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What the Heck is Piedmont Blues?

Every month, I would wait (not so patiently) for the latest Guitar World magazine to show up in my parents’ mailbox. As a youngster learning guitar, all I wanted to do was devour those pages filled with guitar’s greatest heroes.

what the heck is piedmont blues

I learned some great stuff from those magazines, no doubt.  There was a definite rock and metal slant to the publication with only the occasional blues nod.

But now as a slightly aged version of that youngster, I wish I would have opened my mind and my ears as much as I opened those pages.

For some reason, I was an avid reader for years and I never read about Piedmont Blues.

Not once.

Not nice, Guitar World.

(I’m only kidding, you know I love you).

A Bit About the Piedmont Blues

This style of blues is so unique even when compared to its close cousin, Delta Blues.

Like Delta Blues, Piedmont Blues gets its name from the region of the US where the style originated. The Piedmont region stretches from Northern Virginia to North Georgia.

The brand of blues that grew up in this region in the 1920s and 30s was mostly fast finger picking with alternating bass lines and a real ragtime feel.

Two of my favorite Piedmont guitarists were absolute geniuses on the guitar.

Both of them blind.

Blind Blake: The First Guitar Virtuoso?

I have no idea who the first guitar virtuoso was.  If you do, please let me know. But let me submit Blind Blake as a candidate. This guy was an acoustic finger picking wizard. Incredibly technically proficient, yet soulful. A rare combination.

From the first time I heard his tune, Southern Rag, I was absolutely hooked.

Mind. Blown.

History doesn’t give us much information on Blake’s life, but he did leave us with 80 or so brilliant recordings that will take guys like me a lifetime to figure out. Unfortunately for us guitarists, no video of Blake playing exists (that I can find). As a stand in, let me share a great performance of his “Too Tight Blues”.

If you’d like to get a glimpse at playing in Blake’s style, check out this cool country blues lick.

Blind Willie McTell, 12 String Songster

Another Piedmont legend, Blind Willie McTell is perhaps best known as the guy who penned Statesboro Blues. This song was famously covered by the Allman Brothers in the early 70s. My personal favorite of McTell’s is Broke Down Engine Blues.

Here’s an excellent performance of Broke Down Engine from a true purveyor of the style, Toby Walker.

McTell used 12 string guitars which gave his playing a fullness and sheen that’s truly his own. Twelve strings are a little more difficult to play, but McTell seemed to keep all held together with ease.

Blind Willie’s songs are full of colorful stories – some dark, some light.  To my ears, McTell allows his guitar to support the song.  But he reminds you he’s a technical player with quick runs flawlessly woven in between some seriously rhythmic strumming.

Piedmont Masters

These are just two Piedmont Blues Masters, there are more that are equally mind blowing.  These guitarists may never grace the cover of a Guitar World, but they are definitely worth checking out if you’re into blues. If you’re into acoustic blues, they’re pretty much required listening.

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