There’s no other musical genre quite like the blues. Steeped in lyrical emotion and sultry melodies, it’s easy to understand why blues music has had such a deep and lasting impact on the music of the United States, the U. K. and beyond.
Its name notwithstanding, blues music can invoke a range of emotions: joy, anguish, triumph, or plain old sadness. As Nina Simone demonstrated, the blues can feel really, really good:
Blues music instrumentation is as varied as its lyrical content, its influence is more widespread than you would believe, and best of all, the genre lives on in contemporary music styles that top the charts today!
So, let’s dive in. By the end of this article, you’ll know what blues music is, how and when blues music developed, why the blues are still important in modern music, and how to play and write blues tunes of your own.
Table of Contents:
History of Blues Music
A genre that’s over 100 years old, the journey of blues can be traced from West Africa to the deep South, to urban centers in the northern U.S., where it fed directly into rock ‘n’ roll and rhythm & blues.
Fittingly, the beginnings of blues music were anything but happy. The genre originated during the pre-Civil War era in the southern United States, with the field hollers, work songs, and spirituals of African-American slaves (and later sharecroppers) struggling to express their human thoughts and emotions in the midst of subhuman oppression.
These slaves had brought with them the rhythms and musical sensibilities of West Africa. Their music echoed these key features of the music of their ancestors:
- Pentatonic scales with characteristic tunings
- Conversational elements (such as call-and-response)
- Complex polyrhythms
As Africans met with the European musical traditions in the United States, they attempted twisting the European scales and instruments to African scales, resulting in the bending and sliding of pitches and leading to the blues scales. These were often heard in “field hollers”, the working songs of the African-American slaves:
West African musicians often engage in improvised or semi-improvised musical dialogues, which continues in many African diaspora traditions. These feature prominently in blues music performance – whether the solo singer in intimate dialogue with his acoustic guitar, or the group dynamics of an electric blues band.
Complex, fluid improvisational rhythms also informed early blues expressions and blues music to this day.
The Mississippi Delta
Though birthed in the deep South, one can say that the blues “grew up” in the Mississippi Delta, just upriver from New Orleans. The Delta blues were first recorded near the end of the 1920’s, and continued to be recorded as record companies saw the potential market for the genre. Notable Delta blues musicians included Robert Johnson, Son House, and Charley Patton.
A little further up-river, Memphis became a stopping point for the Delta bluesmen as they reached further northward.
The Delta blues were most often a one-man show, with vocals and slide guitar. With lyrics on similar themes as the songs sung by their ancestors in the cotton fields, Delta blues musicians sang of salvation, damnation, travel, economic ruin, and romance.
Take a listen to the first Delta blues song ever recorded, Freddie Spruell’s “Milk Cow Blues”:
The Blues Head North
Following the Great Depression, millions of African-Americans left the South to settle in large urban centers in the northern United States. The blues went with them, evolving to fit their new urban milieus, most notably Chicago.
Perhaps the most notable of such migrations was the movement of blues musicians from Mississippi to Chicago, which became the blues center of the north and the birthplace of the appropriately-named Chicago blues music. In fact, the famous Chicago blues musicians Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Howlin’ Wolf, and Jimmy Reed all migrated from Mississippi to Chicago, where they each played a big role in establishing this new northern iteration of the blues.
Not a genre to forget its roots, Chicago blues music took the basic idea of the Delta blues and put an electric, energetic spin on them, making them larger-than-life by the addition of electric guitar, bass guitar, drums, piano and harmonica. These musical changes were made to fit a new, larger audience, and new surroundings.
Influence of the Blues
Arguably, the blues can be seen as the root of all popular Western music styles today. Jazz branched off early on, while R&B (i.e. Rhythm and Blues – and all the subsequent styles derived from it), and Rock and Roll came later. Even Bluegrass (hello!) and Country owe a huge debt to the blues and blues-tinged styles soaking the United States in the 20th century.
Subsequently, American popular music has a had a huge influence on popular music throughout the world, carrying its West African heritage along with it.
Let’s have a deeper look at the blues influence on jazz and rock.
Blues & Jazz
The most accurate way to describe the relationship between the two would be brothers.
They grew up together in the Mississippi Delta, with blues having a degree of influence over jazz. The two share the common parentage of the music of African-American communities in the deep South during the Antebellum era.
