THERE’S NOTHING QUITE LIKE PLAYING A SLOW 12-bar to
get you to reach way down into your soul and dredge up the true feeling
of the blues. Musicians often use fast tempos to separate the pros
from the amateurs—but in the blues world, speed takes a backseat to
sayin’ something. Typically, the soloists do most of the heavy emoting,
but the rhythm section has the all-important task of creating a grooving,
dynamic accompaniment that both follows and spurs on the soloist.
In a slow blues, the bass line is very exposed, making note choice
and rhythmic placement even more critical. Slow blues can be played as
down-tempo shuffles, but they are often approached with a 12/8 feel,
which subdivides each quarter-note with an eighth-note triplet pulse.
Long, full notes and an assured downbeat are key to this undertaking—
you’ll need to feel the rhythm in your body, as the subdivided meter can
make for some seriously slow tempos.
There are several types of bass line that can be used on a slow blues,
one of the most common being a triad-based pattern that is similar to
the Fats Domino classic “Blueberry Hill” (Ex. 1). This approach can be
heard in many slow blues, but a famous example is Howlin’ Wolf’s “Goin’
Down Slow.” Bars 1 and 2 establish the basic pattern, but the line gets
a little push from the added triplet runs on beat four in some bars. The
turnaround (bars 11–12) features a quick trip to the IV and V chords,
creating a strong cadence as well as adding momentum for the return
to the top of the form.
Examples 2a and 2b are variants of the “Blueberry
Hill” line, similar to Tommy Shannon’s
approach on Stevie Ray Vaughan’s rendition on
“The Sky Is Crying”; the added note on beat two
helps keep the groove pushing forward. In Ex. 2b,
the second note is up an octave, which gives the
line a distinct New Orleans feel.
It is also possible to use a walking approach
to a slow blues, mainly using quarter-notes to
create a broad bass line that moves with assurance
toward its destination points (chord changes).
Example 3 illustrates this concept, and adds
a few broken triplets and shuffle rhythms to
help keep the ball moving. Notice how the line
builds a sense of destiny by walking up or down
to the next chord change with scale and chromatic
runs. A well-constructed blues bass line
does not leave you wondering what’s coming up
next—to be most effective, we must first master
the obvious. Slow blues can be played at a range
of tempos, but to get the idea, try playing these
examples between quarter-note equals 40 and
Contributing editor Ed Friedland’s got his mojo workin.’ If you
wanna get yours going, too, check
out any number of Ed’s instructional
books and videos. edfriedland.com.