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Blues Guitar Lessons: Rhythm and Blues Ballads

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A while back we looked at another
form of blues,
which was the eight bar blues.
And we talked about how the form itself
is a different way of writing songs.
It creates a different story, so
12 bar blues has its standard format
in two lines and an answer and eight bar
blues is a more continuous storyline.
And I think I mentioned then
that it's typical in blues, you
sorta think of these songs as having just
appeared, they grew up out that somewhere.
They're evolved over time and then they
became part of the standard repertoire but
nobody knows who wrote them.
Well in fact, there are lots and
lots of blues that were written back
in the 20s and 30s that were written
by professional songwriters.
They were sitting in an office in
New York City and saying, okay,
what rhymes with blue?
And they're coming up with just ways of,
it was popular music.
They wanted to sell records,
they wanted to sell the songs, and
get people singing their songs.
So, a lot of professional
songwriters wrote blues songs, and
they wrote, in many cases,
over an eight bar format.
Because it's so intuitive the way the
ideas fit together in multiples of two.
So, lots of eight bar blues, and
a lot of them don't follow the 1-4-5
progression that we used in our
first example of eight bar.
In fact,
a lot of them are very sophisticated.
I think of songs like Ray Charles
doing his version of Georgia
written by Hoagie Carmichael.
Chords are moving
all over the place.
It's like the uptown blues that
we talked about with the 1265.
Those chords are everywhere.
And this is true of many of those more
sophisticated eight bar blues which I call
rhythm and blues ballads.
So they're not traditional blues,
it's rhythm and blues,
meaning the more commercial side of blues.
Which combines blues phrasing,
a blues message in a sense of honesty and
dealing with the realities of life.
But late over a little bit more
sophisticated background, so
there are lots of examples of
that kind of song writing.
Same old blues which was
covered by Freddie King,
I think Peter Green did
a version of that as well.
A fantastic guitar player by the way,
Peter Green, definitely check out
his early work with Fleetwood Mac.
You'll also hear,
what's another good one in that style?
Little Willie John also covered by
Peter Greene, I Need Your Love so Bad.
These are ballads, they're sweet,
they're heartbreak and it's romance.
So we're not talking so much about,
the hard core, let's get drunk and fight.
This is much more about romance and
And so, when we play it,
we have to think about those
aspects when we construct a melody.
And that's a challenge,
because the changes are gonna
force us to think outside the box.
When you have the changes moving as they
do in these kinds of songs you can't
rely on your key center as
much as you would like.
So we have to look at strategies but
first lets learn a chord progression.
I'm gonna pick one out
here that's typical, and
the changes that you learn
on this progression.
Will be changes that you'll
see in various shapes and
forms, transferred into
lots of other songs.
It's very common progression, but
it's unique also to this song.
Nobody wants you when you're down and
out, nobody knows you.
I think it was done back
in the 30s by Bessie Smith.
Popular version was done
in the 40s by Louie Jordan.
Eric Clapton did a really well
known version in the early 70s and
redid it as an acoustic
version 20 years later.
So this song has been around,
and it's a challenge.
And I spent a lot of time trying
to figure this thing out.
And just, how the heck do
you approach this thing and
still sound like you're playing the blues,
so let's look at the changes here.
Any of these songs,
you can describe in numbers.
Because, the fact is,
with a song like this, if you play it
with a singer, the singer may say.
Well, yeah, I know that Clapton did it in
A, but Clapton's voice is lower than mine,
and I need to do it in C.
If you don't know it by number,
by relative pitch and
your able to transpose your sunk,
all right?
So, I'll show it to you in A, but
we'll also track the numbers as we go,
just to keep our eye
on the bigger picture.
So, nobody knows you when you're down and
[SOUND] And we'll interpret it using
the same rhythm field that Clapton used.
Now this is not what Bessie Smith used or
Louis Jordan used, but
it's a more traditional rhythm and
blues ballad style, twelve-eight.
So it starts on the A major, and it
goes directly to C sharp dominate seven.
Now ,right away you gotta stop and
think, wait a minute, we're in
the key of eight and C sharp dominate.
What does that have to do with anything?
Well, without getting deep into
theory that's the three chord.
One, two, three.
And being a dominant chord, in theory
terms, means it's the five of something.
And it's the five of six.
in short order here, we go one
three, six, and that's F sharp seven
is also a dominate chord which
is the five of two B minor.
And back again, and
then we work our way to four.
Sharp four diminished, remember that one?
One, six, we remember that.
That's familiar.
Two, we've dealt with that, and five.
three, six
Two, B minor.
F sharp, seven.
B minor.
Now we're gonna walk up to four.
Sharp four diminished.
One down to six.
Two, now it's a dominant chord, just
changed the color of the chord, and five.
And this song,
just cycles like that it
doesn't change at all.
So it doesn't have a B section or
any other changes.
