Flashy guitar players always get my attention.
I love their fancy techniques and fast fretboard skills. It takes a lot of practice and dedication to the instrument to play at that level. But as cool as that is, Delta Blues taught me a lesson in the opposite direction.
Less is More
Playing less leads to more space and that helps the music breathe. It gives the part a chance to say something real with fewer notes. Take this example in the style of Robert Johnson’s, Kind-Hearted Woman Blues:
This part has space. The rhythm has a shuffle feel but the bass notes aren’t busy. We’re not playing the Sweet Home Chicago style rhythm pattern. Instead, the bass notes are spread out and give the space for the chords and melody to shine through.
For me, “less is more” is about stripping things down to only what’s essential. This way of thinking creates space. So try this when you’re jamming or writing:
Strip away everything from a part until you can’t take anything else away and what you’re left with is real and raw.
Yes, sometimes you need to cut loose and show off those hard won guitar techniques. But keeping “less is more” in mind has helped me avoid constantly overplaying.
That one mindset shift has made me a better player.
Play in the Moment
My favorite old Delta Blues records from Charlie Patton, Robert Johnson and Son House feel “in the moment” – they had to be!
Tools like ProTools, pitch correction and even overdubs didn’t exist back then. What got recorded was truly a record. A record of a moment in time. These old records are a perfect reminder of how to be present and play in the moment when performing.
It’s good to get lost in the music even if that means that unintended things happen on the guitar.
Take this section from a Kind-Hearted style jam:
There’s a measure of 6/4 before the chord change. It happened naturally as I wrapped up the longer-than-planned lick.
You could think of this as a mistake. But, these types of happy accidents create so much character in Delta Blues.
Maybe you’re jamming by yourself and you need an extra beat or two because:
- you’re singing and you need time to take a breath or
- you’re playing a sweet guitar lick that went on longer than planned,
Give yourself permission to take the extra beat.
It might just help your performance sound more in the moment. This freedom has helped me be less rigid when I play.
Don’t Forget to Have Fun
Chances are when you think of Delta Blues you think of Robert Johnson or my favorite, Charlie Patton. They ARE Delta Blues. But they each recorded songs that might challenge your idea of Delta Blues.
Robert Johnson’s, They’re Red Hot smacks of Ragtime music. So does Patton’s Shake it and Break It.
Debatable. But knowing these fun songs were in their repertoire taught me a valuable lesson:
Don’t Forget to Have Fun
As a full-time guitar instructor – guitar is life. At times, I’ve been guilty of using all my guitar time to practice. To study and improve. This kind of focus is helpful to get better, but it has to pair with a bit of fun.
Songs like these helped snap me out of that. They didn’t seem to take themselves too seriously.
The weird thing is, exchanging some of my intense practice time for having fun helped me play better. The more fun I was having, the more I wanted to learn and the more learning felt like a true joy. My biggest leaps as a guitar player came after I changed my mindset.
Yes, there’s work to learning the guitar – we can’t ignore that – but keep this in mind:
Playing guitar is fun!
Enjoy the journey and I’ll see you in the next lesson until then practice smart and…