In the prewar era, defined as the period from 1900-1939, blues music were not assisted by electrical amplification. Variation in blues is related to guitar style. Therefore, this paper explores acoustic guitar blues in terms of its playstyle by comparing two great blues guitarists Blind Lemon Jefferson and Robert Johnson.
Blind Lemon Jefferson (1894 – 1929) also known as the “Father of the Texas Blues” gained a lot of popularity in the 1920s1. His loose rhythmic feel and high-pitched voice contributed to his distinctive style2.
In terms of melody structure, Jefferson has a unique harmonic practice on his guitar that incorporates with his vocal. An AAB twelve-bar blues is a very common blues structure. It is also based on a I-IV-V chord progression3. However, Jefferson AAB blues is sometimes performed in a I-IV-IV chord progression, where the third line of the AAB blues is the line that Jefferson starts to sing4. It creates a certain harmonic effect that harmonizes with his vocal at the beginning of his singing, which demanded a lot attention especially with Jefferson’s uniquely high-pitched vocal at the start of most of his songs. This style can be heard in Mosquito Moan. The guitar is first played in the key of F in the first bar and shifted to the key of B in the second and third bar (which is the respective IV chord from A).
During Jefferson’s singing, his guitar style includes striking the long sustained notes on the guitar, tremolo and sometimes even silent gaps4. It created an effect that put emphasis on his vocal line. A good example that exhibits these characteristics, especially silent spaces in his singing would be Black Snake Moan, where certain verses like ‘Mmm, mmm, what’s the matter now?’5 were either not accompanied by the guitar. As for tremolos, which is the vibrato effect caused by striking the same note rapidly, it can be heard in ‘Chock House Blues’ especially when the high strings are being played.
Moreover, Jefferson’s guitar style features string bending. Interestingly, Jefferson’s style was distinctive to other guitarists because others seldom bend strings to the extend Jefferson did. Accompanied with his vocal, string bending can produce a singing-like sound for his music3. For example, the song Tin Cup Blues (Figure 1) features the string bending technique in almost every bars. To illustrate, Figure 1 below shows the first 4 bars of the song. (Notes with a ‘#’ symbol and an upward arrow sign indicates the use of the string bending technique). In the example, this technique is used whenever Jefferson starts singing the first word in the particular bar. As mentioned above, the string bending creates a singing-like sound. It harmonizes with his vocal and that made his style distinctive to other guitarists in the 1920s.
1 David Dicaire, Blues singers: biographies of 50 legendary artists of the early 20th century (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1999).
2 Samuel Barclay Charters, The Blues Makers (New York (N.Y.): Da Capo Press, 1977).
3 Bruce Benward and Marilyn Nadine Saker, Music: In Theory and Practice, Seventh ed., vol. 1 (Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2003).
4 David Evans, “Musical Innovation in the Blues of Blind Lemon Jefferson,” Black Music Research Journal 20, no. 1 (2000). doi:10.2307/779317.
3 Benward and Nadine, ‘Music’ (2003).
4 Evans, ‘Musical’ (2000).F
5 “Black Snake Moan – Blind Lemon Jefferson,” Google Play Music, , accessed January 20, 2018, https://play.google.com/music/preview/T5uakssbdlgi37n3gcdo4ws2e6u?lyrics=1=google=search=lyrics=kp-lyrics=0#