The Beauty of the Blues: a Story and History of that Dissonant Note
If you’re a guitar player or music-lover, here’s a chance to better understand one of the genres that hold the roots of a lot of modern music: the Blues.
(If you want to skip my story and get straight to what the Blues is, scroll to the second section under the 3 dots below)
Here’s how I discovered the Blues. Is it similar to your story?
It was maybe 2005 when, as a teen, I started learning to play guitar. As a child, I always used to play the classical guitar at my grandpa’s place, though I wanted to up my game and get better at playing. Thus, I saved some money and decided to buy my own acoustic guitar at Walmart to play on my own.
At this time, Napster was a thing (you older Millenials know exactly what that was like! Free music, games, movies, programs…It was crazy!). I “stole” as many free songs as the internet would allow me to download after school. I would put songs on my cheap little mp3 player and carry that thing everywhere.
In my time as a young wannabe rockstar, I listened to all kinds of 70s and 80s guitar music, from Pop to Rock n Roll, to Metal and Shred. I felt like an 80’s kid in the future, as none of my friends appreciated the same music.
Music was music. I loved it all.
While learning chord charts, scales, and all the other stuff guitar players are obsessed with, I came across what I thought at the time was the most beautiful guitar playing I’ve ever heard.
I downloaded a song called Lucille by an artist named B.B. King. The song was over ten minutes long, but to me, it was ten minutes of magic.
I had no idea who B.B. King was, or what the song meant, but I remembered how beautifully he blended Blues patterns and scales on his guitar. It had a singing quality; imagine someone like Alicia Keys or Lauren Hill just humming notes in a soul and R&B blend meant for bar music. It was magical.
“Whoa, that’s sick!” was my resulting teenage kneejerk reaction, saying this out loud in my quiet little room upon hearing B.B.’s twinkle fingers on that electric guitar.
At this point, I practiced bending my guitar strings just like him until the strings broke and/or frequently went out of tune (it’s always that dang G-string that’s a problem!).
I kept learning new things and I played on for fifteen years, trying to be the next B.B. King. I played with many exceptional musicians and talented people who went on to make music of their own.
Through all that, Blues was still a thing I was obsessed with, and I made a point to play a 10-minute Blues jam in every band setting I was able to partake in. That traditional 12-bar Blues pattern in E minor had always been my bread and butter.
Fast forward to 2020, and just like my teen self, I still think the Blues sounds amazing. I learned of other artists and legends such as Albert (B.B.) King, Robert Johnson, Stevie Ray Vaughn, and more.
If you’re wondering why many artists had the acronym “B.B.” in their stage names, it meant Blues Boy, which gives credence to their dedication to the Blues genre. I wanted to be one of them and I still do.
That’s my story of falling in love with the Blues as a music genre. But what is the Blues, you ask?
Time for some history and music theory.
Blues is a music genre that bears roots in the history of African Americans. From about 1700 – 1865, before the passing of the 13th Amendment in the United States resulting in the legal abolition of slavery in America, slaves would have a unique way of singing spirituals, which traditionally took variations of the Pentatonic and Minor scales, and added some dissonant notes. This Blues-styled dissonant note in music theory is known informally as the blue note.
Little did we know this blue note spread world-wide, and become part of modern music for more than a century.
An example of the blue note could be found in this Pentatonic scale in E minor (a very popular key on a standard-tuned guitar):
E — G — A — Bb — B — D — E
In this progression, E serves as the root note, and Bb (pronounced “bee flat”) is the blue note.
Take away the Bb, and you have the Pentatonic (five-note) scale in E minor. Add the Bb, and you got the Blues scale!
If you are interested in how this sounds, check this short tutorial out to get a feel for the sound:
For you guitarists out there who want to start playing Blues lead licks, this article’s a decent place to start.
Those of you who study music might already know of the avoid note, which is a note that, in layman terms, doesn’t harmonize well with all those other notes in the scale you’re playing.
The blue note would traditionally be part of this concept, except it is part of a scale all on its own; the blue note is used in many kinds of songs, from the spiritual Wade in the Water — if you were a Fresh Prince fan, you should know this song! — to a modern bluesy, funk song in Uptown Funk by Bruno Mars, believe it or not.
