Pre-War Blues

Note-for-note tutorials on pre-1940s style acoustic blues

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What is pre-war blues?

Pre-war blues is taken here as a "buzzword" (for better or for worse!) It's meant to alude to styles of music developed primarily by African-American people through the 1800s into the turn of the 1900s, and recorded between the 1910s when music was first being recorded, up until World War II. Its usefulness as a term is in its broadness in capturing a large bucket of music.

Who are some of these greats?

The people here were African-American people, born in the aftermath of the Civil War, in the Jim Crow South, and probably descendants of West African people from places like Nigeria, Cote D'Ivoire, and Senegal. These are some of the musicians who were born into that era (1880s to 1910s), and recorded what they played. While they're often grouped in one category of "old blues musicians", there are generational differences, with Peg Leg Howell being Robert Johnson's dad's age. The music is an amazing snapshot of that period and very beautiful despite the circumstances of the time!

How can the guitar styles of pre-war blues be described?

Pre-war blues has a mystique about it, and there is a magic there. Technically, if you just want to hit the notes—actually a lot of the magic seems to come from how it's usually the "easiest" way to play something that is "right". The simplicity about it is both relieving and a nice lesson.

Pre-war blues covers lots of ground—it can sound flowing, like the curves of a mountain landscape, thinking of Elizabeth Cotten, or it can sound "poppy", rhythmically unexpected, and ferociously groovy, as in the case of Robert Pete Williams. One commonality that all pre-war blues has is that it's centered around rhythm, being an African-American art form especially. The jazz trumpet master Dizzy Gillespie said he prioritizes hitting the rhythm but being wrong on the note, than vice versa.

It's really the root of the gut-bucket blues "13 Bar Blues". The music has so many hidden gems, because Patton, Johnson, Son House, they were still young guys of their time, and could belt out ragtime songs with more "sophisticated" chord progressions as well. So learning their songs takes you on that pathway of new chord progressions on the guitar that are more "jazzy" as an example. But it is the antithesis of religious music for African American people, so it has those themes as well.

How can the pre-war blues guitar style be used today?

It's music that comes straight out of the heart, for one, especially knowing the historical circumstances, and the rougher ways that all humans lived at that time compared to now.

Technically, yes it presents lots of interesting "problems" that make you better as a guitar player, knocking them over.

A few key "problems" include the fingerstyle playing, chords, and improvisation.

I really was "that" guy who thought he could never, ever play fingerstyle, having come from Hendrix, Zeppelin, Sabbath, Nirvana, etc. I bought a Gibson L-1, spending all my money at that time, thinking that if I bought this guitar I'd then have to justify it by learning to play fingerstyle. I'll never be Tommy Emmanuel, but over time and repetition the muscle memory builds—it's possible to be great! Paul McCartney isn't Tommy Emmanuel, and it has worked okay for him.

To really undress the style, it's essential to know about the chords and scales that are being obeyed or disobeyed at any one time. Have the discipline to learn the fretboard, learn the scales, learn the chords, learn to read basic things in music (because it does so many positive other things), etc.

Improvisation is also a key theme in this music. The two takes of Robert Johnson's Crossroad Blues vary widely in the opening—it shows the jazz in these musicians in how they didn't know "to the tee" what they were going to play. It was more of having a framework, structure of licks, picking patterns, and different ways of varying things up (helped by knowing the scales and chords) to constantly play something different. It's a key difference between black music and white music from especially that era. Black music was almost always varying and improvised, with Louis Armstrong never singing the same verse the same way twice, whereas people like Doris Day strictly stuck to the exact paper notation of the song.

What is the best guitar to play pre-war blues?

The old saying applies—it's not the arrow, it's the Indian. While Lead Belly played a Stella that Kurt Cobain offered however much money to buy, a lot of the music was played on non-fancy guitars. That era of time, 1920-1945, had many ladder-braced guitars sold, like Harmony, Stella, and other parlor guitars. It also was the time of Gibson's great archtop guitars of the 1920s and 1930s, and flattop acoustics, treasured today. Martin guitars tended not to be played by these artists.

