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--- Mar 24 1999 Go to category
Subject: blues
Category: General Questions
From: ben atkinson (mill valley, ca)

I'll start out by acknowledging I am treading on tricky ground. My question is, do you ever play a straight blues?

A little background to the question is in order. I am a self-taught rock/blues/pop type guitar player, can't read music. My dad is a great Jazz pianist who understands theory, etc. Needless to say, our styles are different. We don't even agree on what "blues" is. He considers much that, to my untrained ears, is far from what I think of as blues. But he thins of them as blues.

What we can agree on is what a straight twelve bar blues format is, and that beyond a certain level of departure from the blues style of robert johnson, muddy waters, bb king, buddy guy, you arrive at Jazz, or at least something that is no longer straight blues. By the way, we each love many of the same musical things (miles davis, parker, coltrane, bill evans).

That was a lot of background, but one thing I do not recollect ever hearing you approach in concert or on record is a simple gut-bucket 12 bar major or minor blues where the only opportunity for showing sophistication or complexity is in how you interpret the same form that every other blues player uses. I know that my generalization of "every other blues player" is fraught with peril, I hope you will indulge the definition.

Can you get into the idea of trying to "make something from nothing" by playing the same three chords but in your own unique way on, say, Crossroads or Love in Vain? I would love to hear you play something that "simple", but I know you like to play what your inner fan wants. What does your inner fan think about an exercise like that?

P.S. I love your live shows, I've seen about 15 over the last 15 years. I have never seen you, or your bandmates, give anything but all you have to give. Your dedication is an inspiration to me in thinking how to approach life.

Pat’s Answer:

hi ben,

well, first of all, i would have to say that almost every attempt i have ever heard of someone trying to define what the "pure" or "straight" version of a particular idiom is, is almost always a futile act. particularly when it comes to a very complex subject like the one of how music has developed in america over the past 150 years. pretty much all of the (relatively) shorthand answers that you read about in books by self appointed custodians of whichever branch of the tree that they are interested in (that they are trying to define), fall flat in the face of the actual music. i guess by now, it is known that i am skeptical of the very idea of idiom in the first place when it comes to music, and particularly as we progress more and more in a world where people all over the planet have access to all the music that has ever been recorded, it will be harder and harder to prop up the often nationalistic, sometimes racially motivated myths of purity in music that for some reason continue to fester in the minds of people who use music as way to define who they are as people, rather than to just listen to it.

ok, having said all that, sure, i know what you are talking about. to me, in order to play the blues and for it to have meaning, you have to tell your own story in your own words. to adopt the mannerisms, techniques and "idiomatic effects" of a master and ape them in the name of authenticity to a "pure" style is, to me, to automatically disqualify you from singing your own song. for me, everything i play is the blues. sometimes i get much closer than others to the level of human expression that i want to release than others. i would say that the guys that you and i would probably agree are the best "blues" players are among the most successful musicians ever at manifesting into sound their reality as people. the same way they aspire to communicate the things that they have found to be true, so do i - and i hope to be as consistently effective at it someday as they are - in my own voice.