Do It With Style

We returned this week from our latest National Parks adventure. There’s nothing better than watching the sunrise from an amazing mountain trail to clear your head and give you all the inspiration you could possibly ask for. We’ll continue to work on the Messin’ With The Music series. There are a lot of irons in the fire as far as new original compositions go. I’m often inspired to start writing a song when I hear a certain style of music that catches my attention. I find it doesn’t usually work if you try to carbon copy a style or song. The style is a starting point for the composition. Over the course of putting all the pieces together it should pick up your personality with different timing, chords, instruments and technique.

I think the following songs will provide an example of how a basic song style can underpin a variety of different compositions. The songs are all blues informed guitar music. But the style of the blues incorporated here is a bit more specific than the vast variety that falls under the ‘blues’ moniker. I’m not sure what specific name to give it. I’ve heard it referred to as ‘delta blues’, ‘hill country blues’ or ‘talking blues’ – and I’m sure some musicologist somewhere could give you a correct and exact definition. For me there are several important components. First, the interplay of the guitar and the vocal. The guitar line often matches the melody of the vocal, sometimes note for note as they are played together. Second, the guitar, especially between the vocals, tends to be riff oriented rather than chord based. Finally there is an overall looseness to the playing style that rolls in and out of the song’s basic timing. When you listen to the three songs that are included here, don’t get hung up on the differences in recording style or sonics. Listen for the overall similarities and how each musician takes the style and makes it their own. I picked songs that have a wide span of years between them to accent the recording differences and show how long this style of music has been popular.

First we have ‘Spoonful Blues’ played by Charley Patton. This song is dated as 1929. The songs that have been preserved from this era don’t usually have the sonic quality that you will hear in recordings made as technology advanced. It was probably recorded live in a hotel room somewhere using the technology of the time, a very basic tape recorder or possibly cut directly to vinyl. So the song is just vocal and guitar played at the same time. Again, pick up on the underpinnings – the interplay between the guitar and vocal, the guitar riff and the overall looseness of the song. All the pieces are there. Although this style had already been around for a while, recordings of this era were the first attempt to capture the music and would be important touchstones for musicians who came later.

Next we have a song that couldn’t be more different in terms of recording and guitar sonics. I would imagine most of you have heard ‘Voodoo Child (Slight Return)’ by Jimi Hendrix at some point. The song was recorded in 1968. An amazing display of virtuosity and the possibilities of what could be done with a guitar sonically using electronics. Listen closely. Despite the vast sonic differences the underpinnings are all still there. The guitar and vocal match. The repeating guitar riff between vocals. The looseness of the playing. Another piece is that the guitar and vocal are very prominent in the mix compared to the bass and drums. It’s a great interpretation of the musical style.

To finish our run I’m adding one of our favorites, Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band. This song ‘Clap You Hands’ was recorded in 2010. In some ways it’s a stylistic middle ground between the two previous tunes. His guitar playing style goes back more towards earlier Delta Blues sounds. He even favors vintage guitars in this case playing an electric/acoustic. The recording quality advancements are easy to hear. The sound is clear and there is a lot of separation between the instruments. The drums and washboard are given a more prominent place in the mix which add drive to the sound. But as in all these examples the basics are there. A basic riff between the vocal parts that carries through the song. The guitar and vocal matches in the verses and choruses. The loose playing style especially with the slide parts. A wonderful update of a classic style.

If you get too hung up on musical styles and trying to come up with a style that’s totally ‘original’, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment. When musicians are asked to describe their music you’ll hear every crazy genre and subgenre name you could think of. We all want to be ‘original’. But you can take any style that already exists and add your own personality to it to make it original. Sometimes the best thing is not to over think it. Have fun, hit ‘Record’ and let it fly.

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