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 Four: Modern Electric Blues Guitarists

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


I would like to devote this installment to some of the more 'contemporary' blues guitarists who have taken the sounds of urban blues on to another creative dimension. While every player involved in the British rock "invasion" of the late sixties can legitimately claim a musical indebtedness to American blues, I will concentrate on those performers all of us consider to be primarily blues guitarists. The upcoming installment on Slide Guitar will cover players who would ordinarily have been written about here and in earlier segments, especially Earl Hooker. Once again, please forgive me for anyone I may have overlooked.


Mike Bloomfield:

Mike Bloomfield was the first bluesman to make the Gibson Les Paul guitar an integral part of his sound. The Les Paul's very recognizable "fat" sound could later be heard in the blues/rock/jazz machinations of Duane Allman and Dickey Betts of the Allman Brothers Band. When we investigate "slide" techniques I'll speak at length about this influential unit and my most memorable slide guitar mentor, Duane.

The rich, full tone produced by this axe's dual Humbucker pickups allowed Bloomfield to develop his signature sweet "singing" style. Often bending the B string up to a major-scale note in a fashion somewhat like that of B.B.King, Mike's extremely fluid voice-like phrasings prompted many guitarists to spent countless hours at the turntable copping (imitating) his unique style, myself included. Before we investigate playing techniques of the great blues guitar innovators, I'll definitely have to spend a few hours with the Electric Flag and Super Session albums and refresh my memory. Shouldn't take too long since I used to do a true-to-form version of the Electric Flag's 'Wine, Wine, Wine" and came fairly close to reproducing Mr.Bloomfield's super sweet, yet ballsy, blues licks.

Just before Mike died in 1981, I saw him coaxing some amazing sounds out of an older sunburst Fender Stratocaster - year unknown. I really missed the Gibson Les Paul's sound and felt that his style was severely compromised by switching axes. For you beginning players: Remember that your guitar is crucial not only to the sound that you will get, but also to your playing style. The width and shape of the guitar's neck, the number, thickness and height of the frets and the degree or amount of the body's "cutaway" determines ease of playing, especially access to the high notes toward the end of the neck. I have found a huge difference in different guitars of the exact make and model. Shop around before purchasing, and make sure the neck is comfortable and suited to the type of blues you want to play.

To hear Mr. Bloomfield, check out a few of these recordings: The Paul Butterfield Blues Band/Elektra (7294-2), East-West (P.Butterfield Blues Band)/Elektra (7315-2), A Long Time Comin'/(The Electric Flag)/Columbia (CS 9597), If You Love These Blues, Play `Em As You Please/Guitar Player (KT 5006), The Best Of Mike Bloomfield/Allegiance (7115).

Roy Buchanan:

Just like Albert 'The Iceman' Collins was king of the Fender Telecaster, Roy Buchanan was his undisputed white counterpart. Mr.Buchanan utilized the treble, bridge pickup to its fullest. His crying, moaning guitar screams could only have come from this axe run through a Fender amplifier cranked to its limits. Using the volume knob--beginning with it turned off, and bringing the volume up after hitting the string--Roy created his unique violin-like wailing sound. He was asked to join the Rolling Stones after the death of Brian Jones, and holds cult status among blues and rock players alike. Until his unfortunate death in 1988 Roy Buchanan returned to his roots and recorded extensively on the Alligator label. Every aspiring blues guitarist should spend some quality time listening to the guitar wizardry of this often-overlooked genius.

Roy Buchanan can be heard on these discs: When A Guitar Plays The Blues/Alligator (AL 4741), Dancing on The Edge/Alligator (AL 4747), Hot Wires/Alligator (AL 4756), and Guitar On Fire: The Atlantic Sessions/Rhino (71235).

Eric Clapton:

Eric Clapton is a name familiar to just about everyone. At the beginning of his career, at various times, and on a very consistent basis in the last decade, the Fender Stratocaster has been his guitar of choice. One can even purchase a new Clapton model Strat which sports a fixed bridge (no vibrato arm or movement, the configuration which I now prefer), Fender Lace-Sensor pickups and a control for boosting the mid-range to achieve the fatter, mellower tone that defines his sound. Mr. "slow hand" as he is called is well known for his cautious, smooth bending of strings and his precise articulation. Not one to take chances or play "off-the-cuff" so to speak, traditional blues fans are often put off by his minimal use of "spontaneous soul" or "fire" while his rock-based fans stand in awe.

