When I was learning the guitar, my dad had a whole bunch of blues tablature books. There were some modern players like Jeff Beck and Jerry Garcia, but most of his books were about acoustic, finger style blues.
I cut my teeth on stuff like “Black Snake Moan” by Lemon Jefferson and old, old Mississippi blues. My dad used to tell me that the blues was the backbone of all American music, whether it was rock or country or even jazz. For awhile there, I forgot about the blues but lately I have been finding a lot of old stuff, like this video of Lightnin’ Hopkins above.
What drew me to the blues was nothing so noble as desiring to learn the true nature of American music. I read a line in one of his books that went something like this: there are no wrong notes in the blues, just wrong times. I liked any form of music that involved having no wrong notes!
The blues essentially has only two structures. There’s a 12-bar version and a 16-bar version. The 12-bar blues are by far the most common form, and it works like this. In the blues, the most common key is E, so let’s do a twelve bar blues in E.
The musical alphabet consists of seven tones, each with a letter from the alphabet: A B C D E F G. There are also a number of semi-tones. If you’re getting the semitones by raising the pitch of tones, they are called sharps (#) and if you’re getting them by lowering the tones, they are called flats. The semitones are: G#/Ab, A#/Bb, C#/Db, D#/Eb, F#/Gb, G#/Ab. That’s it. You have twelve tones and semitones, and they are the basis of all music.
Almost all blues are in what is called 4/4 timing. That means a bar is equal to four beats. If you stomp your foot four times, that’s four beats.
To play a 12-bar blues in E, you start with an E chord (which is the tones E G# B) and play it for 16 beats or four bars. Then, you switch to an A chord (A C# and E) for eight beats. Go back to E for eight beats, then to B (B D# F#) for four beats, to A for four beats, back to E for four and then to B for four. That’s your 12 bars, or 48 beats.
After that, you just find notes that sound good over the 12-bar rhythm. That’s pretty much all there is to the blues. It is an ultra-simple style of music, and yet I have been playing it for two decades now, and I never get tired. There’s always something new to try, some combination of tones that makes a completely different tone.
You can play 12-bar blues progressions for hours, changing rhythms and leads, putting crazy lyrics to the rhythm and watching where it goes. There’s just no end.
Don’t believe me? All I can say is that 12-bar blues is the basis of all good rock music, from the Beatles to Led Zeppelin to Roy Orbison. It is the foundation of punk, country, folk and even something as unexpected as bluegrass. It is even the foundation of most gospel music. That’s how influential this one style is.
This Sunday, Nichole will be “debuting” a song she wrote called “Why So Downcast?” based on a psalm and it is built on a simple 12-bar blues. I am challenged and excited by the chance to play with her because I think true blues reflects the penitence and longing of so many of the psalms from Scripture. I think it is worshipful, even though it isn’t your typical church worship song.
See you Sunday at The Road!