Red Writes about the Blues
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  Talkin' Blues Guitar
   Article Series by Lightning Red
Originally Published in the
Delta Snake Review Webzine

Lightning Red and his series on the origins of the modern electric blues,
and the techniques and hardware used by the legends to get their unique sounds.
Part Two: The Beginnings of the Chicago Sound

Many young players have asked me how I'm able to reproduce or generally simulate the sounds of such blues guitar legends as B.B.King Albert King, Freddie King, Albert Collins, John Lee Hooker or Stevie Ray Vaughan.

As I've learned by watching and listening to these and countless other great blues guitarists, I may be able to shed some light on a few of the mysteries surrounding the execution of this uniquely American art form.

Since I am most knowledgeable of modern electric guitar, this will be our primary focus. Future topics will cover modern player techniques, axes and equipment, blues tunings, string gauges, fingering techniques, string bending, new amplifier combinations, and whatever topics that may be of interest.

I welcome any input, suggestions, comments, etc. If you note an inaccuracy in anything you read, please let me know. All of us are continually learning.

Contents © 1997  Lightning Red


Those who I would call the founders of the Chicago or Texas ensemble style electric or modern blues guitar each had a more-or-less favorite brand of guitar that they preferred. Each guitarist, no matter what instrument they chose for a particular recording session or performance, had a distinctive sound.

In some cases their unique audio imprint was due to the guitar/amplifier combination used, while in other instances the playing style was sufficient to determine their unique sound. Although I'm certainly not an expert on these matters, perhaps I can assist the beginning or intermediate-level blues guitarist to capture the sounds that form the foundation of modern blues.


Muddy Waters and the Fender Sound:

I believe it's now time to introduce the Fender solid-body line of guitars. When Muddy Waters (McKinley Morganfield) began his stint as king of the Southside Chicago blues scene, he hadn't yet discovered the Fender Telecaster guitar. An early publicity shot shows a Gibson Les Paul solid-body guitar very similar to Freddie King's hanging in front of him. But it was not very long before he nearly exclusively worked his slide (something else we'll investigate at a later time) up and down the neck of his beloved Telecasters.

The Telecaster was the first successful line of guitars that Leo Fender marketed (the prototype being the Broadcaster, which is usually impractical for performing because of it's tendency to excessively feedback and squeal).

It is basically a slab of wood and sports two single-coil pickups, the one toward the bridge having a very high-pitched, "slicing" quality that many players have taken full advantage of, especially Albert "The Iceman" Collins and Roy Buchanan. Single coil pickups have a more biting, immediate sound than do the "fatter" mid-ranged double-coil Humbuckers.

Muddy was a slide player extraordinaire. He would use a bottle-neck on his little finger and play electrifying runs and melodies sometimes on only one string. His licks often coincided perfectly with his vocals and he liked to quickly switch from the "treble," bridge pickup to the "mellow" one located near the end of the fretboard. The Telecaster sports only one volume and one tone control which effect both pickups equally, and many players revere it for its simplicity.

Muddy found out early that the hollow-bodied guitars, which have holes cut out off the front of the body, "f-holes," would feedback through the amplifier when he tried to play over the noisy crowds in the Southside blues clubs of Chicago. So he moved to solid-bodies, and experimented with Les Pauls and maybe other types before settling on the Telecaster. Now he could crank up the amp loud enough to be easily heard. And throughout his career he used that volume intensity when it was needed.

I've heard him play very softly in a high school gymnasium when the horrible acoustics would have been a nightmare at higher volume. Many times he would crank that Fender amplifier until his slide screamed and my hair would stand on end. And it's usually a sure bet that when the "bright," treble pickup is blasted through a Fender amplifier, the sound will slice right through you. But Muddy Waters also knew how to use the mellower "neck" pickup to its full advantage. He could get a very deep delta-like moan that was straight from Mississippi.

In his early days Muddy was the "Man" on the Chicago Southside. As he matured, he took his place as the Father of modern Chicago blues and became a legend throughout the world. He also created the standard blues band ensemble, drums, bass guitar, piano, blues harp (harmonica) and guitars. His easy loping rhythm and frantic moanful slide work have inspired blues guitarists everywhere. I strongly suggest you spend some time with his early Chess recordings and his better later work. It may seem challenging at first listen, but a few attempts to reproduce his sound will quickly prove otherwise.

