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Essential Listening - The Sound of the Blues

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This post is part of a series called Essential Listening.
Essential Listening - The Sounds of DnB/Jungle
Essential Listening - The Sounds of Jazz

Welcome back to Essential Listening! Last time we stepped into the electronic world of DnB/Jungle. Today we're going to go way back to the root most modern music genres, the blues.

The blues has been one of the most influential genres of music in the last hundred years or so. Nearly every style of music we listen to today can be traced back to the blues in one way or another. Oddly enough, while even the blues has changed its sound a little over time, it has largely stayed intact to its roots.

Because of this, there are countless musicians who deserve credit for playing the blues, but to include them all would be an encyclopedia! Instead I present to you Essential Listening's list of blues musicians who deserve your ears to get you started down the bluesy path.


Muddy Waters

Muddy Waters (image: public domain)

Muddy Waters (image: public domain)

McKinely Morganfield, or Muddy/Mississippi Waters, was a prolific guitarist and singer from Mississippi who became the king of Chicago blues. While he started out on harmonica at a young age, Waters quickly moved onto guitar and singing as his go to means of expression. It is said that his grandmother gave him the nickname Muddy on the account of him playing in the mud frequently as a child.

As one of the biggest names in blues, Waters was one of the original electric blues artists who gave blues a big sound. It was his dirty, raw, and amplified emotional sound that gave Waters his unique character. His playing is commonly referred to Amplified Delta Blues; a simple and expressive blues out of the Mississippi delta, but distorted and grittier (also played by finger picking). Truly, without Waters we may never had experienced the beautiful grit of distorted blues.

Here are some points to listen for:

  • Soulful subtleties in his singing and guitar playing. While anyone could play the core progressions and rhythms, it was Waters subtle vibratos and noises that made him so hard to emulate.
  • Dynamic range of the music both musically and from a recording standpoint
  • The lyrical content and range of metaphors, exaggerations, etc.

John Lee Hooker

John Lee Hooker (image: Public Domain)
John Lee Hooker (image: Public Domain)

Another Mississippi native, John Lee Hooker was another of the great southern blues players to make a name up north and eventually the globe. Unlike  Waters however, Hooker took on a boogie woogie piano style of blues on the guitar. Additionally, Hooker is also generally considered a southern blues style musician and not Chicago style, despite both making their careers up north and both having delta blues influences.

Hooker's style is known by his rhythmic muting, trills, and spoken blues. Especially in Hooker's early works, it would be common for him to add the trills to the ends of phrases. However Hooker's spoken blues would be one of his everlasting trademarks throughout his entire career no matter what the ensemble. Because of his tendency to switch between speaking and singing, coupled with the lyrical content, Hooker's songs would often take on a story like quality to them.

Here are some points to listen for:

  • Deep resonant voice and soulful tone while singing
  • Rhythmic muted playing interjected with smooth lines during the verses
  • Cleanliness of the recordings no matter how old they are; a result of the clean arranging.

B.B. King

B.B. King (Photo by Tom Beetz)

B.B. King (Photo by Tom Beetz)

No list of blues musicians could ever be complete without The King of Blues. Born Riley King, he took on the B.B. portion of his stage name thanks to a radio jockey gig in which he got the nick name Blues Boy. Like all the musicians on the list, King grew up and learned the Mississippi delta blues having grown up in the region. However like others, he developed a unique style and sound all his own.

King is probably most known for his sense of phrasing and licks. Every phrase has a purpose and meaning behind it for King and could easily stand on its own without the rest of the other licks.

The other characteristic of King's playing are the vibrato and bends he utilizes. Often King uses his whole hand for vibrato, creating a more interesting sound on held notes that he wants to accent and tastefully bending a string for either the whole length of the note or just at the very end.

Here are some points to listen for:

  • Individual phrases during solos that add up to the greater whole
  • Smooth tone that can jump out by switching between using pick and finger picking
  • Gritty and soulful voice that embodies the blues.

Howlin Wolf

Howlin Wolf (image: Public Domain)

Howlin Wolf (image: Public Domain)

The last of the Mississippi born blues guitarist/singers we will cover today is Chester Burnett, or Howlin Wolf. Imposing both as a musician and a 6'6" individual, Wolf had a gritty and powerful presence both on and off the stage. Of all the blues musicians, Wolf was considered to be one of the most raw players, to the point where it was said he almost scared the audience (while bringing down the house at the same time).

More than anything Wolf was known for his voice. His loud, gritty, and powerful voice oozed emotion. While his guitar technique was never up to the level of intricacy and detail the others had, it always fit right in the pocket where it needed to be. Coupled with his ability to play harmonica as well, Wolf was a raw embodiment of the blues.

Here are some points to listen for:

  • Wolf's ability to transition between a smooth resonant tone and a loud gritty yell
  • Simple but effective guitar and harmonica playing that does not get in the way
  • How well the performance translates even through noisy old recordings. Wolf was a performer first and foremost and only a talent so raw could overcome the technical limitations of the day.

Conclusion

As you can see, the blues was born out of the deep south (particularly Mississippi), but developed all across the US and the globe. From Chicago to London to Paris, because of these musicians the blues reached great heights.

Truly, if it were not for the blues, acts like Eric Clapton, the Stones, and others would probably not have turned out quite the same way. We all truly owe a great deal to these fine musicians.

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