Blues basics

Since I’m teaching the twelve-bar blues to some guitar students, I figured I’d put the lessons in the form of a blog post. Blues is a big topic and this isn’t going to be anything like a definitive guide. Think of it more as a tasting menu.

Blues is a confusing term. You probably have some idea of what blues is, but it’s surprisingly hard to define it specifically. There are many songs with the word “blues” in the title that aren’t technically blues at all, like “Lovesick Blues” by Hank Williams. John Lee Hooker was the living embodiment of blues, but a lot of his best-known songs aren’t technically blues either.

Meanwhile, there are quite a few songs using the blues form that you might not think to identify as blues. Two examples: “Shuckin’ The Corn” by Flatt and Scruggs, and the theme from the sixties Batman TV show.

So what exactly is blues?

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Repetition, repetition, repetition, repetition

I’ve had a lot of music teachers, formal and informal. The best one has been the computer. It mindlessly plays anything I tell it to, over and over. Hearing an idea played back on a continuous loop tells me quickly if it’s good or not. If the idea is bad, I immediately get annoyed, and if it’s good, I’ll cheerfully listen to it loop for hours.

There’s something in the cumulative experience of a loop that makes it greater than the sum of the individual listens. Good loops create a meditative, trance-like state, like Buddhist mantras you can dance to. As far as I’m concerned, if it’s the right groove, there’s no such thing as too much repetition. Take “Hey Jude” by the Beatles.

At the end, they repeat “Naah, na na nanana naah, nanana naah, hey Jude” over and over for four minutes. I could listen to it for forty minutes. Why don’t I get bored? Continue reading

Coltrane was an analog remixer

If you’re in a band, chances are you feel like you’re supposed to be writing your own material. If you write your own songs, you can make more money from the publishing rights in addition to your album sales (should you, improbably, be selling albums.) Writing your own stuff isn’t just a financial consideration. The influence of Bob Dylan and the Beatles created the expectation that popular musicians would mostly be writing their own material.

Before the mid-sixties, it was a different story. Pop and jazz artists were mostly interpreting existing, familiar material, and only rarely writing new stuff. Even the most prolific and brilliant jazz composers like Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk devoted album after album to arrangements of standards. Nobody arranged standards more radically and personally than John Coltrane.

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