I prefer to see Mr.Clapton (as I do Stevie Ray Vaughan, incidentally) as one who idolized and strenuously studied the finer points of the great blues masters. The three Kings, B.B., Albert and Freddie topped the list of guitarists who Eric learned from. A quick listen to his recent electric blues album, the one released after 'Unplugged' will reveal the foundation upon which Clapton has built his illustrious career. His imitation of the artists' various classic licks is uncanny. My only critique, once again, is the lack of "fire" or willingness to experiment in mid-stream that I feel is so essential to inspired blues playing. Entire songs and new musical directions used to be based on the "mistakes" that players made. Sure, everyone "stole" from players they heard, but they would put a new spin on it. But, this train of thought leads in a direction that would best be pursued in a future installment.

In recent concert footage shown on PBS Television, I witnessed some of the advantages of his rock-star status. Mr. Clapton used a different guitar for each song; on 'Toredown' he used a Gibson 335 with the free-floating tailpiece that looked identical to (and may actually have been) one of Freddie King's guitars, on several tunes he used a variety of Strats--several with single coil pickups, and then he returned to his custom made fixed-bridge, mid-boast favorite. I don't remember if he used a Telecaster on the Muddy Waters tune, but I won't be surprised. I do however remember what looked like a wide-bodied Kay used on a lighter, more acoustic sounding number.

I am especially fond of Eric's guitar work on 'Layla' and the album he recorded with members of the Allman Brothers Band. Even though Duanne was said to have criticized him for not "playing the blues" here, there's something to be learned from a close inspection of this album, especially when the key changes float nearly imperceptibly from one section to the next. I also encourage the aspiring players out there to bone up on the material he recorded as a founding member of the Cream (Fresh Cream-Polygram 827 576-2, and Disraeli Gears-Cream/Polygram 2970). There's quite a few clever tricks here, some which might fit quite well into your musical direction.

Before signing off here, I'd like to add that Mr. Clapton has earned my utmost respect for having helped nudge Buddy Guy out of retirement. This one act has been a huge contribution to the blues world and has inspired a substantial number of young players to pursue what appeared to be a dying vocation. And when he remained almost anonymous in the background and patiently performed the necessary rhythm guitar parts as everyone else strutted and soloed during the taping of the Stevie Ray Tribute Concert in Austin, his true nature was revealed. So, I salute you Mr.Clapton. At this level of fame, a good man is truly hard to find. But, then again, its been my experience that bluesmen and blueswomen nearly always have a small ego and a huge heart.

My all time favorite Clapton effort is Derek And The Dominos: Layla and other assorted love songs/Polygram (CT2 3801). Also check out any of the Cream recordings to here his more rockin' side.

Johnny Winter:

Although I've never worked with Johnny Winter, I am fortunate to have a close friend who is a lifelong friend of, and until just recently was a staff songwriter for Huey P.Meaux, the man who discovered this young guitarist/vocalist from Port Arthur, Texas. My friend grew up in Beaumont, just a stones throw from Port Arthur, and was playing bass with Johnny when still in grade school. When we first met, my friend was struck with the way a recently arrived immigrant from Chicago (myself, that is) could play "all those things like Johnny does", and he agreed to hold down the bass slot for our newly-formed Austin quintet.

Beaumont the site of Spindletop, the country's first oil well, is one of the three cities that comprise the "Golden Triangle of southeast Texas. This fertile hotbed of talent has produced such luminaries as Janis Joplin, Rick Derringer, George Jones (Country singer and songwriting genius), Roy Head, and most recently hitmakers like Mark Chestnut. Johnny Winter and his brother Edgar (saxophones, keyboards, vocals) brought Mr.Meaux a demo tape crammed full of everything from light pop to a Jimi Hendrix cover to electric blues. They'd played nearly all the instruments and after successfully recording at his personal studio in Houston, the astute promoter/producer who originally hailed from Louisiana signed Johnny to a contract. Huey had one suggestion for the thin young albino with the big voice, "Stick to the blues."

It was not long before Johnny and the Jammers (with Edgar on piano) were signed to a label and having regional pop hits that were stongly blues-influenced. In 1963 he decided to try his luck in Chicago, where he met and befriended Muddy Waters and Mike Bloomfield, and performed with a host of local legends. I believe it was at this time he began tuning his guitar a full step down in order to be able to bend the strings more easily. For years I'd tried to duplicate his sound, not sure why I couldn't get that same tone, that bouncy 'twang'. With his axe tuned down to a D position, not a natural or open chord, but merely taking the E standard tuning down two fret positions. Try it and you'll see how flexible those steel wires become. Most players, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Robin Trower (British Blues Rocker famous in the late sixties-early seventies) included, tune down just one fret position--from a standard E to E flat.

