We had a hugely positive reaction to posting a story from The How and the Tao of Folk Guitar the other day so I decided to go ahead and keep posting some of my favorites.
Today we take a look at how I got started playing country blues guitar . . .
From The How and the Tao of Folk Guitar by Patrick Costello
Before the Internet and before compact disks there was the radio.
Now I know you’ve heard the radio before, but it’s easy to forget how powerful it was back in the day when it was just about the only way to hear any music.
For the old guitar players I used to hang around with it was big AM stations like WWVA and WSM. By the time I was a kid the AM band was pretty much all news and really weird religious broadcasts so my lifeline to the music world was the folk show Sunday nights on WHYY.
Every week I would take a stack of cassette tapes and sit all night with my finger on the record button of my boom-box. As soon as the DJ played something interesting I would hit ‘record’ and by the next morning I had a stack of tapes that I would listen to all week. You couldn’t just record the whole show because folk radio was, and I guess still is, always trying so hard to make everybody happy that you never knew what kind of downright weird stuff was going to be played. I liked the old blues records and some of the other stuff, but I didn’t want to save things like Hungarian goat herding music or old protest songs about obscure politicians.
I had been doing this for a while when one night this record came on that started with an old guy talking about coffee.
As soon as he said “Coffee time” I hit the record button because this guy’s voice was just so cool. It was the kind of voice you’d expect to hear if a bluebird was ever able to have a conversation with you. All sort of sing-song and kind of cheerful in a sad sort of way. As if he had seen too much of the world but wasn’t going to let it bring him down. It was something a kid in Philadelphia didn’t get to hear very often.
Then he started to play the guitar and I was never quite the same.
I’m not going to try and put the music into words because I don’t think anything I could say would draw the right image. It was just the coolest thing I had ever heard. I sat there listening to this guy singing about his favorite brand of coffee and playing his guitar and I just about lost my mind. After the DJ came on and said that the song was Coffee Blues by some guy named Mississippi John Hurt I rewound the tape and listened to it another three times. Then I dragged out my guitar and spent the rest of the night on the back steps driving the neighbors crazy trying to figure out just what this guy was doing.
I spent days trying to work out the picking patterns and when that didn’t work I went to a music book store and started looking for more information on this guy. I wound up working for a slumlord cleaning out a pair of apartments vacated by a cat lady to make enough money to buy those books.
The other guys in my high school had centerfolds taped inside their locker doors, but I had a back and white photo of Mississippi John Hurt sitting on a park bench with his guitar case propped up next to him in my locker. When somebody noticed it my explanation was, “someday I’m going to be that cool.”
There was just one problem. The stuff in the books didn’t make sense.
Oh, they were well written and had lots of pictures to look at. There were interviews and stuff like that, but I started to get the feeling that the people who made these books wanted to talk about this music rather than teach it. The songs they covered were laid out in tablature but there was almost never any kind of general picking pattern that you could use throughout the song. It seemed that playing fingerstyle blues guitar required learning a song notebynote and that seemed impossible to me.
I fought through the tablature until my fingers bled. I’m not being dramatic here. I know that local guitar heroes like to throw that “play until your fingers bleed” line like some kind of macho catchphrase but I can tell you from personal experience that it’s neither macho nor fun.
I ran through this stuff for so many hours that my fingertips looked like they had been chewed up by a cheese grater and still nothing I was doing made any sense. After a few months my left wrist started to swell up and I started tying my hand open with a bandanna handkerchief pinned inside my coat sleeve to brace my hand open when I was in school.
It was maddening because I wanted to play so badly and all I was doing was just that, playing badly. After a few months of putting myself through the wringer I wound up sitting on the back steps with my left hand in a bucket of ice and my right hand holding a guitar that I just couldn’t play. It hit me that I wasn’t going to be able to do this and I just about cried my eyes out.
I gave up for a while. I would run through simple stuff on the guitar but I wasn’t happy because I still couldn’t figure out how to play the way I wanted to play. I stuck to the banjo and told myself that I just didn’t have that “it” that lets you play the guitar. I kept on taking my six-string with me everywhere, but I kind of felt like the guitar had betrayed me somehow.