These's a lot said about woods, and definitely it seems like mystique at first, but just test it for yourself. Go to a local guitar shop, play a mahagony guitar, a spruce guitar, and a rosewood guitar, and hear the differences. You'll hear some woods sound "flatter" than others, "woodier" than others, and so forth. For example, mahagony woods are a bit "earthier", with less shrillness, while maple or spruce guitars are extremely bright and "poppy". There's no right answer for what is best. You will want a guitar with solid woods, since that resonates much better. For a warmer sound, you can buy guitars that join at the 12th fret, rather than the 14th fret.. it's like picking closer to the neck, where the sound is warmer, but just always.

If you want a vintage guitar, you can start rabbit-hole-diving into brands such as Kalamazoo, Gibson, and Stella, for 1920s and 1930s-era guitars. Know that you'll have to probably fork out $500-$800 extra for repairs, like refretting the guitar, or sealing cracks, but you can still make it with your "lifetime" guitar, if you're patient—and that's why some people can never lose the itch for seeking vintage gems, it becomes a lifelong habit! Ensure that the wood is solid (otherwise there's much less aging benefits, if at all), and check that the body and neck isn't overly deformed. Everything else can pretty well be replaced, such as tuners, bridge pins, bridge, nuts, pickguard, and so forth. For a newer guitar, the best recommendation here is the Seagull S6 (do I have bias as a Canadian?) It's a gem in a world where guitar quality has been draining. The sound quality is deep, mellow, and full, yet bright, the wood feels natural, it's comfortable to hold, the string spacing is known to be wide and excellent for fingerstyle, and it's affordable; I think it's better than guitars 5-8x its price and that it will hold value over time.

What is the best way to navigate this content?

This content is mainly repository of video lessons, alongside guitar tabs (approximations), covering recordings of pre-war blues musicians which haven't really been tabbed out or taught elsewhere. So it's meant to specialize in really obscure pre-war blues songs, covering those obscurities in depth. For example, King Solomon Hill's recording of "My Buddy Papa Blind Lemon" is not covered on Youtube, or beyond, and so here you can glean more information about it.

If you want to chart your own direction here, since it's just a storage container right now, you can think of things like, for example, learning all of Son House's 1940s Alan Lomax recordings, or, you could learn only Vestapol songs, to get more comfortable with Open D playing.

What can I accomplish by learning pre-war blues?

Your goals or expectations from music may not necessarily be to tour the world or record platinum albums, so why learn pre-war blues?

One cool thing about pre-war blues guitar is that you can do it anywhere, independently. It's built for acoustic guitars, played as a single-person band. So, most of the songs have built-in bass accompaniment, making the playing sound filled out even if you're by yourself. As a single-note player, it can sound daunting if people know you play guitar and ask you to play, if you don't have a backing track or something like that! It's nice knowing fingerstyle songs because you can just do them anytime you want, and it can sound filled out. Being for acoustic guitars, you can play these songs anywhere in the house, or travelling anywhere in the world, outside and inside.

How should I use these lessons?

To get more mileage out of these lessons, try and work out these songs (slowing down the recordings) and then cross-check what you find with the videos. Do you get the same results?

When you're learning one of these songs, start small. See if you can tell what tuning the guitar is in, for example based on the top notes you hear, what the open strings sound like when they hit a bum string, and so on. Maybe imagine where the notes are played, if you got your guitar in that tuning. Try and follow along and build a mental picture of the chord cycle of the song, hearing when it repeats and when it goes to the certain chord changes that stick with you. Get as far as you can, and then cross-check the answers! Just start somewhere, and you'll get more out of it than you put in.

What is the best way to transcribe these songs?

Take, for example, Kindhearted Woman by Robert Johnson.

Open the song up on Youtube, and use the Settings tool, to slow the song down to 50%, or even 25%.

Play the recording, and listen to it. Starting right away, at the sequence of chords he strums, just identify something...

In this case, you can just listen to the top note, hear how it's probably played on the top E string, and that the tuning is probably Vestapol or Standard, because Spanish would be too high for that to be easy (it's always the easier way that usually works). Then if you know that Robert Johnson really never played much in Vestapol, other than for a couple recordings, than you'd know it's probably Standard Tuning.

From there, you can listen more, hear when he hits open strings (which usually sound a bit more twangy, or are usually the common bum notes you hear if you really zoom in and slow down the recording), and you can find out what capo position to use in the standard tuning.

So it's this process of "20 questions" with the recording, using the slowdown tool as a microscope, and one clue sort of leads to the next! It's like being an archaeologist, brushing up a fossil that few people have ever brushed up!

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