patterns like the pentatonic scales and the double stops (two notes harmony) plus a little bit of jazz-very little -To me it sounds like a speeded-up blues with country influences-

elvis-presley-and-his-hound-dog-1957

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Chuck Berry

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He’s the grandfather of Rock n Roll guitarists…the Elvis of guitar, the person who really combined  a little bit of Country music with Rhythm and Blues and developed a style: songs, vocals, guitar parts

listen to this classic song- I’m sure that the intro will go down in history like Mozart or Beethowen

Johnny B Goode

Duane Eddy

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Famous for his  “twangy” guitar sound, he often played the bass strings of his guitar, creating amazing results like the Surf-oriented Movin ‘n’ Groovin, or the famous riff of

Peter Gunn

Musical/technical aspects

It’s been said a zillion times that blues music mainly uses 7th chords (dominant) and the pentatonic/blues scale.

But during the early years (for example on this song by Blind Lemon Jefferson- Chock House Blues ) blues had some influences in common with ragtime and early jazz (think about Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer” but much slower) so, the main chord (tonic chord) was mainly a Major chord, and the melodies -most improvised- often use some chromatic passages (augmented second-that we can see as a minor third-to major third).

In minor blues, the chord sequence, that originally was made of 7th chords, it uses all three minor chords, changing the mood, but keeping the structures.

The main techniques used are : bending (the string) , slide (slide from one fret to another, usually from a lower note to a higher one, but it’s also frequent the opposite) – legatos (hammer ons, pull offs) , double stops (a simple harmony of two notes) .

Right hand can use the pick or fingerpicking technique. Typical blues phrases use pentatonic scales (both Major and Minor, over dominant 7th chords, only minor over minor chords)

 

 

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