Johnny Winter's sound also incorporates a generous helping of slide, which he slips over his little finger. I'd like to cover this aspect of his playing more when we get to the Slide Guitar installment, but one thing for the beginning player to consider is how much the slide is used in blues. I read about one young guitar student who wore the ends of his fingers bloody trying to reproduce the sounds of Elmore James. With all the instructional books and videotapes on the market, today's student would be wise to check out as much material as possible on a particular player or style before doing their "woodshedding".

After his first big hit album on Columbia records, Johnny turned in a rock direction before returning to his blues roots with 'Still Alive and Well' and subsequent fine recordings on the Blue Sky and Alligator labels. The reason his comeback album had this title is due to the period of retirement that preceded it. During his Rock stint, Johnny Winter suffered from a serious heroin habit, and he spent nearly a year in recovery. I bring this up now because of the wise words of Muddy Waters, which I now paraphrase -- "Those young white guys is nuts! They killin' themselves tryin' to LIVE THE BLUES."

What McKinley Morganfield was referring to is the tendency for many young players to abuse themselves with alcohol or drugs. My message to you: Getting sloppy drunk or high on dangerous drugs WILL NOT make you a better blues player. And I speak from personal experience. Aside from the physiological damage one can suffer, no one plays better stoned. That myth has been shattered. One of my most memorable experiences was seeing Stevie Ray Vaughan in concert after he'd kicked his alcohol/cocaine habit. I never realized he could play like that. It was amazing. The same guy I'd seen repeat the same guitar lead lick endlessly until being told to move on, was now a truly monster player. The transition way amazing. If you want to be happy, healthy and a great guitarist, put your soul into the music. Keep your distance from disaster.

Johnny can be seen in many publicity shots holding his favorite reveresed-headstock Gibson Firebird solid-body. When I first saw him at the Aragon Ballroom in 1968 he was using a Strat but his Fender days were short-lived. Johnny Winter has used a miriad of different guitars over the years, prefering solid body Gibsons until being presented with a custom made black jet-aged composit Dan Earlewine LAZER that he continues to wail on.This model sports a single coil pickup in the neck position and a hot Humbucker-style pickup at the bridge.

Here is a list of essential blues albums recorded by Johnny Winter. Be sure to play along with "Rollin' And Tumblin' on what some say is his finest blues album -- The Progressive Blues Experiment/CEMA Special Markets (57340-2). This song deviates from the standard twelve bar progression and is one I love to do when I can find a drummer who's up to the task.

I understand that Mr. Winter's health may be declining. Be sure to check him out live if possible. And be sure to check out: The Johnny Winter Story/P-Vine (PCD 1611), Johnny Winter/Columbia (CK 9826), Second Winter/Columbia (CK 9947), Nothin' But The Blues/Blue Sky (ZK 34813), White, Hot, And Blue/Blue Sky, Guitar Slinger/Alligator (AL 4735), Serious Business/Alligator/ (AL 4742), Third Degree/Alligator (AL 4748), Let Me In/Point Blank-Charisma (91744-2), Scorchin' Blues/Columbia (CK/CT 52466), or Hey, Where's Your Brother/Point Blank-Charisma (86512).

Robert Cray:

Although Robert Cray has recently taken a turn away from blues, he remains a well respected Grammy award winning promoter of this true American art form. With a glowing endorsement from someone like B.B.King, Mr.Crays status in the blues world in guaranteed. Like many blues people today, Robert prefers the stock Fender Stratocaster. Unlike most other players, he uses very light gauge strings while keeping his pickup selector switch glued to the treble, bridge position. Because of the thinness of his strings, Robert Cray's guitar tech brings him a freshly-tuned strat after every song.

Although his guitar playing is strong and unique, it is Robert Cray's powerful, smooth voice and selection of quality material that I believe has propelled him to near-superstar status. And, in the end perhaps his most valuable contribution will be in bringing this genre into the musical mainstream and opening up the airwaves for a succession of blues performers. His album 'Strong Persuader' sold over a million copies and has given an entirely new audience access to this great American art form. Robert Cray has done us all a great service by breaking down the cultural barriers that had prevented blues from coming into the mainstream.