While the blues remained harmonically more simple, the harmonic implications of the blues scale cracked open new potentials in Western harmony, leading to the fabulous new chord progressions which jazz is famous for.
In particular, the 12-bar blues are an essential part of the foundation of jazz. Throughout jazz history, masters have returned again and again to explore blues roots, informed by jazz’ restless harmonic experimentation.
Here, Oscar Peterson and band expand the original Duke Ellington 12-bar tune to 16 bars in the improvised sections:
From there, there’s a divergence; while jazz focusses on improvisation and ensemble dynamics, and showcasing virtuosity, blues places more emphasis on lyrical content and creative expression through more traditional chord progressions and blues scales.
Rock ‘n’ Roll
Simply put, rock ‘n’ roll could not and would not exist without the 12-bar blues and walking bass lines of blues music.
The instrumentation, rhythms, and raw emotion of blues music can all be heard loud and clear in rock ‘n’ roll.
As blues was gaining popularity in the 1950’s, instruments were getting louder, guitars were starting to wail, and the beats were picking up speed. With artists like Chuck Berry, blues started to meld into rock ‘n’ roll, with early rock ‘n’ roll songs often following the 12-bar blues and rhythmic patterns of the blues.
Thus the most famous early rock ‘n’ roll bands are deeply indebted to Mississippi Delta and Chicago bluesmen.
In the US, Elvis Presley was taking cues from blues music to create his own rock ‘n’ roll/rockabilly style. Having grown up in Memphis, Elvis had been exposed to the Delta blues from an early age and incorporated elements from the genre.
Meanwhile, blues music was reaching across the pond, with Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, and the Rolling Stones all drawing massive inspiration from artists such as Muddy Waters, Skip James, and Chuck Berry.
Most of the early British rockers were avid collectors of traditional blues records. They practiced and recorded blues covers before stretching out and writing their own blues tunes.
In fact, John Lennon famously said, “If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it “Chuck Berry”.” Long before the success of tunes such as “Here Comes the Sun” and “Come Together”, the Beatles were recording and performing covers of Berry’s songs!
Mick Jagger and Keith Richards famously bonded over Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters records, and the bluesmen’s influence all but jumps out at you in the Rolling Stones’ early work.
Singing the Blues
Soulful, passionate, raw, and vulnerable, the best voices in blues can really make you feel their pain. Let’s look at the lyrical content and structure of classic blues songs!
The Hard Knock Life
Though the blues certainly aren’t limited to songs about getting left by a woman or shooting a man in Memphis, you’d be hard-pressed to find a blues tune in which the vocalist is boasting about their good fortune and simple life.
The original blues sung in the cotton fields of plantations by African-American slaves were sung to ease the burden of work, for spiritual reasons, or as a lamentation of hardship. Though the Mississippi Delta blues were born after slavery was abolished, the lives of African-Americans remained difficult, as they faced racism and financial instability. Delta blues musicians, therefore, retained elements of their ancestors’ songs, singing of poverty, homesickness, and loss.
The blues’ migration to Chicago brought with it new lyrical content; musicians could no longer sing about working on the levee, or the quirks of rural life. Instead, lyrical content shifted to the trials and tribulations of city life, whether in the context of love, work, or (!) being a blues musician.
Here’s Jimmy Reed having a thing or two to say about a difficult boss:
Write Your Own Blues!
The point of the blues is simple: to sing about what makes you blue. You may not be a struggling street musician or a penniless farmer with three mouths to feed, but there’s nothing stopping you from singing about your dead-end job, your loneliness, or how you felt the morning after maybe having a little too much fun last night.
The beauty of blues is that you can sing about your problems, and it will fit right into the instrumentation and groove of the song. Now, let’s look at the structure that you’ll want your vocals to take…
From the early days of blues, the lyrics of blues music singers often followed a problem-and-resolution, or call-and-response pattern that worked beautifully with the down-on-their-luck lyrics. This was combined with an “AAB” lyrical structure, where the first line of each verse repeats itself.
The “A” part often presents a problem or a woe, while the “B” part responds to “A”. For example:
Been sittin’ by my lonesome, no shoes on my feet
Been sittin’ by my lonesome, no shoes on my feet
I ain’t got a single penny, before I know it, I’ll be out on the street
There we are! We’ve combined the AAB structure with the “Hard Knock Life” lyrical theme that the blues are famous for. To give the song forward drive, expand and advance this narrative to form an emotional story.
