WHILE THE ELECTRIFIED, URBAN STYLE IS WHAT most bands on the contemporary blues scene tend to favor, the roots of the music go back to the acoustic country blues of the rural South. Artists like Son House, Robert Johnson, and Blind Lemon Jefferson were musical pioneers with their active guitar style, using the bass strings to provide the rhythmic drive while following the vocal melody with the higher strings. Though the upright bass was used in larger string band ensembles, bass was not a major part of early country blues, as the instrument itself was scarce in rural areas. Most recordings of the style are of solo performers, but tracks by singer/guitarist Willie Lane dating back to the mid-to-late 1930s feature an upright bassist, mainly playing in a walking 4/4 style. But the country blues style has continued on into modern times, and many bands will throw a country blues tune into their set list, or perhaps even specialize in the genre. Some of the best country-style blues bass playing can be found on Muddy Waters’ 1963 recording Folk Singer featuring the great Willie Dixon on bass. The album is a wellrecorded example of the style featuring a young Buddy Guy on acoustic rhythm guitar and the subtle drum work of Clifton James. Another great example of Muddy’s rural influence are his recordings from 1948 with bassist Big Crawford. On “I Can’t Be Satisfied,” Crawford fills up space and adds rhythmic propulsion with his slap technique, while Muddy plays a bottleneck style that gets down with the groove while shadowing his vocal part. It’s a lot of music coming from just two people.
One component of the country blues guitar style is the alternating root-5 pattern played on the low strings—something that is easily adapted by bass players. Example 1 is an 8-bar blues progression, similar to Taj Mahal’s “Cakewalk Into Town.” The bass line strikes a balance between the solid half-note “two” feel and quarter-note lines that lead to the next change. The line is unabashed simplicity, and by doubling the alternating pattern of the guitar part, the groove gets firmly cemented into place.
Another country-fried blues number is the classic “Got My Mojo Working.” Written by Preston Foster and originally recorded by Ann Cole in a jump blues style, “Mojo” became a signature number for Muddy Waters, who infused it with the country feel that was fundamental to all his work. The bass line uses a simple repetitive pattern that can be played as a half-note followed by two quarter-notes, as shown in Ex. 2, or as a straight 4/4, as in Ex. 3. The line in Ex. 2 bears a striking resemblance to the bass part from Jimmy Reed’s original version of “Big Boss Man.” In Ex. 4, we combine the root-5 concept with the quarter-note pickups from “Mojo” and end up with the bouncy, country-inspired groove from Chicago blues harpist Little Walter’s “It’s Too Late Brother.”
The blues started as a localized form of expression, and it took on the characteristics of the lives and surroundings of the people who created it. The musicians who migrated north to Chicago brought their style of playing with them, and as their lives and environment changed, so did their music. But at the heart of even the most hardcore electrified urban blues is a country soul.
Keeping Austin weird one note at a time, BP Contributing Editor Ed Friedland plays all over the Lone Star State and turns groove greenhorns into ace bassists with his innumerable instructional books and videos. Say howdy at edfriedland.com.