Why study the blues?
Willie Dixon, the famous bassist, vocalist, songwriter, arranger and record producer said, “The blues are the facts of life. The blues are the truth. The blues are the roots of all American Music. And when you have a real blues education and a real blues understanding, it will make you understand everything much better in the world and give you a better and a peaceful life to live on.” (source: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NIYZqPkFpYY)
Whether you’d like to become a professional musician, are considering going to a music school to pursue a career in music, and/or are just interested in finding a new style of music to learn, learning the blues is a great place to start! Blues is a musical style that has influenced most American music such as Rock N’ Roll. Studying the blues is helpful in understanding American music and in being able to play different American styles of music.
I’m embarrassed to admit but when I began studying the blues, I thought that the music was too simple and repetitive. Eventually, I began to understand and appreciate the value, influence and importance in blues. I realized that sometimes the “simple” things in life are often the most profound. As the famous blues guitarist and vocalist Albert Collins said, “Simple music is the hardest music to play and blues is simple music”.
What is the blues?
Put very simply, the blues is a musical form and a musical genre. (Source: wiki)
A more in depth definition is from the film “The Blues” which was produced by Martin Scorsese and aired on PBS. “The passionate and uniquely American art form known as the blues was born in the steamy fields, dusty street corners and ramshackle juke joints of the Deep South in the late 1800s. An evolution of West African music brought to the United States by slaves, the blues emerged as southern blacks expressed the hardships, heartbreak, religion, passion and politics of their experiences through a blend of work songs, field hollers and spirituals.
Many early blues songs were never written down, much less recorded, but were passed from one musician to another and played on whatever instruments were available including clapped percussions, a variety of stringed instruments, harmonicas, horns and more. By the time the blues were first recorded in the early 1920s guitars and pianos were the most frequent instruments of choice by blues artists, but the basic 12 bar style and three-chord progressions have remained essentially the same and continue to define the blues to this day.
As the blues migrated from the south, through the United States and around the world, countless varieties of styles evolved including: the raw and passionate Delta blues of Robert Johnson and Son House, the brassy New Orleans blues, the relaxed and upbeat Texas blues, the classic blues — a commercially popular, polished style in the 1920s which was performed by women like blues greats Bessie Smith and Mamie Smith, the jug-band and vaudeville-influenced Memphis blues, the amplified and urban Chicago blues of Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, the rock-heavy 1960s British Blues of John Mayall, Eric Clapton, and the Rolling Stones, and many more.” (Source: www.pbs.org)
What is the meaning behind the blues?
Trumpeter, composer, and educator (etc.) Wynton Marsalis shared this about the blues (from “Moving to Higher Ground: How Jazz Can Change Your Life”). “The blues. It’s as if the blues was born to give us an excuse to play with one another, to understand one another. When in doubt, reach for the blues. It’ll be there.”
“With the blues you have layers of meaning. The words say one thing, the way they’re sung can say another, and the music always says something else. For all of the sorrow of some blues lyrics, the music is always grooving; a groove implies dance, and dance always brings joy. Dizzy Gillespie said it best: ‘Dancing never made nobody cry.’ That’s the key to understanding the blues. The blues delivers both joy and sorrow.”
Words and Clips from blues drummers:
Drummer Fred Below played with many musicians such as Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed, Little Walter, Elmore James, Junior Wells, Buddy Guy, and Etta James.
Where can you hear Fred Below? Check out Little Walter’s “Off the Wall” on Amazon or iTunes. Listen to the famous drum break at 1:55. Also, check out contemporary drummer Zoro talking about Below’s feel and part on the famous “Hoochie Coochie Man” in the video clip below.