Try it out on your own!
Playing the Blues
By now, you’re likely seeing connections between blues songs you already know, old and new. Before you get composing and playing, let’s look at some common musical elements found across the genre.
This evolved with the blues. The earliest blues was, of course, acapella. As time went on and the blues steadily travelled north, instrumentation became more complex.
While the Mississippi Delta blues, for example, often showcased single vocalists accompanying themselves on the guitar, by the time the blues had reached Chicago, the genre had gone bigger and gone electric, replacing the acoustic guitar with an electric one, and adding bass, drums, piano, and harmonica. Electric organs and keyboards were incorporated into the blues some time later, filling out the sound even more. Saxophones were frequently used as a supporting instrument.
The variety of instrumentation that blues has seen over the years means that your iteration of the blues can be as simple or complex as you want it to be!
If you’d like to play solo, take a cue from the Mississippi Delta blues and take the stage armed only with your voice and a slide guitar. Your voice and (pained) lyrics will be given room to shine! The Blues Guitar Institute offers a quick-start guide to playing the Delta blues.
Feel like adopting a more rounded-out sound? Perhaps the style of the Chicago blues is more your speed, and you should consider forming a blues band!
This is perhaps the heart and soul, or the “bread and butter” of the blues. Built around the famous and well-loved I-IV-V progression, the 12-bar blues have been an indispensable staple of the genre since its inception.
You have 12 measures that observe a particular scheme, which looks like this:
Where I, IV, and V represent the chords built on the first, fourth, and fifth scale degrees of the key you’re playing in. Note that this use of Roman numerals rather than specific chord names means that you can transpose the 12-bar blues into any key. This pattern is normally played in 4/4 time, being repeated over and over with some soloing and variation thrown in there.
For example, for interest, you can add the “quick IV”, where the chord is played in the second bar, replacing the usual I chord:
In countless blues songs, this 12-bar pattern lines up seamlessly with the “AAB” lyric format, with the first four bars corresponding to the first line (“A”), the next four bars corresponding to the second line (the second “A”), and the final four bars corresponding to “B” for both a conclusion to the verse that’s both lyrical and musical!
The Blues Scale: An African-European Hybrid
In the slavery-era US, blacks were forbidden to construct or play their traditional African instruments. As Africans encountered the European scales and instruments, they had to contend with the problem of fitting their traditional tunings to the 12-tone equal tempered tuning system.
For example, African pentatonic scales often skipped the second. The third in an African scales starting on C would tuned between E♭ and E on the piano. The solution? Include both notes! On other instruments, sliding and bending techniques developed to approximate the original African tunings.
The result is a flexible blues scale with some dynamic emotional and harmonic implications that did not exist previously in either system.
The blues scale is the perfect complement to the 12-bar blues, and is often used to solo over the progression. It consists of six notes per octave: 1,♭3, 4,♭5, 5, and♭7. In the key of C, it would look like this:
With the notes C, Eb, F, Gb, G, and Bb.
For another option for soloing over blues, you can use the blues scale’s slightly easier-to-play cousin. The minor pentatonic scale is something you’re likely already acquainted with if you’re guitar player, and is a five-note version of the blues scale, with 1,♭3, 4, 5, and♭7. In the key of C, it would look like this:
Flattened Third and Seventh Degrees
If you look at both of these scales (both of which work beautifully over the 12-bar blues progression), what do you notice they have in common, that separates them other scales?
It’s the presence of flattened third and seventh degrees! Not only do these differentiate the scale from the ever-optimistic major and add some needed melancholia to the scale, but the minor third adds some tension and interest to the sorrowful scale. Meanwhile, the flattened seventh acts as the slightly dissonant “blue” note. These two flattened degrees are much of what give both the blues scale and the minor pentatonic scale their characteristic woefulness.
The Blues and Your Instrument
As you may have guessed, the 12-bar blues and the two scales discussed above will be your best friends for playing blues music. Now, let’s go beyond that and see how you can get creative with whatever you have under your fingertips…
Or, as we like to call it, the workhorse of the blues. If you’re playing rhythm guitar 12-bar blues, you have the choice of playing bar chords or power chords. If you’re playing blues music on lead guitar, learn your scales and work on those pull-offs and hammer-ons to build on and embellish the basic melody or chord progression.
