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How I Started Playing Blues Guitar - Keith Wyatt

hudson hornet

I was drawn to the sound of guitars and blues long before I knew anything about either one. My earliest musical memory is of “Heartbreak Hotel” blasting out of the dashboard of my parents’ Hudson Hornet; I must have heard hours of music from that same radio, but that’s the only bit that stuck.

A few years later, guitar instrumentals by artists like the Ventures, Link Wray, and Booker T & the MGs made my hair stand up. As rock & roll morphed into rock, the guitar-based sounds of the Kinks and Stones, then Hendrix, Cream, Zeppelin, and Beck overshadowed everything else. Guitar rang loud and clear, but even after I started playing I didn’t fully appreciate the blues connection.

My heroes raved about guys named Johnson and King, but what little “real” blues I actually heard sounded kind of old and scratchy - I appreciated it more than I was inspired by it. That all changed a few years later when - now driving my own car - I heard Albert King’s “The Sky is Crying” and had to pull over. I got it.

The next step was to learn it. Blues method books, let alone videos, did not yet exist so the only way was to search out obscure records, keep dropping the needle, and guess at what I was hearing and how it was done.

As imperfect as this early blues education was, it paid off during my very first experience in a recording studio. After listening to my half-baked, self-conscious stabs at rock heroics, the producer said “Is that all you got? Maybe we’ll just skip the guitar solo.”

Desperate to avoid humiliation, I substituted a much simpler and much more musical B.B. King lick; it saved the day and also provided a fundamental musical lesson: “if you don’t hear it, don’t play it.”

By the mid-70s my musical tastes began to run chronologically backwards. I was far less interested in new records by Zep and the Stones than in classics by Otis Rush, Buddy Guy, and Freddie King. Rock shows were becoming increasingly elaborate and theatrical, but live blues was still rough-edged and spontaneous. Blues was certainly not immune to changes in style, but at its core it was beyond fashion; it was music for adults that expressed real-life experience. As Albert Collins put it, “Blues is nothing but the truth,” and the truth persists over time.

I was plenty inspired, but after concluding that my patched-together music education was not up to the task I moved to LA in 1977 to attend a brand-new music school called the Guitar Institute of Technology. It was a struggle to stay afloat under the massive onslaught of information, but after it was over and things settled down again I found that what I had learned, far beyond techniques and theories, was how to make musical sense of what I heard and how to connect my hands to my imagination. In other words, I felt like a real musician.

guitar institute of technology

GIT was growing fast and soon after graduation I returned and joined the staff. Most students at the time were captivated by fusion, jazz, and the rising tide of shred, but a few years later when Stevie Ray Vaughan emerged as a major guitar hero he re-ignited interest in blues.  The ‘60s generation of guitar heroes built rock on a blues foundation, but since then the process had reversed and most players, like myself, approached blues from the perspective of rock. As a teacher, peeling back the layers of tunes like “Pride and Joy” was a great way to introduce new generations of players to icons like Jimmy Reed and maybe inspire a few to keep going.

As a player, blues became the core of my style but I’m definitely not a purist who concentrates on replicating bygone eras or avoids other influences - my rock roots still show and I like to slam a good power chord now and then. To me, blues is not limited to a particular set of techniques or traditions; it expresses a set of universal musical values - listening, breathing, swing, interaction, touch - that transcend categories, and with those values under your belt you’re a stronger player no matter where your musical imagination takes you.

robert johnshon, walking blues 78When Muddy Waters learned Robert Johnson’s “Walking Blues” he went to the store, bought the 78, took it home, cranked up his Victrola and kept dropping the needle until he wore it out. Today we can instantly download almost any song ever recorded, but the fundamental blues learning process has not changed - it’s still listen, play, repeat, and dig deeper. The ultimate goal of learning blues is also the same as it was for Muddy - not to play it exactly like they used to, but to absorb the inspiration, give it your own, personal touch and make every note count.

To this day, when I get ready to play the next chorus I still hear that blunt, cold-blooded voice from 40 years ago saying: “Is that all you got?” 

blues guitar lessons with keith wyatt

Learn blues guitar online with Keith Wyatt at http://artistworks.com/blues

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