Blues Breakthrough

Most of my early musical background is in bluegrass/country/"folk" (of the singer-songwriter variety), and I'm actually an okay bluegrass guitar picker, if not exactly one of the several thousand red-hot next Tony Rices. As a natural lefty playing right-handed, one of the limiting factors for me has been right hand speed/strength—the hardest thing about bluegrass guitar is keeping up the relentless flow of eighth notes from one end of a solo to the other, and I've never been able to put in enough practice time to fully overcome the off-hand handicap. My left hand makes up for some of the deficit, but there's only so much you can do with pull-offs, etc., on acoustic guitar without sounding frilly. I also don't have Rice's harmonic sense, or Norman Blake's connection to tradition, or Doc Watson's astounding timing.

I started listening to the blues (again) a few years ago; I'd forgotten, somehow, how expressive blues guitar was, what a compelling mix of raucous grind and soulful wail good players could produce. I could do that, I thought. How hard can it be? Pretty damn hard, if you're coming from a bluegrass background. Until about a month ago, I had no idea how to play a solo over a standard blues shuffle; the timing was just too weird. I could do the boogie stuff okay, and fake my way through a slow blues (who can't?), but a medium or fast shuffle just threw me into a panic. Blues is a much more vocal way of playing than anything I was used to. This summer I went back and started listening carefully to Elmore James, T-Bone Walker, and a few of the other early electric blues greats, and I realized that they were playing these bizarre (to my hillbilly way of thinking) three, five and six note patterns over the four-beat rhythm of a standard shuffle; playing on the off-beats, and playing phrases over the edges of each measure instead of within the measure. Totally counter-intuitive, coming from my Anglo-Celtic-Appalachian way of doing things. But of course it works—while playing on the beat and strictly within the measure doesn't work. At all.

But now, after a summer of listening and frustrated noodling, I can finally do it. In a very basic (but reasonably effective) way, nothing fancy, but by God it's blues, and I can play it, finally. I'm very excited. Now where in the hell's my new guitar? The Custom Shop is freakin' killing me.

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