Anybody interested in modern music sooner or later asks the question, “Where did it begin?” Well, if you leave blues guitar music out, you will not have much of an answer. So let us look at where the blues came from, where it went and who it met on the way. We will also take a look at the “blues guitar sound” and how it has its unique effect on our feelings.
The blues as a musical phenomenon began around 1911 when W.C. Handy published popular songs, notably “Memphis Blues” and “St Louis Blues”, which affected the hearts and souls of the black people. By the nineteen twenties the general population were beginning to hear this new music through its influence on jazz. Early blues singers like Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday sang with jazz bands while others played with “jug bands” accompanied by fiddle, kazoo and washboard.
Of course to people like W. C. Handy who were brought up singing in church, the piano was the natural instrumental accompaniment to their songs. But the guitar is portable and always was popular so it had to have a place in blues and jazz. Blues guitar players like twelve string guitarist Leadbelly and future electric guitar player B.B. King were making sure the guitar would be an integral part of the blues. Other blues guitarists made their living in smoky saloons playing slide guitar using a bottle neck or the blade of a knife to fret the notes.
After the Second World War young artists like Elvis Presley and Bill Haley were wrapping the blues in a new package called “rock’n’roll” and the players of the electric blues guitar like B.B. King were heralding the arrival of the lead guitar, soon to be a great attraction for both musicians and audiences. Throughout the evolution of the blues the guitar had always taken its turn for solos in jazz bands but now it competed with the singer for the attention of the audience.
Blues guitar can be played in any key that takes your fancy and comes in three basic forms: eight bars, for example “Heartbreak Hotel”, sixteen bars like “Saint James Infirmary” and twelve bars like “St. Louis Blues”. For some reason the twelve bar blues form is way more singer-friendly and popular with audiences than the other two, and it is the basis of many great songs outside the blues idiom.
If you go poking around the internet you will find that the blues scales are just your garden variety major and minor scales except that the third, fifth and seventh notes are played flat. However, you may be astonished to learn that blues players managed for centuries without knowing about European musical theory. They learnt to sing and play from their families and friends just as many of the young white blues players of the nineteen sixties learnt from imitating the artists they heard on records.
And this is where the blues takes another direction. After years of imitating their idols something odd happened to the white blues guitar players in Britain and the USA. They developed their own authentic, original styles. The older blues players even began using the new arrangements of classic songs and adopting some of the unbluesy musical innovations introduced by young white guitarists like Eric Clapton. So the beat goes on. A foreign culture influences American popular music and in turn gets fresh input from a new generation of guitar players from all over the world.