Blues is an iconic, American-born-and-bred genre of music. Indeed, it might be the most influential form of American music ever. Blues guitar has been instrumental in the development of a huge variety of other genres: jazz, rhythm and blues, soul music, hip-hop, and rock and roll. Although it can be performed with a wide variety of instruments—such as bass guitar, harmonica, pianos, and saxophones—or even no instruments at all, by far the most popular choice for blues music is the guitar. Indeed, no other musical instrument has been as important to blues as this traditional string instrument. In this article, we’ll trace the origins of the blues, followed by an overview of its characteristics. We’ll top it all off with the role the guitar has played in the genre.
History of the Blues
Blues can trace its roots back to the time of the American Civil War (1860 – 1865). It is derived from the music of the African-American populations of the southern states. This music included field hollers, work songs, and spirituals—songs which the poor laborers would sing them as they worked. Further influences included Scottish and Irish ballads, and American popular and folk music, like ragtime. The blues was also influenced by the call and response style of music from sub-Saharan Africa, in which a musical phrase is followed by another, similar phrase, in such a way that it seems the second is “responding to” the first.
Initially, the rural style of blues developed mostly in North and South Carolina, Mississippi, Texas and Georgia. Of particular importance were the cities of St. Louis, Atlanta and Memphis. As time went on, blues gained in popularity. By the 1930s, it was very well-known. It was in this decade that electric guitars started being produced en masse; they began to have a major effect on the blues. In fact, electric guitars quickly became more popular in blues than their acoustic counterparts, to the point where they have dominated the genre since the 1940s. However, both types have remained popular into the present day.
After the Great Depression (1929 – 1939) and World War II (1939 – 1945), millions of black Americans left their Southern homes and headed for the Northern parts of the US due to economic and social changes. Moreover, with the changes brought on by technology, mass production, and mass media, blues music was able to spread its influence farther on the geographical level. This migration and development was followed by a change in blues music.
Not only did songwriters’ lyrics now speak of urban themes, such as their new city-based jobs, but the blues ensemble expanded as well. Blues performances initially featured a single performer. Over time, however, these individual singers began to be supplemented by pianists or harmonica players and, eventually, with a rhythm section composed of a bass guitarist and a drummer. New instruments hit the market as well; these included the electric guitar and amplified harmonica, among others. In addition, blues music became more energetic in tone.
As the twentieth century went on, the further spread of new technology and mass media—recorded music in particular—began to affect blues as well. It now began to mix in with other styles. Moreover, thanks to these same factors, the influence of blues spread into other genres as well. In particular, it was pivotal in the development of rock and roll. Blues music remains popular to this day, and is performed by artists from all over the world.
Characteristics of the Blues
Although blues music is flexible and varied, certain techniques pop up again and again. In terms of lyrical content, blues music tends to have a sad quality (as can be deduced from the name). It tends to be emotional rather than narrative; their lyrics discuss feelings, rather than tell a story. When you think of blues lyrics, you might think of sad stories of love; however, blues songs often speak of the working lives of their narrators as well. Also, the structure of the lyrics follows an AAB rhyming pattern (e.g., “see, me, you”).
Most blues songs are in common time (one bar is divided into four beats). The bars are arranged into phrases of 12 bars. However, blues musicians will also play around with their rhythms, rather than playing them as they’re written. The technique of taking liberty with the rhythm is known as “rubato” (which literally means “stolen” in Italian, referring to the notion of “stolen time”).
A common example is when a musician starts playing half a beat before the bar officially begins. Also on the rhythm side, syncopation is one technique that’s often employed by blues musicians. To perform syncopation, a musician must play certain notes when they’re not expected. Syncopation is heard when a sudden note breaks out, interrupting a long-held note; when a note is accented in an unexpected way; or when the stress of a bar falls on the down-beat (the “and” of 1-and-2-and).
A further feature of blues music is that each sung line is followed by a short instrumental break. This technique was specifically inspired by call and response music. Blues music also features blue notes. Normally, notes are usually played at standard pitches, whether they’re naturals (F, G, A) or accidentals (G#, G♭). These pitches have been standardized in such a way that, generally speaking, when two musicians play the same note—in the same octave, but on different instruments—the note will be identical, if the instruments have been tuned properly.
However, blue notes are deviations from the norm: these notes are slightly different from their standard versions, whether a little higher or a little lower. In other words, they are “micro-tonal pitch inflections” (Encyclopedia Britannica). Notes that are “bent” in this way are habitually the third, fifth, and seventh intervals of a scale. Like the short instrumental breaks we’ve discussed, the use of blue notes is derived from traditional African music.
Another influence from African music is that the instruments (especially the guitar) to imitate voices. One example of this is when hard objects are slid across the strings of the guitar; the sound this creates resembles a human’s moaning. Another feature originating from African music is when blues singers inject falsetto breaks into their singing sections.
Blues music also employs types of scales which are less commonly heard in Western music. One example is the pentatonic scales, which are composed of five notes rather than seven. Pentatonic scales can be found in traditional Asian music.
Blues Guitar Techniques
The flexible guitar—whether electric or acoustic—can perform many blues techniques. One technique of note is that of bending notes. To do this, a guitarist stretches the guitar string while they play; the effect is that they slowly raise the pitch. Another technique is vibrato, which is achieved when the guitarist wiggles the strings with their non-dominant hand while they’re playing; the result is a shaking, vibrating sound which is vital to blues. Vibrato can be held for long periods of time, and—since much blues music progresses at medium speed—using it is ideal for adding flavor to longer notes.
One iconic style of playing blues guitar is the slide guitar, also called the “bottleneck guitar.” With this technique, performers press an object—such as the neck of a glass bottle or metal tube—against the strings of the guitar, while they slide their fingers along the frets. Altogether, this forms a sound that somewhat sounds like a human who’s crying out a lament. To optimize this technique, performs often employ open tunings, in which all their strings are tuned to one chord.
Moreover, musicians will employ alternations when they’re performing. According to this technique, they must play the melody and bass parts in a detached way, rather than harmonizing them. They can also play some of the melody and bass notes individually, thus not playing their accompanying notes altogether.
Guitarists will also slide their notes, rather than hitting them straight on, or “bend” their notes by pushing the strings sideways. A related technique is when they’ll slur their notes—that is, they bend a note slightly in the instant before they progress to the next note. Slurred notes create an effect of blending or melting the notes together, which is well-suited to the emotional tone of blues music. A further blues guitar technique is to alternating between open-stringed notes (when no frets are pressed down) and a fretted note of the same pitch, or a close pitch.
That’s Why They Call It the Blues
In sum, blues is amazing genre of music wherein guitars occupy an essential role. Blues guitarists of note include John Mayer and Huddie William “Lead Belly” Ledbetter (on the acoustic side) and B.B. King, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Jimi Hendrix (on the electric side). Blues has continued to add emotion to music for more than a century, and it will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. It has earned its rightful place in music history as one of the most important genres of popular music ever.