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Okay folks, time to put down that pick because today we’re focusing on acoustic fingerstyle blues. Obviously there’s a large body of music that falls into this category, which can be further broken down into such sub-styles as Delta blues, Texas blues, ragtime, Piedmont, and boogie-woogie. This list is by no means exhaustive, but these are the styles we’ll cover in this lesson. Instead of trying to learn each sub-style from a theoretical or historical perspective, I’ve decided to approach learning it from a guitar technique perspective, specifically focusing on the picking-hand thumb.
In solo fingerstyle guitar, the thumb typically takes the role of the bass player. The bass player, our thumb, crafts lines in a few distinct ways. Today we’ll look at three types of bass lines that help define the sound of the aforementioned sub-styles of fingerstyle blues: monotone bass, alternating bass, and boogie-woogie bass.
Delta Blues and Texas Blues
There’s no better instruction than listening to recordings or viewing video, if available, of the blues greats we are trying to learn from. Take a moment to watch Texas bluesman Lightnin’ Hopkins’ perform “Baby Please Don’t Go,” Delta blues master Son House perform “Preachin’ the Blues,” and finally Chicago blues great Big Bill Broonzy play “Hey Hey.” Pay special attention to their right-hand technique—specifically their thumbs—and you’ll see each of them employing a monotone bass line.
Lightnin’ Hopkins – “Baby Please Don’t Go”
Son House – “Preachin’ the Blues”
Big Bill Broonzy – “Hey Hey”
The monotone bass line is a static line that’s typically created by playing a chord tone from a given chord in the song’s progression. Often the chosen chord tone is the root. In Fig. 1, the chord we’re dealing with is E and the root is—you guessed it—an E. In this example, the bass line consists of quarter-notes. Playing this with a slight palm mute and a little bit of attitude goes a long way towards achieving the rhythmic drive found in this style of blues.
The chord root is not your only choice for bass notes. In Fig. 2, the 3rd (F#) of D7 is used as the bass note and is played with the thumb. This is a common monotone bass note choice for this chord, especially when D7 functions as the IV chord in an A blues progression.
Fig. 3 is an E blues I’ve written in the style of Lightnin’ Hopkins. The thumb should drive this tune, but be careful that it doesn’t overpower the fingerpicking. Watch the demonstration video and pay special attention to the “thump” of the bass line, as well as the inflections used on the melody. In the written example I’ve avoided notating the bends, so watch the video to see and hear where the bends occur. For added authenticity, listen to the masters and imitate the way they bend and phrase notes in this style. After watching the video take a look at the TAB. Before trying to play it, first locate all the chord shapes on the fretboard, since much of the melodic material is played out of these shapes. After doing this you’ll find that from a left-hand perspective, this tune is fairly accessible.