Wednesday, February 27, 2013

How To Play Blues Guitar - The Finger Picking Way


Big Bill Broonzy
It kind of goes without explaining that basic finger picking is not too difficult – you hit a string with your thumb and then another with your finger, or strike  two (or more) strings simultaneously with thumb and one of more finger! OK? Nevertheless, it’s the way in which we strike with the thumb and fingers which creates that special feeling. Acoustic blues finger picking is a tad different. It tends to be difficult to play blues effortlessly so that it moves freely and sounds natural.

I’ve commented before that many revered blues guitar masters just used one finger on their picking hand – Big Bill Broonzy, Reverend Gary Davis, Scrapper Blackwell, Blind Boy Fuller, Doc Watson, Floyd Council, and many more. Its fantastic that we have access to those old film clips on Youtube of blues men like Davis - it gives us some idea of how these men created those wonderful sounds. The picking thumb can be used for the treble strings also, which helps to 'syncopate' the sound. We begin to appreciate that the picking thumb provides the drive behind the most appealing acoustic blues songs. We can double up on  the tempo to give the sound of a heart beating, pluck a string slightly in front of or behind the beat , strike two or more strings simultaneously and produce runs on single strings using the thumb and finger alternating. 

Reverend Gary Davis was a particular expert in this technique. 
Davis could play with finger picks or bare fingers, but favored a big plastic pick for his thumb and a steel finger pick on his fore finger. The combination makes a penetrating sound which allowed his music to be heard on noisy streets in Harlem where it was his habit to play. His amazingly fast single string runs plucked with finger and thumb are tough to copy exactly. Davis was universally admired as an effective teacher as well. For the new student passionate about learning the blues, Reverend Davis was heaven sent. (See a free Gary Davis guitar lesson online here.) 

Some other incredible guitarists like Chet Atkins and Doc Watson, had a more or less Travis-style picking technique, but Doc Watson used a plastic thumb with a plastic finger pick, while Mr Atkins preferred a plastic thumb-pick and his finger nails. Sometimes it seems as though he either varnished them, or might have sometimes super-glued plastic nails onto his own - I've heard that this is done, but never tried it. Other differences are that Doc used just one finger, and Chet Atkins used two or three, depending on what he was playing.

In the folk blues boom of the late fifties and sixties, young guitar players were searching out the old blues men, and some of the old guys came back into the spotlight to play finger style blues guitar one more time, sometimes for the public and often as teachers of the original blues. Of course, nowadays they are now almost all gone, so its harder to find a real original blues guitar stylist who can play it like it was.

Over recent years, the resources available to the acoustic blues player thirsty to learn finger picking the blues are huge. This can sometimes slow you down.  How to start the quest? Where to find a guitarist who plays in the old way? On top of that, which technique should you concentrate on, delta or ragtime blues guitar? 


Present day acoustic blues can get a bit overly complex and sometimes it seems that the equation "More complicated = Better" holds sway with newbies. More and more, many guitarists are looking increasingly in the direction of the real roots once more and listeners want to hear the authentic sound of acoustic blues guitar. In my opinion, reaching back into the roots is a great path for learning to play the blues in an authentic way.

That isn't to infer that these original blues guitar masters couldn’t create some very complicated sounds, but the feeling behind the music is what it’s really all about. Texan blues giant, Lightnin’  Hopkins often played an easy pattern in the key of E, with a strong bass rhythm played in his distinctive monotonic thumb style. Now and again he'd double up on the beat and then the bass took on the feel of a heart beating - a real pull on the emotions of the listeners.

Other times, he'd slide right up the neck of his guitar rapidly (like ‘lightnin’) and bend those high strings over, creating whining notes with hypnotic appeal. The effect was the music spoke directly to your heart and it spoke the truth – it's the blues. Let's try a little Hopkins style picking ...


Take it easy - Jim