Back to history: well into the early 1900s, this Blues scale would be used in black bars, and out on the fields and swamps of the Mississippi delta (arguably the birthplace of modern Blues). At that time, white America wasn’t ready for the Blues, yet.
The Blues had spread up north to Chicago to get away from states more heavily affected by Jim Crow laws based on racial segregation. The genre would become more popular, especially after the invention of the electric guitar in 1931, which suited bars and clubs at the time. Looks like the culture is still present in Chicago today.
In 1920, a singer who went by the name of Mamie Smith sold a million copies of her record, hit song called Crazy Blues. The Blues then grew in popularity. At this time, the genre wasn’t referred to as “Blues,” it was referred to as “race music.”
It was only until about 1956 when Elvis copied Big Mama Thornton’s song Hound Dog and made his own version that America recognized the genre as “Blues music.” Elvis would add the Blues to his music repertoire, mentioning how impressed he was with the genre. I’d recommend reading this article here, which helps put things into perspective about Elvis’ fascination with the Blues.
Without Elvis’ adopting the style in his music, Americans wouldn’t have taken the genre as seriously, and they should; as simple as the Blues may sound to some musicians, it is full of emotion, expression, hardship, and is very down-to-earth in its content.
Do you have knowledge of playing the Blues scale and are having a hard time in life? Pick up your instrument, and try expressing your situation through your instrument.
Once you learn to express yourself through the Blues, it’s very hard to forget the feeling, trust me.
In fact, the heart of Blues music was the expression of sadness, and sometimes having instrumental and lyrical fun with the concepts of everyday life struggles, which can be heard in Blues music in the mid-1900s, up to today.
That’s part of the beauty; to the average layperson, the Blues is relatable. It isn’t grandiose but grounded for everyday people like you and me. It’s not just for old people, folks.
Here’s a list of Blues songs in the aforementioned period to help you get into the vibe:
- The Sky is Crying — Gary B.B. Coleman
- The Thrill is Gone — B.B. King
- Mannish Boy — Muddy Waters
- Stone Crazy — Buddy Guy
Blues also followed a traditional 12-bar, 3-chord structure in these songs (Mannish Boy may be an exception in the list above). As music evolved, so did song structures, and this 12-bar form would fade in popularity slowly over time.
Another feature I had discovered that was fascinating about the Blues was its versatility. When Rock or Metal guitarists play and present a solo in front of a crowd, they will sometimes insert a Blues lick or move on the solo here and there, and when done right, it hardly ever seems out of place.
An example I can think of is Zakk Wylde and Slash playing their cover of Jimi Hendrix’s Voodoo Child in 1994. Oooo boy, they sound amazing (even though the recording’s audio quality wasn’t that great). Listen to Slash get bluesy, adding off-notes at certain parts of his licks!
Also, did you know that the main verse riff in Yngwie Malmsteen’s song Rising Force is straight off the Blues scale in E minor? You can catch the off note in the riff.
Aside from Rock and Metal taking on the Blues scale and lyrical content, we also have other genres like Soul, R&B, Hip-Hop, Pop, Folk, Country, and many more that use the Blues, paying homage to the root genre itself. I already mentioned Uptown Funk, but what about music from artists like John Mayer, who blends Pop, Folk, and Blues altogether in songs like Wildfire?
We can go on and on. There are too many artists and bodies of work to mention here.
In summary, the Blues is badass, with a wonderful history, roots, uniqueness, and its influence and inclusion in more modern music.
You know, I’m just glad that we live in an age where we can freely enjoy all genres of music, regardless of who we are. In the words of a Blues singer Rufus Thomas:
Everybody can have the blues. Anybody can have the blues…So that’s why I say today that Blues belongs to the world.
Click here for a wonderful Blues documentary on YouTube if you want to learn more!
Whatever you’re all going through, enjoy the journey; when you’re feeling blue, the music is there when you need it for those rough patches. Comment if you have any thoughts, or if you want to know more about this type of stuff!