Last weekend’s Wall to Wall Guitar Festival got me thinking about a lot of things. One being the logistics of a room filled wall to wall with guitar upon guitar and the problems it would pose both as a spectator and a player. Another was the blues, in general. B.B. King, Eric Clapton and Buddy Guy – who was featured at the fest – come to mind when we think of the blues, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Electric blues is powerful, colorful and beautiful at its best. There are times, however, it seems watered down, too smooth and slick. The beauty of blues is that it can be simple enough for anyone to play, but the form allows musicians to excel in ways other genres couldn’t dream of. When played with an electric, with the smooth neck, the easily bent strings and the effects pedal, the guitarist just needs to strum to sound bluesy. When compared to an acoustic guitar, it’s like a calculator vs. an abacus; the electric does all the work for you.
Sure it sounds great and some people play electric like magicians, but the blues has got to hurt. Not just in the heart and soul but the fingers, wrist and body as well. In acoustic blues, blues by Robert Johnson or Blind Willie Johnson, you can feel their bodies ache as their voices shout and howl. That style, the one man on an old guitar, is what the blues is about.
You hear these old, almost ancient recordings of men bending tired strings and sliding down fading frets, and it’s hard to think of the blues as anything else; especially anything played by the uninspired John Mayer.
Acoustic blues has just as many limitations as electric, but there’s something there that as time goes by seems to disappear. Maybe it’s the grainy recording quality or the immediacy in their voices. It might even be the memories of slavery still on the nation’s mind and the disparity of the south and in the cities, but it makes you feel something deep inside. The blues of either Johnson or even the smooth talking Mississippi John Hurt isn’t just a musical genre, it’s their life.
Guy and King keep the art alive, and founding electric artists like T. Bone Walker or Howlin’ Wolf brought it to the foreground with soul and passion, but, for me, it can’t ever be the same.
On a purist snob level, all those statements hold true. But as a guy that loves music and likes to shout at concerts, great music is great, regardless of knobs, pickups or string gauges. Blues, like folk music, is great on any level because it’s inherently pleasant and meaningful; it’s part of being human and strikes a chord with most people. Acoustic or electric, what blues musicians are doing is playing heart strings. But again, on a purist snob level, the gritty, dirty blues of the early 20th century is how it’s best done.
You can tell Brian he knows nothing about the blues at firstname.lastname@example.org.