If you’re an advanced guitar player, try doing double-duty as both rhythm and lead guitar by incorporating lead blues licks into your 12-bar blues pattern!
Looking to sharpen your blues guitar chops? Guitar Compass offers video lessons for beginners and seasoned soloists alike. They even feature lessons that will help you play blues music in the style of greats such as B.B. King, Eric Clapton, and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
If you’re a pianist playing blues music, you have the distinct pleasure of having a both a melodic and rhythmic role! You can hold down the musical fort by playing chords in a steady beat, play around the beat while soloing, or a combination of the two.
The Boogie Woogie style is an energetic, uptempo way of playing blues piano. It sounds fantastic over the 12-bar blues, and lends a vigor to blues music that makes it difficult to resist dancing to:
As a saxophonist, you can have a lot of fun with the blues, as you’ll rarely take on the role of holding down the 12-bar chord progression, and have more creative freedom with your soloing. The distinctive honks, squeaks, and screams of the saxophone provide unexpected and fun touches to blues music – experiment with this dissonance to spice up your tunes.
With instruments such as the piano and guitar holding down the basic chord progression, as a blues music saxophonist, you are free to improvise solos and licks to hold the chord progression together and give it a little extra something to emphasize certain parts of the song. This serves as an excellent way to prevent the repeating motif of the song from becoming tedious or boring!
The harmonica has been a blues staple from the beginning, notably because of its built-in ability to wail and moan melodically, not unlike the expressive voices of blues singers!
Similarly to the saxophone, an excellent way to incorporate the harmonica into your blues compositions is to use it for licks and riffs, which go a long way towards lending a unique flavour to an otherwise standard blues song.
For example, James Cotton’s “Slow Blues” really wouldn’t be the same without that distinctive harmonica part:
As you can surmise from its century of rich history and melting pot of influences, the blues culture was built largely around the shared African-American experience and, of course, the universal human experience of sadness and sorrow. However, in an America already rife with racial tensions and poverty, there was a dark side…
The Devil’s Music
The genre suffered the reputation of being “The Devil’s Music” in its earlier years. Because many early blues music artists were poverty-stricken and illiterate, blues music was often considered to lack respectability and class – both inside and outside the African-American community.
African-American gospel music shares many musical characteristics and common origins with the blues. Yet the reputation of the blues as “the devil’s music” was further cemented by themes of love, lust, drinking, loss, violence, and longing in blues music – often at odds with the moral values of many African- and European-Americans. Furthermore, churchgoing folks were unhappy with blues musicians’ habit of borrowing Christian hymns to turn them into secular blues songs.
Unfortunately, this reputation stuck around for much of the early days of the blues, gaining the genre infamy and sometimes-negative connotations.
Another thing the blues became famous for was the wandering musicians associated with the early days of the style.
The era of the “songster” began soon after slavery ended, when African-Americans became able to travel and play music to make a living. Songsters both played the blues music and had a large influence on blues music; there would likely never have been any bluesmen if it hadn’t been for songsters!
If you’re wondering what country blues music is, this is where it started. An acoustic and folky variant of the blues, it was often played by songsters in solo or duo forms, with a non-singing musician sometimes accompanying the vocalist on fiddle or banjo.
The repertoire of songsters, however, wasn’t limited to this style; because they often provided the entertainment for all types of social events, these musicians also played everything from rags and ballads to spirituals.
Not only were songsters the predecessors to bluesmen, but many blues musicians who achieved mainstream success got their start as songsters, including Charlie Patton and Frank Stokes.
The Blues Today
An absolutely striking aspect of the blues is just how ubiquitous it is today – its spirit is alive and well in modern blues music such as The Black Keys, Fatback Deluxe, and The White Stripes.
The blues has never disappeared or sunk into obscurity. It has had new life breathed into it countless times, by new instrumentation, structures, and lyrical themes. From its beginnings in the deep Antebellum South to its steady journey north, the blues are so closely tied to history and so revered by Americans that they will never die.
Are you looking to help keep the blues alive? Think about the last time you felt down-on-your-luck, write some contemplative lyrics about it, grab your instrument, and hammer out the 12-bar blues while singing all about it!