Early Years As A Blues Guitarist

Early Years As A Blues Guitarist Hi Everyone,

In this first blog I want to write about my early years as a Blues guitarist. I have not talked about my early years that much so this is a good opportunity to do so.
It will also be an eye-opener for many of my fans that may not know that the first 10 years of my guitar playing career I played only Blues. My two older brothers were way into guitar and they exposed me to the Blues of John Mayall, Paul Butterfield, Muddy Waters, BB King, Jimi Hendrix.

I really believe that that period taught me how to pull out the expression from the guitar. I learned to play lots of Blues solos and riffing songs. I learned how to bend strings, how to control vibrato, how to slide up and down into notes, how to use dynamics, how to use my volume knob on the guitar to control the guitar’s gain. I also strived to copy the sound I was hearing in the guitar amplifier tones.

I remember learning Hideaway from the John Mayall Blues Breakers album. An instrumental guitar song that was very melodic and soulful, truly a great performance by Eric Clapton in his prime. Hendrix too with the likes of Red House had some great Blues playing.

From there, naturally we formed a band, my brother and I, with a drummer and we prepared an entire set of Blues songs from the albums we were listening to and I started playing live professionally at the ripe young age of 13.

To this day I believe that Blues is absolutely essential to the guitar. Side-stepping the Blues is a big mistake in my book! Why, because the Blues teaches expression. It teaches how to make the guitar scream, cry, squeal, roar and sing. Young players are often drawn to fast players. Fast playing, without feel can leave a listener cold! Many Blues players don’t play a lot of notes and so young players may not really understand the significance of what is being played. If one’s ears turn toward the emotional content of what’s being played instead of the technical, sport-like speed or intellectual content, then one can begin to understand the significance of the Blues and how it can help one to play the guitar more passionately.

I transcribed songs and solos by ear for about the first 10 years. I learned everything by ear one phrase at a time. It was a slow process and it took a lot of patience, not just to find the notes, but also thereafter, to play them in time with the recording. Hours just flew by chiseling away at the guitar one phrase after another. I listened very carefully. I listened for the real subtleties. Were the notes straight, that is, without vibrato or slide? Which notes did have vibrato? How much vibrato? I listened to the bends. Was it a half step or a whole step bend? Was it in tune or slightly flat to create extra tension. Was it a combination of vibrato and bend? Was the note held still and then the vibrato came in after it reached the pitch or was is the vibrato happening all the way through the bend?

Feel is learned. It’s appreciating the nuances, the finer details. Notes can be played robot-like, with no vibrato, bends or expression, but who want to do that? The emotional content is derived by the expression and attention to detail of each and every note.

It is easy to tell the difference between and young amateur player and a veteran. People often say “so and so can play one note and it gives you goose bumps while others can play a thousand notes and I don’t feel anything!”. What then is really happening? I don’t think it’s a question of how many notes are being played as much as it how much effort is going into each note being played. Every note is important and every note is an opportunity to express one’s self.

I practiced a lot playing a single notes and worked on all the possible ways to play that note. An A note on the 5th fret of the high E string could also be played on the 10th fret of the B string. What’s the difference? Each string has a different resonance because of the thickness of the string and the length. The A note on the 5th fret of the high E string has a longer string than the 10th fret on the B string, so it sounds different. Yes, it’s subtle, but, depending on the phrase, one can be a better choice than the other.

That same A note can be reached by bending a whole step up from the G at the 8th fret of the B string or a half step below bending the G# at the 9th fret to the A. This gives the player a large measure of control over the vibrato. There are two kinds of vibrato, and in my opinion, one is much better than the other. It is very subtle, but again, it is these subtle differences that separate the pros from the amateurs. Here’s the difference. If one frets the A note at the 10th fret of the B string and then applies vibrato from the fretted pitch, the vibrato results in the actual note, plus a vibrato which is essentially the slightly sharpened pitch above the fretted note. The other way, that is, bending the string from below the note either a half step or a whole step below the note results in the actual pitch, but the vibrato is waver above and below the A note pitch. In other words, the A pitch is in the center of the vibrato instead of only above the pitch. The result is a more pleasing vibrato with pitch being centered instead of only the actual note plus a sharpened pitch. I did say it’s a subtle thing, but I learned that I have much more control when I approach the pitch of a note from below so that I can vibrato on either side of the note. It’s more work, but the result is a sweeter note and a sweeter vibrato and a better expression.

In my next blog I will talk about some other stumbling blocks that I encountered along the way.

This is Frank Gambale saying…happy learning!

Please let Frank know your comments on this post below!