Discography: Who's Been Talkin'/Tomato (269653), Bad Influence/Hightone (8001), False Accusations/Hightone (8005), Showdown/Alligator (4743), Strong Persuader/Mercury (830 568-1), Don't Be Afraid Of The Dark/Mercury (834 923-1), Midnight Stroll/Mercury (846 652), I Was Warned/Mercury (314 512 721-2).

Ronnie Earl:

Ronnie Earl, the fine W.C. Handy Award-winning blues and jazz guitarist from Boston is nearly always seen with his favorite vintage sunburst Stratocaster. Although he was recently shown in a media photo with a Gibson Les Paul. When I saw him in Portland, Maine last year, he started off the show with a wide-bodied Gibson "jazz" model and later moved to the Strat. He used two Fender amplifiers, a black faced Super Reverb with four 10" speakers and a similar Twin Reverb (two 12s) wired together. Ronnie also plays a mean slide ala Muddy Waters and we'll return to discuss this technique when we cover slide guitar techniques.

He can be heard on several Black Top Records released as well as on Antone's Record's 'I Like I When It Rains'. Unlike nearly all blues guitarists who've made their mark, Ronnie Earl does not sing or have a featured vocalist or an elaborate stageshow. It is a credit to his virtuosity that Ronnie and the Broadcasters are able to spellbind an audience as a straight-forward instrumental unit.

Ronnie Earl can be heard on Deep Blues/Black Top (BT 1033), Soul Searching/Black Top (BT 1042), I Like It When It Rains/Antone's (002), Smokin'/Black Top (BT 1023), or Test Of Time/Black Top (BT 1082).

Billy Gibbons

Although he is not considered a blues guitarist due to his position at the helm of the phenomenally successful rock group ZZ Top, Billy Gibbons has his heart and his roots firmly planted in our favorite musical genre'. ZZ Top was named after ZZ Hill, a blues and R&B singer who saw fame in the South during the early 80's, and whose song "Down Home Blues" is a classic that can still be heard every Friday afternoon on Houston radio. Another product of Beaumont, Texas, Billy cut his teeth on the blues and his rag-tag unit (ZZ Top) was often the opening act for local favorites in the late 60's. Their manager once had to beg my Beaumont-born friend to let them use his equipment. Their van had broken down and they were desperate to be able to fill the opening slot before my friend's pop-oriented band performed.

Billy has documented many hours of performances by Muddy Waters and a host of respected bluesmen at his private studio on an upper floor of one of the many skyscrapers the band owns in downtown Houston. One can hear the blues foundation on which Billy Gibbons and the band stand by listening to 'ZZ Top's First Album' on the London Records label. And one should also check out "Tush" on the 1975 album 'Fandango' to get a good helping of the way in which this trio blended blues and rock to create a sound that would evolve into their later superhits.

Although he began with a standard Gibson guitar, often a Les Paul model, Mr.Gibbons has consistently used guitars constructed by Dan Earlewine that feature very "hot" stacked Humbucker-style (visually similar to a single coil) pickups or "hot rail" type pickups with a very high output. The sound is very apparent on the Eliminator, Afterburner and Recycler albums. Listen to "LaGrange" to hear the way he hits the string with his thumb simultaneously or immediately after hitting it with a flat pick. Just like I've always done, and Stevie Ray Vaughan did, Billy probably uses the rounded edge of the pick instead of the pointed end to hit the strings. By doing this, less area of the pick is exposed and this allows the meat of the thumb to be used as well. This technique takes quite a bit of practice, but gives a very unique, bluesy tone.

His love of the music has led ZZ Top to reinvestigate their roots with the song "My Head's In Mississippi" off the 'Recycler' album, and their newer releases, although not having the commercial successes that previous albums enjoyed, continue to establish their link with modern urban blues. In 1989, the group commissioned a guitar to be made from a piece of wood donated from Muddy Water's birthplace. Money was raised for the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, Mississippi by having the "Muddywood" toured the country.

Check out, ZZ Top's First Album/Warner Brothers (2-3268), Rio Grande Mud/Warner Brothers (2-3269), Tres Hombres/Warner Brothers (2-3270), Fandango/Warner Brothers (2-3272), Tejas/Warner Brothers (2-3272) and Greatest Hits/Warner Brothers (9 26846-2). And tune in next time for more of your favorite blues guitar heroes.

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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