INSTRUMENTS IN DEPTH



Classical Guitar


Blues Guitar


Rock Guitar


Jazz Guitar

 

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Mark Mollica demonstrating the blues guitar

BLUES GUITAR

The blues is one of several musical folk styles developed by African-American artists during the 19th century and into the early 20th century. It evolved from a rich genre of unaccompanied vocal music sung by poor African-American laborers throughout the southern states. Spirituals, field hollers, work songs and Scots-Irish narrative ballads all are said to have influenced the blues as a genre and, in turn, blues has had a significant role in the evolution of jazz, rock and roll, rhythm and blues, and hip-hop.

Although there are many different varieties of blues, certain characteristics are shared by all forms of blues music. The 12-bar blues progression is common to almost all blues, as is the three-line rhyming pattern AAB. The bending of specific notes, called blue notes, also is typical of the style. Most blues music is sad in character, reflecting the difficulties of both the work environment and the private lives of the early blues masters.

No other major musical genre is as tied to one particular instrument as the blues is to the guitar. Although blues music always has been first and foremost a vocal art form, musicians have used the guitar not merely for harmonic or rhythmic accompaniment, but as a way of amplifying and enhancing the spirit of a particular text. Because most blues musicians are self-taught, with little concern about the correct way of playing the instrument, the flexibility of the guitar allows each artist to develop a style based on their own personality and temperament.

Nevertheless, three major stylistic forms of blues and guitar playing developed in the early history of the genre: Mississippi-Deep South Blues, Texas Blues and East Coast Blues.

The Mississippi-Deep South style, also known as the Delta Blues, is the oldest and therefore perhaps the most archaic-sounding of the blues styles. In this form, the guitar is used roughly and the playing tends to be more percussive than in other blues styles. The guitar might not often play full chords, but only fragments of the harmony as well as the melody. Drone notes are commonly used and objects are sometimes inserted into the strings for a noisy, percussive effect. Some of the most important early Delta bluesmen included Charley Patton (1887-1934), Son House (1902-1988), and Tommy Johnson (1896-1956). Many of these early masters of the blues were recorded in the 1920s.

The Texas Blues style developed as a more refined form of music. Although just as deliberate and direct, it was not as raw and rudimentary as the Delta style. In Texas blues, the guitar played a vital role, providing the text with sophisticated variations from verse to verse. An important contributor to the Texas blues style was Hudy William Ledbetter (1888-1949), known professionally as Leadbelly. Incarcerated several times for serious crimes including murder, Leadbelly became a dominant force in creating a repertoire of blues songs like Midnight Special and Good Night Irene. He was a virtuoso of the 12-string guitar and used it to spectacular effect in his performances.

The East Coast Blues style was developed in the southern states of the east coast from Florida to Maryland, and also tended toward a degree of sophistication and elegance. The guitar playing was characterized by a high degree of organization and structure, with elements of ragtime. Often, a steady rhythm on the bass strings would be syncopated with melodic statements on the treble strings. Important artists representing this style include Peg Leg Powell (1888-1966) from Georgia, Blind Boy Fuller (1907-1941) from North Carolina, and Tampa Red (1904-1981), also from Georgia.

In many cases, blues musicians developed such individual styles that it is difficult to compartmentalize them into any school or genre of blues. Robert Johnson (1911-1938) is perhaps the best-known of the early blues legends. He is often referred to as the grandfather of rock and roll because he, in one way or another, has influenced so many rock guitarists. Shortly before his early death, he recorded a series of classic tunes including the seminal Cross Roads Blues.

Howlin' Wolf (1910-1976) was born in Mississippi and also became an influential performer, not only on the guitar but on the harmonica, as well. In his youth, Howlin' Wolf played with Robert Johnson, and at the height of his career became one of the most recognizable blues artists. The same could be said of Muddy Waters (1913-1983), who originated the Chicago Blues. Muddy played almost exclusively on electric instruments and, like Johnson, was a huge influence on the British rock explosion of the 1960s. Other important blues musicians of this era included T-Bone Walker (1910-1975) from Texas and Homesick James Williamson.

Currently, the most recognizable and popular bluesman of his generation is B.B. King, who was born in Mississippi in 1925. B.B. has also been influential in the genre of gospel music. He can be recognized by a sweet and singing sound on a signature Gibson guitar he has named Lucille. Other famous living blues performers include Buddy Guy and Otis Rush.

Blues musicians have used a variety of guitars to accompany themselves, from acoustic steel string instruments to resonator guitars to Fenders and Gibsons. Common techniques developed by blues guitarists include slide guitar and note bending.

Muddy Waters (1913-1983), father of the Chicago Blues style

 

Living legend B.B. King in performance at the White House

 

Texas bluesman Hudy William Ledbetter (1888-1949), better know as Leadbelly Courtesy of United States Library of Congress