In this module: We will be exploring blues rhythms, scales and forms.

  • Students will experience the Bo Diddley beat.
  • Students will learn about riffs and blue notes.
  • Students will learn the chords C, F and G and play from chord charts.
  • Students will learn the 12 bar blues pattern.
  • Students will improvise on a blues scale.
  • Students will create lyrics for a 12 bar form.
  • Students will create a performance incorporating composed lyrics, chordal playing and improvisation.
  • Students will create a Mardi Gras-style performance using singing, moving and playing.

Expanded background & useful links

The Blues Journey

The origins.
The Blues began in African-American communities in the deep south of the U.S.A. towards the end of the 19th Century. It evolved from a number of different musical forms: the spirituals, work songs, field hollers, ring shouts, chants and rhymed simple narrative ballads of African slaves. While no specific African musical form can be identified as the single direct ancestor of the blues, many elements: the call and response format and the use of blue notes and pentatonic scales for example, can be traced back to West Africa.

The form
The term Blues describes both a music genre and a musical form. The12 bar form which uses specific lyrical, harmonic and melodic structures became standard in the 1920s. The blues however takes many forms: 8 bar, 16 bar and even 9 bar. Melodically the blues is characterised by the use of ’blue notes’, the flattened 3rds, 5ths and 7ths of the associated major scale. Rhythmically, the use of shuffles and walking bass to create a groove reinforces the trance-like rhythms and call and response aspects of blues music.

The lyrics
The term “the blues” refers to the “the blue devils”, of sadness, depression, loss and melancholy and, while lyrics concerning lost loves, superstitions, spiritual beliefs, natural disasters, the cruelty of police officers, oppression at the hands of white folk and poverty abound in early blues, the blues could also be humorous and even raunchy. The traditional blues verse was probably a single line, repeated four times. It was only later that the current, most common structure of a line, repeated once and then followed by a single line conclusion, became standard, the so-called AAB pattern.

The early styles and their exponents
The blues that emerged from rural areas became known as country blues and in the early 20th Century widely varied regional styles developed.

  • Mississippi Delta blues was sparse with passionate vocals accompanied by slide guitar. In the 1930s, Robert Johnson was the most famous delta blues man, following in the footsteps of Charley Patton and Son House.
  • Georgia also had an early slide tradition, Tampa Red and Kokomo Arnold representing this style.
  • Piedmont blues came from the east coast and used a more delicate, fingerpicking guitar style. It was based on ragtime rhythms. Blind Willie McTell and Blind Boy Fuller performed this kind of blues.
  • The Memphis blues style was lively and it’s instrumentation, which could include kazoo, washboard, mandolin and fiddle, was influenced by the local jug bands. Memphis Minnie and Sleepy John Estes were it’s most famous exponents.
  • Texas blues was also guitar based. Blind Lemon Jefferson innovated this style using jazz-like improvisations and single string guitar accompaniment. He, in turn, influenced the likes of T Bone Walker and Lightnin’ Hopkins.

The Blues is recorded and becomes popular
In the 1920s the blues became a major element of African American and American popular music. This was largely due to the work of Alabama born WC Handy, teacher, composer, arranger and publisher. He took the blues from a not very well-known regional music style to be one of the dominant forces in American music. The blues left the bars and began to be performed in nightclubs and theatres for white audiences and in juke joints for urban African Americans. The first commercial blues recordings were made in the early 1920s and featured either the traditional country blues or the more sophisticated city blues as performed by the “classic” female urban and vaudeville blues singers Mamie Smith, Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith and Victoria Spivey.

The Blues travels and expands
Two major migrations from rural areas to cities further north took the blues to new audiences and resulted in further modifications to the style. The traditional country sounds of the guitar and harmonica were either being augmented with, or replaced, by the piano. By the time the big band era arrived in the early 1930s, rhythm guitar, drums, bass, saxophone and other brass instruments were helping to create a jazzy, up–tempo sound. Blues musicians in Kansas City, New York, Los Angeles and Chicago were creating new blues styles such as Boogie Woogie, which led to Jump Blues.

