By Bing Futch
Music is a language much like English, German, French or Kacipo-Balesi. If you think of 12 chromatic notes like our 26 letters of the alphabet in the western English language – those same 26 letters (sometimes with diacritical markings) can order coffee in Spanish, beer in German and pastry in French! The song form known as blues is based in and around certain musical notes, chord progressions and phrasing, combined with a structure that reflects its African origins. The only true way to emulate the blues is to hear it, feel it and let it flow. Many bluesmen never learned to read music; they simply copied what they heard elder musicians playing and singing. The blues is like a patois, slang or dialect. The key to performing different musical styles lies within being able to “speak the language like a local” and so it is with blues music.
The blues form emerged out of African spirituals, ceremonial songs, work chants, ring shouts and field hollers, first appearing during the turn of the 18th century. The blues, or “blue devils”, refers to sadness or depression but is often used to convey great happiness or spiritual awakening. Over the years it has sprouted, grown and spun off in countless directions, resulting in sub-genres like Piedmont, Delta, swamp, west coast, Chicago, Texas, country and jazz. Without blues, there’d be no “rhythm & blues” or “rock & roll”! Truly music of the people, the blues came out of the cotton fields of the post-war South and was made popular by an ever-growing list of performers including Robert Johnson, Big Bill Broonzy, Leadbelly, Muddy Waters, Etta James, Bessie Smith, Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King, Junior Wells, Pinetop Perkins, Little Milton, R.L. Burnside, T Model Ford, Buddy Guy, Eric Clapton and more. Listen to music by these artists and you’ll get a grand picture of blues history.
The Blues Form
In a nutshell, the blues form is 12 measures in 4/4 time using three chords and a melody based on elements of the pentatonic minor blues scale. Using Roman numerals, each note of the scale gets a number – I through VII (scale degree). All you need is the key to get started. A 12-bar blues in E, for example, is a I – IV – V chord progression. The root note, first note of the E Major scale, is “E (I).” The fourth note of the scale is “A (IV)”. The fifth note of the scale is “B (V)”. Some or all of the chords may be sevenths (E7, A7, etc.)Four measures of the “I” chord, switch to the “IV” chord for two measures, then back to the “I” for two more measures and wrapping up with one measure of the “V”, one measure of the “IV” and two final measures of “I”. Lyrics typically follow an AAB form with a line sung over the first four measures, repeated over the second four measures and a concluding line over the final four measures. 16-bar blues, lyrical couplets and different time signatures are all variations on this form.
Any performer who knows the blues form could jam with a blues guitarist from out of town with only “it’s a 12-bar blues in the key of Ab, downbeat on the V” to get them started.
The Blues Scale
To speak like a local, you need to be aware not only of what alphabet you’re using, but how to spell words and then use them in a sentence so that you don’t sound like you’re reading out of a tourist phrase book. Our core “alphabets” will be the pentatonic minor scale and the pentatonic minor blues scale.
Notice below the shape of the “box” that this note pattern forms on the mountain dulcimer fretboard. You can use the “box” to play these same two scales also in the keys of E and A. Blues solos or “leads” come out of these two scales and, sometimes even notes from the major scale. There are other instances of these two scales on the mountain dulcimer, they just take different box shapes. As long as you can figure out the root of the scale (first note) and then follow through with the flat third, fourth, flat fifth, fifth and flat seventh by fretting or bending the string, you can also play the scales in C#, D, and F# quite easily. (Remember that flats take a note down a half-step or semitone while sharps raise a note up a half-step. The wide spaces between frets on your dulcimer are whole steps while the narrow spaces are half-steps. If you’re looking for a half-step and your next step up is a wide space, you’ll need to bend the string to get that half-step.)
The basic blues rhythm is a shuffling dotted eighth/sixteenth combo that is slightly swung like a heartbeat, although there are many variations on this form as well. Below is tablature for a basic blues in the key of E. It features barre chords that introduce two notes, one each from the E pentatonic minor scale (b7) and the E Major scale (6).
Say It Like You Mean It
Blues music is raw emotion, deeply quiet or highly wailing – expression drips out of each note. The key is not speed, but expressiveness. No amount of couching in Western musical language will ever beat simply hearing the blues, learning the blues and then interpreting and playing the blues. It’s like learning to talk – we emulate those around us – parents, family, friends, teachers – we absorb accents, phrases, pronunciations and vocabulary. In music, we’d call those things accents, bends, hammer-ons, pull-offs, slides, tremolos and turn arounds. Sing through your fingers, make your dulcimer talk, say it like you mean it.
Putting It All Together
“Bing’s Blues” is a Delta-style piece. Many blues players would fingerpick the tunes, getting a rolling, percussive sound out of their instruments. Much of that rolling came from a 12/8 time signature – four groups of three eighth notes – so you can count it in four, but it has the very round-sounding triplet rhythm that sounds loose played straight or with a shuffle or swing. Notice the easy ways to get a seventh out of a barre chord (drop down one fret on the melody while in barre position – works at the 1st, 2nd, 4th, 5th, 6 1/2 and 7th frets.) On the recording, I’ll play “Bing’s Blues” – once with a pick and once fingerpicking.
Listen to Bing play “Bing’s Blues.”
In 12/8 time, there are twelve beats per measure and the eighth note gets the beat.
Measure 4 features a bend-and-release starting at the seventh beat – bend up a half-step to “F” and then back down to “E” before the pull-off.
Measure 6 features a wavy line that indicates vibrato. Wiggle your finger while pressing down the bass string at the fifth fret “B.”
The bend in measure 13 is a little different than the one in measure 4. Bend up and back before fretting the D on the way down the fretboard.
Take your time getting used to the fingerings and forms – have fun!