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Blues Guitar Essentials

A Beginner’s Guide to the Guitar Blues

There are few genres of music that are as genuinely American as blues music, yet its influence has spread throughout the world, and it has become truly a global phenomenon. The guitar was the first instrument linked to this musical tradition, and it is still the primary instrument used in Blues music to this day. In this article, we will review the basics of the blues as well as the guitar’s role.

Basics of the Blues

Blues music as we know it began in the late 19th century, in the African-American communities of the Deep South. The most common form of blues, which developed during the early 20th century, is called 12-bar blues. It consists of a line being sung or played over four bars, repeated over the following four bars, and then a different line to finish.

Due to its relative affordability and portability, the guitar was the perfect instrument to accompany blues singers. One of the most important figures in early blues guitar was Charley Patton, the “King of the Delta Blues.” He in turn influenced Son House, a former preacher who turned to blues guitar and singing and became profoundly influential. Among the guitarists who idolized and emulated House were Robert Johnson (one of the most successful early blues recording artists) and Muddy Waters. They in turn influenced many of the blues-based guitarists of the British Invasion era, such as Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, and Keith Richards.

Essential Blues Guitarists and Recommended Recordings

Robert Johnson’s short life and career were legendary. Although he recorded only a handful of songs before his death, they remain immensely influential and popular. Among his acolytes are Keith Richards and Eric Clapton, who did a fiery live rendition of Johnson’s “Crossroads” during his stint with Cream. King of the Delta Blues: The Complete Recordings [Columbia/Legacy]

Speaking of Eric Clapton, he is one of the towering figures of rock, pop and blues music. His stints in The Yardbirds, Cream, Derek and the Dominos, and Blind Faith, as well as his many solo recordings, have stretched across musical genres, but his sound has always been based in the blues. John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton [London], Derek and the Dominos – The Layla Sessions [Polydor]

BB King’s name is synonymous with blues guitar. His clean, speedy riffs and inimitable voice paved the way for many other blues singers and guitarists to have successful careers. But in the end…there was only one Lucille. Live at the Regal [ABC/MCA], Blues is King [Universal]

Muddy Waters was indisputably the single most important artist to emerge in post-war American blues. With his unique voice and killer slide guitar, he helped to define the genre and will continue to influence generations of musicians. Hard Again [Blue Sky/Sony], At Newport [MCA]

Scraping the Surface

Other greats in this genre include Keb’ Mo, Jonny Lang, Buddy Guy, Keith Richards, and Jeff Beck. Try any recordings by these artists to get a good look into blues guitar.

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