So it makes it a good laboratory
to work on, playing over changes.
So the first thing you wanna do
is develop that rhythm style.
This is a style that you can use
in lots of different situations,
playing over anything with
a twelve eight field.
This is no different than the type of
rhythm part that you would have heard
Steve Cropper play with Booker T and
the MGs on an Otis Redding ballad.
Root in the base and just play
a simple chord voicing, [SOUND] and
just up and down.
And your job is to synchronize with the
drums, lay in there with the cymbal, and
let everybody know what the chord is.
There's nothing fancy, so
major tried it is cool.
Dominant seven, make is as simple as
voicing, you got that sharp seven.
Simple voices, keep everything very
compact and concentrate on the time.
Let me play through the changes one time,
[COUGH] and show you kinda how this works.
All right, couldn't help myself.
Started adding stuff in there.
But you get the idea, that's just
time keeping and a concentration
of playing clean and accurate and
making each change, here right on time.
Some of those voicings you really
have to watch yourself and
make sure your fingers
are positioned accurately.
Its a pretty brisk tempo as well, so
you can practice it at a much slower
tempo, [SOUND] and really nail it.
And then work it up to where
you can feel it at that tempo.
Now, as far as feels and
things that I've played,
there was nothing really
spectacular there by any means.
It's variations on the same thing,
there's our riff chord.
I don't wanna be playing a bunch of
stuff when there's already activity.
All right, and then G.
Now we're on B.
All right, so I'm building around
the chords using the same
tools that we've been using.
[SOUND] Right, [SOUND] it's like I'm
playing a walking line on the B chord.
Okay, that's not the point
of this lesson though is to get fancy.
The point is to nail it down
because we need a good foundation.
Over which we can build a melody, which is
what we're gonna do in the next lesson.
So, practice that chord progression,
get those changes down, and
think about the relationships.
Mark it down and say one to three to six.
And if you listen to the other songs
that I mentioned and listen to those and
mark them down too, you'll see,
yeah, they each go one to three.
That's interesting, and there's that four,
there's that four sharp four.
And the one to six, but
that's six minor, right?
They're all slightly different but
they're all kind of the same.
So you learn this song,
you're gonna be well down the road
toward learning the rest of them.
So learn that rhythm part, come back and
we'll talk about how to play a halfway
decent solo over all of those dang cords.
Now that you got Nobody Knows You When
You're Down And Out under your fingers,
as far as the changes,
and you've had a chance to think about it
a little bit, let's talk about soloing.
Now [SOUND], we're getting to
the fringes of the Blues world here.
And as we did with Uptown Blues,
when you get into the substitute chords,
the sharp four diminish, and
the six, two, five, one.
Some of the same rules apply, but
you have to really watch your step.
And the basic rule of thumb,
and I've said this before,
is when you're playing over
unfamiliar changes, you plan.
You don't improvise.
You play a melody and
you play it convincingly using
your powers of touch and dynamics.
When it's back to familiar changes where
it's like, finally, a chord I recognize.
Then you can improvise because
you've developed a vocabulary.
So this is gonna apply big
time over Nobody Knows You.
Now the missing ingredient so
far is the melody.
It's a song, right?
And so we hear the changes
and that gives us sort
of an idea of how the thing sounds.
But if you hear the melody over the top,
keep in mind it's Blues.
That's what kinda perplexed me when I
heard this song and other songs like it.
Is, man, it sounds so
natural when the singer sings it,
and I could even sing it, sorta,
without knowing anything about the chorus.
But when I pick up the guitar, I'm lost.
I don't know where to go.
So how do I close the gap between
something that sounds so just, yeah,
nobody knows you when you're down and
out, it's just regular old Blues.
But then, you have to think so hard.
So that's where we wanna squeeze those two
sides together until we come up with
something that we can actually use,
So, just sort of an outline of the melody,
it goes [SOUND] once.
I lived the life of a millionaire.
Now, what a song writer would do always,
did it back then, does it today.
They're matching melody and harmony.
So you're not picking chords out of
the air, you're thinking melody, and
then harmonizing the melody, or your come
up with a cool chord progression and
a melody that threads its way through.
So whichever way it happened, in this
case, you get [SOUND], here's your A.
Once I lived the, right,
that's a major scale.
[SOUND] And then it goes to that
C-sharp dominant seven chord [SOUND],
and the melody lands square on the the
seventh degree of the chord [SOUND].
And then [SOUND], millionaire.
Once I lived the life of a millionaire.
All right.
Now that's the melody.
That could be the basis for a solo.
We'll simplify things though,
a little bit, and
keep focused on the elements of phrasing,
rather than introducing new techniques.
There's where the chords are changing.
One, three, and six.
And, if you're not experienced
with changes like that.
That's rocky territory.
So what are you gonna do when
you solo over those cords?
You're not going to improvise.
You're gonna play a melody.
Well, that's the melody of the song.