Right about then Pop took me up to this picking party a friend of ours was putting on. He ran a music shop and was having this sort of get-together for his customers. I brought my guitar but I wasn’t expecting to do much with it.
I was kicking back under the pavilion when this little guy came over. He wanted to show me a banjo he had made. It wasn’t a bad looking banjo, and to top it off there was an elaborate and pretty detailed naked lady inlaid on the resonator. The girl on the banjo was holding a panther on a gold chain and the whole thing was well done but kind of weird. Trust me, when a high school kid sees a picture of a naked woman and can only think wow! That’s kind of weird, you know something isn’t quite right.
“Now what in the hell are you showing a kid that for?”
I looked up and there was this huge old guy talking to the fellow who had made the banjo. “Something wrong with you, buddy? Showing a kid that sort of thing, what are you thinking?”
I tired to tell the big guy that it wasn’t a big deal but he turned to me, pointed to my guitar case, and said “Get your guitar and come with me.”
I started to blow the guy off. I don’t like taking orders and I was still pouting about my lack of any guitar skills so taking my guitar with this guy didn’t seem all that appealing at first. Then I took a look at the guitar he was carrying.
It was a Guild dreadnought and it was just about played to death. The fretboard was all gouged up and the finish was worn off the top of the guitar around the sound hole, but the creepy thing was that everything else on the guitar looked pretty new. It hit me that this guitar was only a few years old and this guy had put all of this wear on it in a fairly short period of time.
I got the feeling that I had better just go along with him and see what was going to happen. This had the potential to get real interesting.
We wandered to the far side of the picnic grounds and he flopped down on the grass, cracked his knuckles and went right into a Mississippi John Hurt song. As he was playing he started talking.
“This isn’t a bad guitar, but it’s already on its second fretboard. I wear them out every few years and once you gouge up the wood on the fretboard bad enough it gets kind of hard to keep hitting the notes just right.”
I couldn’t think of anything to say. I just stood there like an idiot staring at the guy’s hands. His fingertips were so calloused that they looked more like claws, but they were just dancing around the strings.
“You just going to stand there kid or do you want to pick a bit? I don’t care either way, I just didn’t want to leave you with that guy. Naked women with panthers? On a banjo? It’s just wrong”
I shook myself out of my daze and pulled my guitar out of its case. He looked at my chrome-plated Dobro 33H and gave a little nod of approval. “Ah! You play the blues, do you? Let me hear you play something.”
“Maybe I ought to just listen for a while. I can’t seem to figure this stuff out.”
He shook his head. “Let me hear what you’ve got and maybe I can help.”
I figured it would be pretty lame to back out so I started fumbling through one of the songs I had been working on from the guitar books.
When I was halfway though the song I glanced over at the guy and he was just staring at me with this look of horror on his face. I stopped playing and the guy said, “My God, that was so bad I couldn’t even tell what song it was! What do you think you are doing kid? I’ve got to ask because you sure ain’t playing that guitar. That was bad enough to hurt my feelings!”
I threw my arms in the air in exasperation. “That’s the problem, the books don’t make any sense! I keep trying to play these songs and everything comes out sounding like garbage. Man, this just sucks!” I told him about all of the trouble I was having. Then I pulled one of the tab sheets from my guitar case and handed it to him.
“Oh, that book! No wonder you’re so confused. These guys treat everything measure by measure and never tell you how anything works.” He crumpled up the piece of paper in his big claw like hand and threw it back into my guitar case. “Tune up, kid and let me show you how it works.”
We went over the basics together. Play a simple rhythm and sing. Then start messing with the rhythm. He taught me the chord progression to Coffee Blues and My Creole Belle and had me play rhythm while he messed around with the melody.
“Your alternating bass goes through it all the time. Start working on that and always try to make your first bass note the same as the name of the chord you are playing. If it’s a C chord your first bass note should be a C. The second bass note ought to be a five, you know what that is?”
I shook my head and he rolled his eyes and muttered something about books.
