Misconceptions and Myths about Playing the Blues
This blog may read like an essay and a contrarian point of view on playing the blues. But let me assure you: many people got the blues all wrong.
Disclaimer: The article is most suited for guitar players. Some of this is opinion, and some is viewed through the lens of music theory. I hope you can take something positive from it.
From guitarists, I’ve heard a lot of criticism about learning to play the blues. This criticism includes the following points:
- it’s too easy
- it’s not creative (very samey)
- it’s sloppy
- it has too many boomer bends* (this is true to some degree)
In terms of music theory and technical play, these criticisms, in varying degrees, are pretty far from the truth.
If B.B. King is your only point of reference to the blues, you’re missing way too much. Try listening to SRV, or Robert Johnson, or Muddy Waters, or Buddy Guy, or Kingfish, or even Slash. Blues comes in many forms.
Yes, B.B. King innovated in playing parallel major and minor blues scales together, developed his own “box blues” sound, and gave his guitar a vocal tone through the way he played (vibrato and bends), but his style wasn’t the only way to play the blues. Not by a long shot.
In my experience, any guitarist can play the blues, but very few sound good doing it.
Therefore, if we think blues is so easy, why do so few guitarists sound good playing it?
Let’s cover this genre in some detail, and discuss some myths and misconceptions around it.
The Core of the Blues
This genre is ultimately based on the concept of tastefully adding dissonance to the composition of a structured song, or scale being played. For example, below illustrates how a “blue note” (dissonant note) is added to the pentatonic minor scale.
Many guitarists have seen this scale pattern, starting on the 12th fret in E minor. Have you seen it?
I think one piece of insight that is missing from many online blues content is the fact that players don’t always need to follow this scale perfectly.
Since the song “Wade in the Water” was sung in America (a spiritual that contains the foundations of blues theory), that song had more than one blue note. It largely followed that scale pattern above, but it added something very interesting.
Did you know it contained an augmented 7th (same pitch as a major 7th)?
In the lyrics “God’s gonna trouble the water”, the singers would sing the root, then the lower 5th, then smoothly slide into an augmented 7th, then back to the root note.
Some might argue that, strictly music theory-wise, this is poor composition. I’d argue that the off notes in “Wade in the Water” are specifically what makes blues so beautiful; it is one of the earliest genres that integrates off pitches purposefully and intentionally in structured music. That is the very essence and spirit of the blues.
The off-pitches sound really cool, but only when done well, somewhat sparingly, and within a musical structure (scale, rhythm, measure, etc).
If slight off pitches/notes — purposefully added to music — bothers people, then applying the same logic would have them disliking various fusion scales, the harmonic minor scale (ex. harsh jump from minor 6th to major 7th), and almost all of jazz (a genre that has roots in blues theory, among other genres)!
Blues theory encourages playful dissonance, and contains the soul of an old contemporary genre that is down to earth, has a message about the average person’s struggles, and can be tastefully added to all kinds of music.
Heck, in the late 80’s, even Yngwie Malmsteen and Jason Becker added small elements of the blues in their blistering shreds.
On Creativity and Ease of Play
It’s true that, when playing with rigidity toward scales and keys, blues can be easy to get into. The blues-oriented scales aren’t that difficult to understand and play.
But I’ll argue that playing the blues is hard to master.
The late, great Albert King told a young SRV himself something to this effect: “You’re not bad. Keep playing and learning. Once you think you know it all, you’ve lost it.”
I’ve read that guitarists have recommended playing only through the blues minor scale on top of a song in a minor blues key.
I slightly disagree here.
Good music contains a dance between creativity and structure, and this topic may seem subjective, but let me tackle it from core principles.
If “Wade in the Water” in a minor key can add a note equivalent to a major scale pitch, why is it that experienced guitarists are recommending players follow a rigid outline of the blues scale?
The reason is simple: these players are not applying the core principle of the blues, which is tastefully adding a blue, dissonant note where applicable.
This understanding can lead to immense creativity for singers, music composers, and lead guitarists alike.
Good blues players ask themselves these kinds of questions before playing (not during play; if you’re thinking, you’re stinking):
- which blue note can I play in this passage?
- if I add an off pitch, would it sound desirable, or take away from the song (i.e. sloppy)?
- are there too many blue notes?
- does this passage need to be bluesy?
To play the blues well, not only do players need a good sense of pitch (to hit notes correctly on bends, slides, and chords), but also a good sense of dynamics, theory, timing (really important), and melody to add dissonant notes/pitches where they sound coolest.