Here are a few quotes from Fred Below:
“I played with the band; the band didn’t play with me. There’s a difference, you know. See, the role of the blues drummer is to bring the beats out, but not to overshadow the music. That means you do not play so loud that no one is heard but yourself. Play in a way that your music is felt, not heard.” (Modern Drummer March 1987)
“The blues, if played correctly, is not easy to master. People who say that [it’s a simple music form] about the blues never played the blues. If they did, they probably didn’t play it right. It’s very hard to play somebody’s feelings, and that’s what the blues is.” (Modern Drummer March 1987)
“The blues weren’t written down. There wasn’t no stuff like you’d write it out on paper and play it. You can’t play blues by the paper. Blues is a feeling. There’s no way in the world that you can put your feeling into no sheet music and say, ‘This is the way it’s supposed to be played,’ because it’s not going to come out right.” (Modern Drummer September 1983)
“You can’t play dynamics if you’re playing too loud.” “You’ve got to hear the sounds and the beats and different things and make the music blend. You don’t just sit up there and get some sticks and ‘bang-bing-bang-bang’. That don’t mean a thing. A blending drummer is a hell of a drummer.” (Modern Drummer September 1983)
[Question: When you’re playing, are you thinking both rhythmically and melodically?] “Melodically all the time. If you have a more rounded idea of music and you’re not always listening to one type, you have a better idea or conception of sounds. You’ve heard soft, loud, different rhythm patterns, beats. You’ve got a much greater store of music within you. Then you can adapt what you learned if you are well positioned enough to whatever you be playing.” (Modern Drummer September 1983)
“If you are a good drummer you should always be respected and recognized. He has one of the hardest jobs in the band because he’s got to keep everybody together; to pull everything together to tighten it up. Then push it out there so it sounds nice.” (Modern Drummer September 1983)
Drummer S.P. Leary played with many musicians such as T-Bone Walker, Magic Sam, Howlin Wolf, Muddy Waters, and Jimmie Rodgers.
Where can you hear S.P. Leary? Check him out on this video clip of “I Got My Mojo Workin” with Muddy Waters. The beat he’s playing is what’s known as a 2 feel (is felt or can be counted as 2 half notes).
A quote from S.P. Leary:
“He [T-Bone Walker] was the show. You see, that’s where many of the young blues drummers of today make a mistake. They think they’re supposed to be seen just like the fellows up front. But their job is to drive those guys. Just drive em’-that’s all. I learned early on that I was supposed to be felt. You ain’t got to hear me. You got to feel me.” (Modern Drummer March 1987)
Drummer Sam Lay played with many musician such as Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Howlin’ Wolf, Magic Sam, James Cotton, Paul Butterfield and Bob Dylan.
Where can you hear Sam Lay? Check him out on Howlin Wolf’s “300 pounds of Joy”, “Built for Comfort” and “Killing Floor”.
A few quotes from Sam Lay:
“A blues drummer has to hear sounds and needs to know what has to be put where. Today, young blues drummers sometimes forget that the blues is a traditional music. Too many approach the blues as if they were playing rock ‘n’ roll or something.” (Modern Drummer March 1988)
“The blues tells a story.” (Modern Drummer March 1988)
“I always saw the drummer like the captain of a ship or a pilot of an airplane. The drummer has to make sure the music and the band are being steered in the right direction. I always felt that when I sat down to play the drums, the steering wheel was in my hands.” (Modern Drummer March 1988)
“A drummer in a blues band can’t have a good sound without a good bass player. With a good drummer and a good bass player, the rest of the band can all have heart attacks right up there on stage, but the beat will still carry on.” (Modern Drummer March 1988)
[Advice to up-and-coming blues drummers?] “To hang in there. But also listen as close as you possibly can to the music you’re asked to play. Develop your ears and the rest will come naturally.” (Modern Drummer March 1988)
Drummer Odie Payne Jr played with many musicians such as Muddy Waters, Magic Sam, Junior Wells, Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, and Lowell Fulsom.