Electric Blues 
After World War 2 and into the 1950s a new style of electric blues became popular and Chicago was at its epicentre. As many of its performers had come from the delta region, the style was based largely upon the Mississippi blues. The use of amplified guitars, (sometimes slide) and harmonica, a rhythm section of bass and drums (and sometimes saxophone) characterized the sound while Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Howlin’ Wolf, Elmore James, JB Lenoir, Jimmy Reed, Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson, Walter Horton and later Howlin’ Wolf were among it’s exponents.

The Blues had a baby and they called it Rock ‘n Roll
There is no doubt that the blues had a huge influence on mainstream American popular music and it is thought that Ike Turner’s melding of jump blues and swing combo music in his 1951 composition “Rocket ‘88” produced the first rock & roll song. In 1954 in Memphis, Elvis Presley recorded an up-tempo version of Arthur Crudup’s blues “That’s Alright Mama” and the rest is history.

Britain discovers the Blues
Thanks mainly to American Armed Forces radio and to the enthusiasm of various British jazz musicians and promoters, the blues was also being introduced to British mainstream audiences. In 1963 The Rolling Stones released a Chuck Berry song “Come On” and went on to become the first British blues revival band both to achieve broad-based popularity and advance the genre beyond the mere imitation of old models. Other British bands to have success playing blues based music were: John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, Cream, Fleetwood Mac, The Yardbirds and Ten Years After.

American Blues in the 1960s and beyond.
With the folk revivals of the 1950s and 1960s many of the old country blues performers such as Son House, John Hurt and Skip James enjoyed new popularity. In the 1960s, as in the UK, a new young breed of performers such as Paul Butterfield, Canned Heat, Mike Bloomfield and Johnny Winter continued to carry the blues banner. Meanwhile, guitarist Jimi Hendrix blended the blues with jazz and psychedelia and took the form into the stratosphere. John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf continued performing into their later years while blues legends such as Memphis’ BB King and Chicago’s Buddy Guy are still performing and recording. In the 1980s, guitar virtuoso Stevie Ray Vaughan revived the Texas blues. In the 21st century, John Mayer, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, and Sonny Landreth are but a few who are carrying on the tradition.

Bo Diddley
One of the great Rhythm & Blues/Rock ‘n’ Roll pioneers was the African American artist Bo Diddley (1928-2008). Born Elias Otha Bates, his pioneering approach greatly influenced the likes of Buddy Holly, Eric Clapton, the Yardbirds, The Animals, The Rolling Stones and Jimmy Hendrix. His much-covered songs include Hey Bo Diddley, Who Do You Love, Oh Mona, I’m a Man, Road Runner. His songs incorporated many African traditions, such as call and response, recitative (rapping), ‘toasts and boasts’ etc. His songs often had no chord changes (the musicians played one chord throughout the piece). He also often used a strong maraca presence.

However, Bo is best remembered for two things: a rectangular guitar and ‘the Bo Diddley beat’. This famous beat is like an African version of the latin clave beat. At its simplest, it goes like this:
One and two and three and four and one and two and three and four and …

The Bo Diddley beat has been used by many other artists:
Buddy Holly (Not Fade Away), The Rolling Stones (Please Go Home), The Who (Magic Bus), Elvis Presley (His Latest Flame), Bruce Springsteen (She’s the One), U2 (Desire), Michael George (Faith), Bow Wow Wow (I Want Candy), Aerosmith (Sweet Emotion), Johhny Otis (Willie and the Hand Jive), The White Stripes (Screwdriver), Pat Benatar (Love Is a Battlefield) … to name but a few.

Find out more about Bo Diddley here:

See him play here:

Some other useful links
Delta Blues Museum

You can hear blues music here

You can see the blues here