On top of that, instead of adding single dissonant notes, we can add dissonant chords, triads, and double-stops. We’re then touching the edges of jazz music, there!
Tell a beginner guitarist to think like this regularly. That’s unreasonable, unless we’re dealing with a modern day Paganini.
Aside from thinking how to play a passage, feel is also important. It matters only so much how a guitarists feels. It matters more so how your play makes a listener feel.
For instance, was the pitch hit correctly on the bend? Was it phrased in an interesting way? Are the notes presented with emotion?
This kind of stuff, at higher levels of play, matters. If you’re still learning to play guitar, don’t worry about it too much. Just appreciate that it takes much skill and practice to sound good.
So look at it like this: the pentatonic minor scale is not blues, but blues can be added to the pentatonic minor scale. The Aeolian mode is not blues, but blues can be added to the Aeolian mode.
This simple idea, if true (which it is), debunks the idea that playing the blues well is “too easy”.
I assure you, as a musician myself, listening to guitarists play the blues horribly on YouTube is very easy to find, even on channels with skilled guitarists! But let’s give em a break; playing the guitar is very difficult, even if playing in a recorded video in front of thousands of ephemeral viewers.
But when those skilled guitarists play the blues properly, boy, it sounds incredible.
Let’s address another point of criticism other than its perceived lack of creativity and easiness to play.
Blues = Sloppy Play
If there is any point I will concede, it would be this: at lower levels of guitar play, blues actually is easy to play, albeit sloppily.
But is that necessarily so at higher, advanced levels? Not at all.
To lay out my argument here, we have to make a specific distinction between dissonance and sloppiness.
Dissonance: in the blues, it means to add off-scale pitches and dissonant notes to a composition intentionally.
Slop: unintentionally adding off-pitches out of technical mistakes/errors.
That’s the very difference that helps us distinguish between a good blues player and a rookie blues player.
If a string is bent right on pitch, then bent further off pitch, did the player do so purposefully to add a vocal like phrasing to the bend, or did the player make a mistake?
Listen to the timing and consistency of aplayer, and it becomes clear over time whether or not they play dissonant blue notes, or sloppy notes.
Bad blues play would be soloing in dozens of different root notes and keys, without proper structure, or structure that is too rigid/repeated, with way too many off notes that are off time.
Thus, the genre is not at all about adding slop. It is rather about adding dissonance to the music, tastefully and intentionally, as discussed in the previous section.
A Note on Boomer Bends
This one is very difficult to separate from the blues, as ‘boomer bends’ is simply a derogatory term for frequently using an old way of phrasing notes (bending).
Thanks to players who popularized bends like Chuck Berry and B.B. King, this technique exists. But whether or not it is used too frequently is up to each musician.
There are many other ways to present notes to a crowd when playing guitar: slides, trilling, hammer-ons, legato, pre-bends, whammy bar, etc. Blues players before 1960’s used techniques like these (maybe not the whammy bar) to phrase their notes.
Now, if you are a player who may rely on bends quite often, try experimenting with other phrasing techniques. In the 2020’s we need to find new ways to phrase our notes to keep our play fresh.
I will say, however, that more acoustic styles of blues have a lot less bending, and a lot more sliding, hammer-ons, chording, and vibrato in it.
Search online and listen to old Mississippi-style blues tracks from the 40’s and 50’s, or modern versions of swamp blues. There’s a lot of finger picking and the aforementioned phrasing included. That stuff is not exactly easy to play well.
But let’s keep it simple: if you’re concerned about playing too many boomer bends, limit your use of bends, or learn varied styles of phrasing notes.
Why not go back to those old-school roots? There’s a lot there that we can learn from.
With all this said, there’s nothing wrong with musicians thinking differently about a genre of music. But most knee-jerk thoughts about the blues, I’ve found, are quite shallow.
There’s a lot of nuance in this genre, and music being a creative endeavour should invite nuance.
That’s actually how we get better: take an old idea, throw some real nuance at it, and see if it sticks. That way of thinking created the neoclassical metal genre with guitarists like Ritchie Blackmore, then Randy Rhoads and then Yngwie who’ve innovated and perfected their styles.
If there is anything to take from this article, it’s not to underestimate the blues. The genre may be over a century old, but after reading this article, imagine looking the spirit of B.B. King in the face, and telling him “I’m a good blues player”.
Can you honestly say that with integrity? If so, you’re probably a great player with a deep understanding of the blues. If not, just be humble, and keep learning to play.
Keep filling with world with good music, and I’ll see you in my next blog, folks.
I’ll try and make it a little more lighthearted.