“You’ll figure out the five later on. Right now your best bet is to just mess with it and go with what feels right. When you can play the rhythm start moving your fingers around inside the chord form. Play me a D chord. Good, now take your pinky and put it on the first string at the fifth fret and hold on to that D chord. Don’t look at me like that. I know it’s a reach. Now strum that and then lift your pinky off the first string so the ‘normal’ D chord rings out. ”
“Hey, that sounds pretty cool!”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. Now go back to your plain old D chord. Take your ring finger on the second string at the third fret and flatten it out so that you are hitting the first string too. Strum that, and then move your ring finger so it’s just hitting the second string. Now the whole time your middle finger is still on the first string at the second fret, right? Strum that regular D chord and then lift up your middle finger so the first string is open.”
“Now if you keep playing with chords like that you’ll start to find all sorts of melody lines. The trick is to keep the rhythm steady. If you’ve got the rhythm down you’ll be able to fish around and play those melody notes.” He went on to show me a similar idea using the A chord, but told me to figure some G chord variations on my own I told him that this was pretty cool, but it wasn’t what the books said to do. The books said these old blues players were doing something a lot more complicated that that.
“Well, you don’t want to go against that. Those guys have been a real help up till now, haven’t they?”
“Yeah, you’ve got me there. So how do I get this sound? I want it so bad and nothing is working.”
“That’s the problem. You want to do what you call ‘the cool stuff’ right away and that won’t work. You’ve got to build up to it.”
“If I do that will I play like Mississippi?”
He broke out laughing. “Hell no. I’ve been playing longer than you’ve been alive and I can’t play like Mississippi John Hurt. Nobody can. You can only play like yourself.”
“But those guys in the books. . .”
“Oh, you can get a song or two down note-for-note, but that’s not the blues. The guys who do that kind of thing can’t do anything but copy people. The only ideas they ever seem to have were thought up for them by somebody else.”
He leaned back and started running through some song in the key of D. I played rhythm while he kept on talking.
“Mississippi lived his life. You’ve got to live your life. You’re not an old back man from the Delta. You can play the same music and sing the same songs but it’s always going to be different because you’re different people. You’ve got to be yourself, kid.”
He left it at that. We played a few more songs and then my dad wandered over and joined in with his tenor banjo. When it came time to start heading for home I thanked the old guy for giving me the tips and told him that I had a lot to think about. He just grinned at me and said that I would figure it out someday if I just gave myself some time.
Over the next few weeks I started messing with the chord tricks he had shared with me on the D and A chords. When I tried the same sort of thing with a C chord everything came together. By the end of the night I had a simple but cool sounding arrangement of Stagolee put together along with the beginnings of a few other tunes.
I jumped up and started running around the back yard in the rain waving my arms in the air yelling, “I’ve got it! I’ve got it!” like some kind of crazy person.
I may have been a tad overenthusiastic. It took me years to actually get to a point where I even remotely thought of my playing as “good” but the funny thing was that people started complimenting me the first time I played my mongrel version of Stagolee in public. My dad got involved and started playing back up rhythm on his tenor banjo so I wouldn’t start drifting out of the rhythm on more complicated songs. After a while I stopped thinking about Mississippi John Hurt. I just played the guitar the way I thought it should sound and tried my best to make musical sense. What I played changed from what I thought somebody else was doing into what I felt at the moment. I can play Mississippi John Hurt songs nowadays, but I like to twist things around and make the song suit how I feel.
I started out looking for the secret of somebody else’s music and kept coming back confused and frustrated. When I decided to forget all of that and just start playing the guitar I found what I was looking for, and a lot more. I guess you could say I set out to find something in Mississippi only to find out that the answers to my questions were out on my own front porch.
You didn’t think I would tell you that story without showing you what I came up with for Stagolee, did you?
In this tab file I have laid out the chord progression in quarter note strums with some bass runs mixed in. If you look at the chord progression you will see the “melody” is played by fretting the first string in your C and F chords with your little finger.
I wrote this tune out using strums so you would have a chance to work out the picking pattern on your own. The pattern I usually use for this one is “bumpaditty, bump ditty” or four eighth notes followed by a quarter note and two eighth notes. I usually play the first string as a pinch to kick off each measure in order to bring out that first string melody note.
Have some fun with this song and see what you can come up with!
Key of C