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 56. Enjoy!
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.