Making Music History Maps
I've been listening to the Blues since I first got a guitar and spent hundreds of hours trying to absorb the licks and songs of Freddie King, BB, Stevie Ray Vaughan, T-Bone, Robben Ford and many more besides… but a major turning point in my understanding of the blues was when I started to make my own Blues History Maps, and it's something I highly recommend you check out.
I was touring with The Counterfeit Stones and wanted to deepen my knowledge and understanding of the blues (the rest of the band were older and really knew their stuff!), so I bought a blues history book called "The Devil's Music: A History of the Blues" by Giles Oakley. As I read the book, I would pick an artist or two and search for some albums in whatever town I was in and listen to them as a read the related chapters, and after. Today with Spotify or YouTube, it's a whole lot easier to find the music instantly, but using a book to offer guidance on what to listen to really helps!
There are many other books on the history of the blues, and while I really like Oakley's book, Deep Blues by Robert Palmer is also excellent as is The History Of The Blues: The Roots, The Music, The People by Francis Davis and I'm sure there are more. Dip into a few and find a style of writing you find engaging… you don't want to have to trudge through it; it needs to excite you!
My understanding of the Blues grew in ways that would not have been possible had I not been tracing the development of the language. I heard the influence of travelling musicians and how a whole scene could change after the arrival of a new musician and the movement of licks, phrases, chord progressions and even chord grips!
Once you have a kind of framework things, fall into place a lot better, and you'll find it easier to lock in new things you learn. Watching Martin Scorsese Presents excellent Blues film series is made even richer when you know and understand a bit of the history. Learning about the hardships of many of the blues pioneers and how they lived gave me a whole new level of respect for what they achieved – not surprising that they 'had the blues' with the incredible prejudice and racism they faced day to day.
I would recommend you make your own notes and get to know your Chicago Blues from your Memphis Blues and listen for similarities between West Coast Blues and Texas Blues. Get the names of the pioneers in each city and then read a bit about where they travelled, how they lived and LISTEN. Reading on its own is very interesting, but I think listening as you go (and maybe even taking notes!) is the big deal. Check out the British blues players of the '60s and who they were listening to and trace it back – the lineage becomes pretty obvious sometimes.
I took it a step further and spent most days transcribing at least a bit of what I was listening to so I could better remember the phases and language tools people were using. It expanded my blues vocabulary and also helped if I was on a session and wanted to do something 'in the style of'. It also helped see influences of players I liked; listen to some early Albert King and you can clearly hear where Stevie Ray Vaughan got a load of his lick ideas! Or check out T-Bone Walker and then Chuck Berry and you'll clearly hear where Chuck nicked his licks (and moves!) from.
Listening and reading about the blues will introduce you all important blues players you might not have encountered as a casual listener – the great Willie Dixon who not only played bass on many of the greatest Chicago blues records – but he wrote many of the songs! It wasn't until this research that I realised that I didn't love Howlin' Wolf's guitar work… he didn't play guitar – it was the incredible Hubert Sumlin. Things like that made me feel a bit ignorant, but we all have a lot to learn, and this kind of study can create as many holes as it fills. The more you know, the more you know you don't know!
It was (and is) a fascinating journey, and I really can't encourage you enough to give it a go. It helped me realise that Blues a language that we can all speak and understand if we take the time to learn it, and for sure this kind of musical study will make you a better guitar player and musician. And it's not just for Blues, works just as well for whatever style tickles your ears. Which reminds me, I must find a great Jazz history book and get started with that! Happy trails! Justin
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