When Jimi Hendrix first exploded onto the scene, much attention was riveted on his radical reinvention of guitar-soloing vocabulary, technique and sound, inspired by a now-familiar roster of great blues soloists. But Hendrix had another musical asset that set him apart from similarly influenced British blues-rock contemporaries: years of experience as a professional R&B rhythm guitarist.
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A mere decade after T-Bone Walker established the template for electric blues guitar in the mid Forties, the sound of the instrument was already beginning to evolve into something louder, faster and more out of control. On the cutting edge of guitar mania was a 17-year-old lad from Los Angeles known as Young John Watson.
Tremolo is the technique of sustaining (actually rearticulating) a note with fast, controlled alternate picking (not to be confused with amp tremolo, which varies the volume). Tremolo originated as a way to maintain notes on acoustic stringed instruments beyond their natural decay time to emulate the long, sustaining notes of the human voice or a wind instrument. While the electric guitar offers other options for sustaining a note, tremolo picking a simple melody gives it a kinetic quality that can transform it into something energetic and memorable and create a virtual “wall of sound.”
A blues phrase is made up of three ingredients: what you play (the notes), when you play (rhythm) and how you play (your touch and sound). When players focus mainly on the what—scale patterns, arpeggios, picking technique and so on—the result tends to be a solo with lots of notes in constant motion, but if you change your focus to the when and how, you can deliver a breathtaking solo while barely moving your fretting hand.
Last month we examined the role of the picking hand, particularly the use of bare fingers, in creating dynamics and adding dimension to your phrasing. Early in the electric blues era, this bare-handed approach was especially popular among “down-home” (rural southern) players, who also developed a variation on bare-fingered technique called chicken pickin’. The musical potential of imitating hens clucking in a barnyard may be somewhat limited, but the technique also opens the door to a variety of funky, percussive phrases.
Fifty years ago, during the short interlude between Elvis and the Beatles, there was a brief sighting of that rarest of species: the “instrumental hit record.” Riding on the coattails of surf music came a spate of non-vocal bestsellers in styles ranging from cool R&B (Booker T. & the MGs’ “Green Onions”) to funky piano jazz (Ramsey Lewis’ “The In Crowd”) to shuffle blues (Freddie King’s “Hide Away”).
By the early Sixties, the blues branch of the popular music tree was rapidly thinning. One of the main factors contributing to its demise was rhythm. After decades of dance-floor popularity, triplet-based shuffles and swing grooves had started to be viewed as decidedly old-school, eclipsed by the straight-eighth-note-based rhythms of R&B and rock and roll.