The Blues: It’s Not “Just a Blues”

Believe it or not, I’m a huge fan of the blues. This particular genre caught my attention at a young age and it has taken years (and, I expect, will require many more) to appreciate some of its subtleties. If you’ve had an opportunity to check out my series on blues bass playing, then this column acts as a quintessential amendment to what has already been said. The more I study the genre, the more I wish I (and others) knew that a blues is not just a blues.

This particular statement, “it’s just a blues” happens to be my number one pet peeve… in the whole entire universe.

I’ve heard that at gigs, at jam sessions, from friends, from fellow musicians, from parents, and even from music educators. Contrary to popular belief, it happens to be a deeply complex genre with a long history and constant evolution. Unfortunately, many people are quick to reduce it to a “one-four-five” and in doing so, simplify it to a three chord progression.

So, the next time you (or your friend, acquaintance, or enemy) decide to say, “it’s just a blues,” I urge you to consider telling a foodie friend or chef, “it’s just a potato.”

If you look at a potato and can only imagine it baked, think again. A potato can be baked, mashed with cream and garlic, sliced and turned into fries, split into wedges, filled with butter, chives, and sour cream, or piled with cheddar cheese and bacon. It can be transformed into dumplings, turned into gnocci, grated into a pancake, layered in a casserole, or sliced into chips. A potato can be prepared for breakfast, lunch, or dinner, and may reflect the cuisine of different regions around the world. To top it all off, there are russets, red bliss, Yukon gold, sweet potatoes, and many more.

Ok, ok, enough about potatoes. But in all honesty, blues is a very general term, much like saying “it’s just a potato.”

Thinking geographically, you have three popular locales – the Delta, Chicago, and Texas – and each have certain characteristics.

There are cross-genre styles and hybrids, such as Rhythm and Blues, Country Blues, Blues Rock, early Rock & Roll, and even Zydeco.

You can play acoustic blues, electric blues, blues on a harmonica, boogie woogie solo piano, or take it back to the oral tradition with vocal chanting or call and response.

There are shuffles, swings, and straight-ahead grooves, second line styles, “Bo Diddley” beats, and the 6/8 slow blues.

And after all that, you haven’t even touched the chord progressions: 8 bar blues, 12 bar blues, 16 bar blues, 2-5 substitutions, “Stormy Monday” with the Allman Brothers changes – and sometimes, just one chord. There are traditionalists, modernists, revolutionaries, and re-inventors.

When it’s time for you to approach playing blues, the more you identify with the influential artists and their styles, the better off you’ll be. Familiarize yourself with those who have defined the genre, what makes their music unique, and how the bass player fits in. For instance, the bass parts on Albert King records have very little variation… Duck Dunn laid down a specific part and stuck to it. If you listen to Albert Collins records or live performances, the bass has a diverse and somewhat liberated feeling. If you learn about both the traditional and modern mindsets, you will demonstrate respect for the genre, restraint when necessary, and creativity when encouraged.

If you’re suddenly learning a bunch of blues tunes, either for a gig or for your own enjoyment, you may find it easy at first glance but difficult when it comes to learning the specifics. Trust me, learning a set of songs that are each unique and “identifiable” is easier than learning songs that are similar, but with slightly different variations. Most blues aren’t just “twelve bars” – they have bridges, stops, turnarounds, different progressions for a few of the verses, and room for extended solos. The trick is recognizing the nuances and remembering what goes where.

And finally, all bets are off when you’re playing live. Hits happen, shifts in dynamics are frequent, songs can change key, and solos may be long and legendary. With an open mind and the ability to recognize certain tendencies, you’ll be able to latch on to the music and follow it in any direction.

So, don’t fall victim to the common misconception that blues is “just a blues.” It’s a bit more complicated than that. Learning how to play a shuffle is a lot like learning how to make french fries… you need to consider the kind of potato, the way you slice them, the oil you use, and how they’re seasoned. So, at the end of the day, it’s not just a potato.

As always, I love hearing your thoughts and feedback on all my columns. Please share in the comments.

Ryan Madora is a professional bass player, author, and educator living in Nashville, TN. In addition to touring and session work, she teaches private lessons and masterclasses to students of all levels. Visit her website to learn more!

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  1. a good read, lots of food for thought…

  2. This is the Good Stuff! Sweet read! ?

  3. Well said, that is definitely a pet peeve of mine as well. I have watched the folks that say it’s only 3 chords just fall flat on their face when trying to entertain an educated blues audience. All I could say is ” serves you right to suffer”!

  4. This is something I’ve always felt strongly about, too. I’ve been listening to the blues since I was very young and it took some years to realise the music is so diverse. Everything you say about the many variations in terms of substitutions, different progressions, stops, hits etc is so true and relevant to all blues musicians. Although just jamming is fun, I think everyone playing the blues should know that they are playing particular songs, not just using textbook approaches over a I/IV/V progression.

  5. Blues a lot about feel. I remember when someone showed me a “jazz blues”,@ 1977. It takes a lot to be a performing blues bass player, a lot of nuance. I was in a band; a lot of SRV and I got a real kick out of learning the Tommy Shannon lines. Still, the blues is simple ; technique and sophistication should never get in the way of expression.

  6. There are “bassists” breaking speed limits all over the fret board but go to thumb sucking when a slow 6/8 blues should be played.

  7. Nice article! My pet peeve is when people ask ” What type of music does your band play? Jazz?” I say “No, we play the Blues.” They say ” Oh…same thing.”

  8. I’m a working blues bassist, and a progressive rock bassist. Both genres provide their own difficulties, pleasures etc. I’ve always said, and firmly believe, that in the blues, as a picture, the bassist, and the drummer as well, provide the frame, that’s our job. Frame it up, and the feature players are the colour in the picture.

  9. Like Haiku, the blues came from a poetic rhyming pattern; AAB. What goes with that can be infinitely varied. By the way, what’s commonly known as “Charlie Parker blues chords” are used in Louis Armstrong’s “Big Lip Blues”, recorded in the 1920’s.

  10. Murray Goldberg

    You are soooo right on. Many thanks for a well composed article . Retired after 50 yrs. as a blues bassist.