It's a pretty good to start.
So I could go
Just playing it like a Blues lick.
That works pretty good.
And we know that each one of those notes
has a distinct relationship to the chord
that's going on underneath it, so
I'm guaranteed that if I play those
notes convincingly, I got it made.
Now to take that idea further,
and be able to embellish and
expand, I can take any
note on the A chord.
It starts on A [SOUND].
The melody starts on
the third degree of A.
But I can pick another chord tone and
see how can I link that melodically
through those other changes.
[SOUND] Start with A, for example.
The next chord is C sharp 7.
So I compare the [SOUND]
with C sharp 7 [SOUND].
And then where's F-sharp?
[SOUND] There's another melody [SOUND].
Once I lived the life of a millionaire.
That melody works pretty good, too.
So, [SOUND] melody number one.
I'm literally repeating the vocal melody.
Melody number two.
I'm playing
I'm playing another line that follows
the same path, using different notes,
but it navigates through
the chords one step at a time.
And so forth.
Pick another note on A and
find another relationship.
So that's sort of a plan for how to get
through the first part of the solo.
I'll pick the melody.
I like the melody.
So I'm gonna play the melody
right off the top.
So I've got [SOUND].
Now how do I play it?
I play it like I'm playing Blues.
In other words, I don't hold back.
I think about how I can phrase it.
And if I was singing it,
I would once, I'd
Now I'm on F-sharp.
What do I do on F-sharp?
Well, I'm just gonna hold that note for
a second.
What comes next?
And then F-sharp and B-minor.
Well, for a second there, I can hear
It's like I'm playing a minor Blues just
for a little bit, just for two bars.
But that's okay,
that's familiar territory.
So now I can improvise a little bit.
So I got [SOUND], oops.
I got my plan.
Now I'm gonna play some Blues.
What's the next cord?
It's D, to G-sharp diminished, to A.
Okay, what could I do there?
Well, in the back of my mind,
I can think what would BB do?
I bet BB King would sound
pretty good over this thing.
And [SOUND], there's D.
Get in that BB position.
Play the sweet notes.
Let your ear be your guide and you can
find your way through the D [SOUND],
D-sharp [SOUND], A [SOUND], and
even all the way to F-sharp.
Then we land on B7.
And B7, well, that's a Blues-y chord.
That's the two chord, but it lasts at
least for a whole bar, thank goodness.
And back to E.
Now, E is a five chord.
And I'm back home again.
So let me sort of line those
ideas up in a row, thinking wise.
Playing my melody.
Blues and B.
And I'm back home again.
So I planned out the first two bars.
I gave myself the freedom to
improvise over the next two bars.
I improvise a little a bit, but within
very narrow boundaries on the D-sharp,
A to F-sharp,
where it's moving fast, but I can.
I can use my ear, and find notes in
there that don't require much variation.
And it's all about touch,
and timing, and attitude.
And then it lands on B, and I say
I'm home again.
Now, let's see if that works.
Play that over the changes and
see if that strategy actually holds water.
Okay, here we go.
That was just,
I don't even know what that was.
I played it pretty much by
the book the first time, so
I think you could hear that.
[LAUGH] So I got my melody, and
then I improvised a little bit.
Then, what would BB do?
Okay, got that.
And then when it finally settled down
on that B chord, yeah, I can do that.
And then here I'm five,
one, I'm home free again.
And then, to go to the next course,
because the melody dropped me off in
a different place, I started to improvise.
Now, I played this song a bunch of times,
so I've got ideas that I can
spontaneously reorganize.
And so I went A.
And what did I say to myself?
I said there's A, and I can see this
shape of the C-sharp chord there, so
I just aim for that note, and that's gonna
be a good one, cuz it's in the chord.
Here's F-sharp.
And then B
And then BB King.
And then, where am I?
Or whatever.
That's where we get to the point of
just playing what you're hearing and
what you're feeling, and
kinda throwing everything in the pot and
seeing what comes out.
Listen to Clapton's version of that.
He goes on for quite a few choruses.
And what you'll find as you listen,
is that that way
of shaping the phrases
is pretty much the plan.
I'm not saying he's thinking those notes,
he's got the same exact little
strategy that I just described.
But when I hear him play,
I think I know what he's doing.
I think I know where he's going,
because I think I know
how he's grouping his chords together to
deal with the familiar and the unfamiliar.
So, that strategy of plan,
when they're unfamiliar,
improvise when they're familiar.
But in both cases, use the same touch,
the same attitude.
To the audience, they don't know, they
don't know when you're making it up or
when you're playing something
you've played 1000 times.
So that's your ace in the hole,
is that you're always relying
back on your Blues foundation.
Mess around with that thing,
this is kind of a master's
thesis of playing Blues here.
But play the changes, and devise a solo,
and send it to me, and we'll talk.
I'd love to hear what
you're doing on this song.
All right, have fun with that one.