Looking to get into blues guitar? Here are some places to start.
Back in August I did a column on my door to jazz, and I got some nice comments and requests to dig into some other genres. So this month: The Blues.
As I mentioned last time, I got in to blues via a record called The History of Eric Clapton. It’s a shame it’s out of print, because it had some good stuff on it. Clapton, by his own admission, is a sort of blues archivist, and it shows in his playing. If you dig Clapton’s playing, then pick up Otis Rush’s Classic Cobra Recordings 1956– 1958. You’ll have a pretty good idea of where a lot of Clapton’s licks came from.
In my earlier column I also mentioned B.B. King Live in Cook County Jail. As far as I’m concerned, there should be a 100-foot tall statue of B.B. made of solid gold on some green lawn in Washington, D.C. This album is just killin’. B.B.’s singing is so soulful. He chats with the “captive” audience, and he plays some extended solos that define, for me, what electric blues guitar can be. This is a must-own album.
Now from B.B., it’s a short stroll to the other two Kings of the blues: Albert and Freddie. I got to meet Albert King back when I was in college. He was a huge man. Take a look at pictures of him and see at how his hand looks on the fingerboard. That’s just a regular guitar, folks, and I suspect he could have easily snapped that neck right off. Albert was a master of getting the most out of a bent note. His guitar vocabulary was not large, but it was his alone. If you have heard Stevie Ray Vaughan and liked him, then you’ll like Albert. Check his album Live Wire/Blues Power to hear him at his best. (I love live records because the music always seems more urgent and real to me.)
Freddie King has another kind of blues style, what came to be known as Texas blues, and with Freddie at the wheel it’s always a rockin’ great time. There are a ton of Freddie King CDs out there, but you might start with a bestof, like The Ultimate Collection. This includes Freddie’s two signature tunes, “Hideaway” and “The Stumble.” Be sure to compare Freddie’s “Hideaway” to Clapton’s cover of it; both are great, but they have different feelings. Clapton’s has that wailing Marshall sound, while Freddie’s is very clean and almost staccato.
Another of my favorites is McKinley Morganfield, somewhat better known as Muddy Waters. I think Muddy may be my favorite blues singer, or perhaps it’s a tie with B.B. King. Muddy also played some pretty cool slide guitar and sang the songs (many by Willie Dixon) that became blues standards. As far as I know, there are no bad Muddy Waters records, but I would suggest The Chess Box, a nice set with 72 songs covering 25 years. And while you’re spending some dough, you may as well pick up the Howlin’ Wolf (with kudos to Hubert Sumlin’s great pickin’) and Willie Dixon Chess Sets, too, as they are truly wonderful. Just in case you aren’t on a box-set budget, try Muddy “Mississippi” Waters Live which features Johnny Winter, who is also no slouch when it comes to wailin’ out the blues.
The next hero-o’-mine is Roy Buchanan. He was one of those guys who dropped me in my tracks when I heard him. Buchanan was the master of the Telecaster, and he played it like a man possessed, which in many ways he was. Much of Buchanan’s playing has leaked in to mine over the years, even though I have never really tried to cop his licks. His use of volume swells, thumb-pinched harmonics, and pedal-steel-like bends clicked with me. So, try out Buchanan’s Live Stock album and see what you think.
I don’t want to end without mentioning some great acoustic blues. First is Robert Johnson, perhaps the quintessential bluesman. Johnson’s too-brief career can be heard on the 41 songs on The Complete Recordings, and of those, twelve are alternate takes. But they include “Crossroad Blues” (later Cream’s “Crossroads”), “Come on in My Kitchen,” “Love in Vain” (later recorded by the Rolling Stones) and a bunch more, all great.
Here are some more you can look up: Mississippi John Hurt, Elizabeth Cotton, Rev. Gary Davis, Son House, Bukka White and Charley Patton. In electric blues, have a listen to Hound Dog Taylor, T-Bone Walker, Elmore James, Rory Gallagher and Buddy Guy. Rhino Records has a fine series called Blues Masters (in many volumes) that are well worth a listen.
The blues, like jazz, has a long rich tradition, and many great artists that will inspire you to be a better musician. I hope I don’t sound like a broken record to say it again: if you want to play a style, you better listen to it. I will leave you with the immortal words of Bleeding Gums Murphy: “The blues isn’t about feelin’ better. It’s about makin’ other people feel worse, and makin’ a few bucks while you’re at it.”
Pat Smith is the Managing Editor of Guitar Edge Magazine. He founded the Penguin Jazz Quartet and played Brazilian music with Nossa Bossa. He studied guitar construction with Richard Schneider, Tom Ribbecke and Bob Benedetto, and pickin’ with Lenny Breau, Ted Greene, Guy Van Duser and others. Pat currently lives in Iowa and plays in a duo with bassist Rich Wagor.