Where can you hear Odie Payne Jr? Check him out playing with Junior Wells on “Messin’ with the Kid” below:
A few quotes from Odie payne Jr:
“It [blues] is a relatively simple style. I mean, that’s what playing the blues is all about as far as a drummer goes. But if you’re a blues drummer, you’ve got to be able to tell a story with your sticks. The blues is simple, yes, but complete. It’s also a quiet style of drumming, despite what went on in the Chess studio, and I’ll tell you why. In the blues, the words are important. People want to hear what the singer has to say. If you play loud and drown out the singer, you’re defeating the purpose. You’ve got to be in control: You may want to play loud and heavy because the blues is an emotional music, but you’ve got to keep in control and in touch with the singer. Now when the horn or guitar takes over, you can give it a shove if you want to. But you can’t do it for piano. Do you see what I mean?” (Modern Drummer December 1985)
“The blues tells the story of hardship, loss, and misunderstanding. I can show drummers the licks, but I can’t show them the feeling. You’ve got to find your own place and your own feeling within the blues.” (Modern Drummer December 1985)
Drummer Casey Jones played with many musicians such as Albert Collins, Otis Rush, Howlin’ Wolf, Magic Sam, Muddy Waters, and Johnny Winter.
Where can you hear Casey Jones? Check him out on this video clip jamming with Albert Collins:
A few quotes from Casey Jones:
“You’ve got to know how to listen and what to listen for, see. A lot of drummers will get up and play a whole lot of pocket with the rolls and such, and want to do something that will get them noticed. I’m lucky. I never had had a problem getting recognized. So all my concentration goes into my playing. But a blues drummer has got to know and, more importantly, has got to understand the nature of the singer. I mean, playing with Albert Collins and playing with Little Milton-well, your whole approach has to be different-very different. You can’t force drum patterns or backbeats in the blues. They have to fit like a glove. What you play when you play the blues comes from here.” [strikes his heart] (Modern Drummer December 1985)
“The blues is a base for a lot off music forms. If you play the blues, you got the foundation down for funk, rock ‘n’ roll, boogie, disco, jazz-you name it.” (Modern Drummer December 1985)
Drummer Morris Jennings played with many musicians such as Jimmy Reed, Koko Taylor, Albert King, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, and Muddy Waters.
Where can you hear Morris Jennings? Listen to him with Muddy Waters on “I Am the Blues” below:
A few quotes from Morris Jennings:
“The blues is the black man’s country & western. It depicts hard times, broken relationships, and heartache. A lot of times, people think the blues is a downer because of this, but it’s not. The blues is an amazing music form. You can trace its roots from here in Chicago to the plantation all the way back to Gambia in Africa, if you wanted or cared to. Your insight into the blues, as a drummer, becomes the most interesting thing. One thing about playing the blues: You have to give. You also have to understand the lyrics as it is for a guitar player or keyboards player.”
“My philosophy has always been to be seen and not heard-to be totally part of the music.” (Modern Drummer December 1985)
Drummer Jimmy Tillman played with many musicians such as Willie Dixon and Jimmy Reed.
Where can you hear Jimmy Tillman? Check him out on this video clip playing with Willie Dixon on “29 Ways”:
A few quotes from Jimmy Tillman:
“Blues drummers aren’t any different from other drummers out there. First and foremost, they’re drummers, so they must be able to keep a steady beat, have dynamics, and have control. Because the makeup of the blues is so simple, it must be played well. Blues are the roots to all American music. Drummers who come from other backgrounds and try to play the blues often feel that they must fill every space in the 12 bars. Well, that’s not so. A drummer in a blues band is only one of four or five musicians working in concert together. The drummer sets it up for what it really is. In blues, the rule is less is more. If drummers remember that, they’ll be fine. The less they do, the more effective the song becomes.” (Modern Drummer December 1985)
“Listen to Odie Payne Jr for solos. Now, I love to solo, but Odie can really do it right within a blues context. I learned to blues solo from him. A lot of blues drummers won’t solo, but Odie would.” (Modern Drummer December 1985)
“To me, it’s [the blues] the most powerful music on earth. The blues is the truth. That’s the easiest way to say it. It’s the truth. Amen.” (Modern Drummer December 1985)
J.J. Clarke, musician and drum instructor
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