As a guitarist, have you ever tried to get your head around the blues? Have you ever listened to it and thought, that’s just so simple – I don’t like it? Maybe you’ve asked yourself why so many great players gravitate to the blues – particularly as they get older? What part of the blues “simplicity” engages them so?

These are questions I get asked all the time about this enigmatic genre of music. Firstly, it is NOT always simple! Secondly, great players go there for a reason and it’s not always about simplicity and it is incorrect to assume that it’s the easy aspect of blues that holds their interest, because again – it’s not always easy! I think to start down the blues road you need to do a little histrionics.

Blues music has its roots in the latter part of the 19th century and it is thought to have developed on the southern plantations of America by African slave workers who sang while they worked the crops. It is thought that the style was derived originally from African chants, working songs and a mixture of spiritual and rural style music.

At about the same time as blues was starting Jazz music was developing and the two grew up side by side around the Mississippi Delta and New Orleans regions in Louisiana. While being different musical styles they actually often complimented each other in many aspects to a point where many people even today, still confuse Jazz and Blues as one and the same!

Blues wasn’t initially as widely accepted as Jazz. Jazz music was played to a wider audience in music halls and dance clubs, it was more acceptable for airplay on radio stations and with the emergence of the Jazz “big band” it appealed to a wider range of people who saw blues as a predominantly black (Afro-American) form of music. Especially post world war 2 when the big band surge for “good-time” dance music was all the rage across most of America and Europe. Blues took a back seat but it’s time would come.

No single person invented the blues and while it was played by many musicians and minstrels in various forms throughout the south from the late 1800’s many attribute the blues in its modern form to Alabama band leader W.C.Handy (William Christopher Handy November 16, 1873 – March 28, 1958) He is credited with taking the blues from a rural musical style with limited audiences to a major musical force in American music where it holds pride of place today.

Well known southern bluesmen of the late 1910’s and 1920’s like the multi instrumentalist Lead Belly (Huddie William Ledbetter January 20, 1888 – December 6, 1949), itinerant musician Robert Johnson (Robert Leroy Johnson May 8, 1911 – August 16, 1938) and Father of the Texas Blues Blind Lemon Jefferson (Lemon Henry Jefferson; September 24, 1893 – December 19, 1929) usually played solo with a guitar but many informal bands would congregate with them in bars, dance halls and barns to play various instruments like banjos, fiddles, mandolins and harmonicas to produce a cacophony of sounds that evolved as the rural blues style known as “Jug” bands and as it moved into urban areas it took on more regional aspects and the modern blues was born!

As you can see from our brief journey into the deep south, blues is indeed a simple musical form born from personal adversity, hardship, indentured toil and plain bad luck! But it also reflects the ability to rise above adversity, shake off frustration and be who you are and who and what you want to be. It is about people doing what they do best – adapting to their surroundings and doing that through self belief, soul searching and music! No other musical style conveys pure emotion than the blues. From deliriously happy to raw, broken and sad – blues music is a personal statement like no other. Told through music that is as individual as the player and as personal as it gets.

To get you started on your journey of personal growth through music – let’s look a small list of essential listening from some of the founding Father’s of the genre and move through time and styles. Listen for the distinctly different “flavours” of blues to get a clear picture on style.

Early “Delta Blues”

Robert Johnson – “Hellhound On My Trail”

& “Dust My Broom Son House – “My Black Momma”

& “Clarksdale Moan”

Lead Belly – “Midnight Special”

& “Nobody Knows The Trouble I’ve Seen”

John Lee Hooker –   “Boogie Chillin”

& “Crawling King Snake”

 Early “Chicago Blues”

Muddy Waters – “Rollin’ Stone”

“Hootchie Coothchie Man” & “Got My Mojo Working”

Howlin’ Wolf – “Moanin’ In The Moonlight”

Big Bill Broonzy – “Big Bill’s Blues”

& “Station Blues”

“Memphis Blues”

B.B.King – “Mr. Pawnbroker”, “Lucille”

“Heartbreaker” & “Blues Man”

Albert King – “I Get Evil”, “Crosscut Saw” & “Born Under A Bad Sign”

“Texas Blues”

Albert Collins – “Freeze”, “Frosty”, “Thaw-out”, “Iceman”

& “Blues for Stevie”

Freddie King – “Have You Ever Loved A Woman”, “Hide Away”

& “The Stumble”

Johnny Winter – “I Smell Trouble”, “Aint That Just Like A Woman”

& “Rollin’ & Tumblin”

T-Bone Walker – “Stormy Monday Blues”

& “Mean Old World”

Stevie Ray Vaughan – “Love Struck Baby”, “Pride & Joy”, “Lenny”, “Scuttle Buttin'”

“Couldn’t Stand The Weather”, “Voodoo Chile”, “Cold Shot”, “Crossfire”, “Tightrope” & “Riviera Paradise”

ZZ Top – “La Grange”

“Tush”, “Gimme All Your Lovin”, “Sharp Dressed Man”, “Legs”, “Sleeping Bag”, “Rough Boy”, “My Head’s In Mississippi”, “Double Back”, “Cheap Sunglasses” & “Pincushion”

 “Modern Blues”

Eric Clapton – “After Midnight”, “Willie & The Handjive”, “I Shot The Sheriff”, “The Sky Is Crying”, “Lay Down Sally”, “Wonderful Tonight”, “Cocaine”, “Pretending”, “Bad Love”, “Before You Accuse Me” & “Layla”

Gary Moore – “Oh Pretty Woman”, “Walking by Myself”, “Still Got the Blues (For You)”

“Too Tired”  “Cold Day in Hell” & “Parisian Walkways”

Robben Ford – “Talk To Your Daughter”

“Help the Poor”, “Ain’t Got Nothin’ but the Blues” & “Born Under A Bad Sign”

Lynyrd Skynyrd – “Sweet Home Alabama”, “Free Bird” & “I Know A Little”

That should get you started! A brief but varied look at the genre of blues from its inception to modern day and the many different shades of blue! My future instalments will look at particular styles and artist approaches to blues and the scales they use to get their sound as well as insights into their guitars and equipment. Happy listening!