Buddy Guy and Luther Allison: The Later Disciples (PHOTO)

Buddy Guy and Luther Allison, disciples of Muddy's, were the next performers I saw using Fender guitars, but they had discovered the more "sexy" streamlined Stratocaster. In those days a Strat could be had for $225 dollars. It was dwarfed in price by the company's Jaguar and Jazzmaster models. (I traded my first guitar, a Sears and Roebuck fiberglass body and metal-neck Dan Electro for a gorgeous sunburst Jazzmaster and quickly had the bridge pickup sent to Nashville and over-wound to sound more like a Telecaster.) Although both of them preferred to play their Gibson slim-line hollow-bodied 335's, Luther told me he played the Stratocaster because the audience liked it.

Buddy and Luther were like brothers. To me they looked and sounded extremely alike. Buddy was playing his Strat exclusively early on. It was even used when he was a session player at Chess Records in the early sixties. Luther always rehearsed with his beloved Gibson and played it as much as he felt the crowd would allow. Even today you can occasionally see a Gibson hanging from his neck, and although me plays a myriad of different axes, you seldom see him burdened with a Fender Stratocaster. I am extremely happy for Luther Allison's recent success. He is a fine father and a great person.

Buddy Guy on the other hand has a Fender Stratocaster line of guitars made in his honor. Although he prefers the dotted black and white one with the standard single-coil pickups, he is often seen playing the hell out of his custom-made cream model with the red pickguard and Fender Lace Sensor pickups. We will talk more in-depth about pickups in upcoming articles, but I just want to note that the highly overdriven sound he gets when playing furious lead lines suggests he's using the hotter versions of the Fender Lace Sensors. Maybe a red at the bridge and possibly middle position, and a blue in the middle and/or neck position.

The traditional single-coil pickup Stratocaster has three pickups: One near the bridge, one near the end of the fretboard, and one in the middle. The older models have a switch that allows you to choose one of these three pickups. Newer models allow five choices, bridge pickup, bridge and middle pickups, middle pickup, middle and neck (end of fretboard) pickups, and neck pickup.

In the older models one can get the five choices mentioned by gingerly placing the pickup selector switch between two of its three normal positions. Doing this correctly allows two pickups to be used simultaneously. The sound produced in this way causes the pickups to be out of phase (more on this later) and a thinner, more tinny sound is produced. A lot of C&W players used to do this.

As I recall Buddy Guy has said he preferred the sound he got when using the neck and middle pickups simultaneously. If you listen to early records with Jr. Wells, I think you'll hear it, especially when he strums some chords. Remember the song "Shaft"? I believe the Chicago Soul sound utilized a Fender Strat in this way. It has a truly funky sound and I like to use it on "Snatch It Back And Hold It" in live performance and in a lot of rhythm guitar tracks in the studio. And listen to Buddy's first Silvertone Records release. I think you'll hear it there as well.

Well, we've moved from hollow body electrics to solid-body Fenders. Please check out my next article for information on many more great guitar players and the techniques and guitars they love.


Best Blues to ya',

Lightning Red has been playing blues guitar for over 40 years. Although he credits Luther Allison with showing him some "serious licks", he also cites B.B.King and Buddy Guy as major influences. After moving from the Chicago area to Austin, Texas in the mid-seventies, Red began absorbing the state's rich blues heritage and was a favorite of Houston legends Joe ‘Guitar’ Hughes and Milton Hopkins. When Jimmie Lee, Kim Wilson and Stevie Ray Vaughan were unknown club performers honing their craft, Red was there listening closely and witnessed their rocky rise to stardom.

He also performed locally and played on stage with W.C. Clark, Omar, and "little" Charlie Sexton, Marcia Ball, Willie Nelson and a host of legends. His music has an original sound and is a blend of Chicago and Texas – Texicago blues. Red tours the world with the acclaimed acoustic duo LZ Love & Lightning Red, and with his own electric band. Often seen performing at blues festivals, he gets accolades and widespread airplay for his songs and legendary guitar skills.

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