The Real Blues Scale? Part 2

The Real Blues Scale? Part 2


In part 1, I talked about blues melody and how it relates to timbre/overtones. Today I’ll look at blues harmony and its relation to timbre. Rather than presenting any grand thesis, I’ll go through a bunch of timbre-harmonic techniques, with examples, and make some tentative connections.

I also thought as I was making this how odd it is to approach music in such an analytic way. My main motivation here is that these are really beautiful songs, in case you were wondering!

Delta blues commonly features guitar notes that function as a constantly sustained drone. This tends to pull away from tonality and towards modality and timbralism (explained in part 1), for a few reasons. The dominant V7 chord function (i.e. the tendency of G7 to resolve to C) is obscured because the droned tonic note obscures any seventh-to-tonic voice movement. Notes tend to be heard in the context of the drone rather than as forming chord progressions – this means that certain notes, and certain intonations of those notes, will be much stronger than others.

In Skip James’ “Cypress Grove Blues”, the drone note, D, only stops briefly for a switch to a V root (e.g. at 0:30). And even there, James doesn’t use a full V7 chord and the drone note slips back in after three beats of the V root. During most of the verse, the accompaniment consists only of the drone and a simplified version of the vocal melody.

Here, in Bukka White’s “Fixin To Die Blues”, the tonic and fifth (F# and C#) are both used as drones. The pull of this home key is so strong that there is only a suggestion of the standard IV7 and V7 chords – the roots of those chords are sounded against the continuing tonic and fifth drone notes. If you’re familiar with blues, you’ll notice that the melody implies the IV7 and V7, not with chord tones but with standardised pentatonic movements with cliched meanings.

Boogie Riff
The boogie riff is a basic element of blues. In downhome guitar styles I think the simple root-and-fifth to root-and-sixth alternation is most common. This riff fits neatly into Kubik’s blues scale concept: the root-and-fifth (and root-and-flat-seventh if used) parts are from I harmonics, and the root-and-sixth part is from IV harmonics. Robert Johnson provides a canonic example in his famous “Sweet Home Chicago”. Listen to the vowel sounds as well – I’ll be talking about those in a bit.

(If you’ve heard Robert Johnson before, notice how much more natural the voice and tempo sounds in these speed-corrected versions compared to the faster ones that have always been circulated on CDs etc.)

Compared to Robert Johnson’s almost pop arrangement, it’s much harder to discern the boogie riff here. It’s not literally played, but the feeling of the I to IV alternation is there in the guitar comping, and at times an actual IV chord appears on those alternate beats, for example at 0:36 or 1:10.

De-emphasising the V7
Like Skip James and Bukka White, ‘Big Boy’ Crudup’s “Black Pony Blues” avoids the conventional V7 chord at the 3rd phrase of his blues verses. (Instead he uses a sparse shape with first, fifth and blue/neutral third tones). Gerhard Kubik, in his book Africa and the Blues, claims that the V7 chord is widely de-emphasised in African-American music. He claims that African-derived pentatonicism and use of overtones fit well with the I and IV chords from the European system, but not with the V. Kubik advances this as an explanation for the replacement/substition of V7 sounds in bebop.

This track, “Left Alone Blues” by Ishman Bracey, is a really interesting example. Bracey plays a full V7 at 1:49 and quite possibly elsewhere in the tune – however a variety of strategies de-emphasise its sound. The second (lead) guitar and voice play V blues scale melodies, not V7 chord tones. The V7 chord is quiet and tends to get overlapped by surrounding chords. The root note of the V is chromatically voice-led upwards to the 3rd of the IV, a non-cadential movement. The result is that it doesn’t matter whether a V7 chord or some other partial chord (say fifth and flat seventh tones off the tonic) is played.

“Nobody’s Fault But Mine” shows that even on a non-12-bar form, Delta players avoided the V7. Melodically, bar 4 of each verse is clearly a V function. Blind Willie Johnson plays a skeletal I chord there instead. A V triad is used in the slide guitar break, however. This underlines that these players could and did play V chords – but the functional requirement for its voice-leading 3rd and 7th has been completely undercut.

Tommy Johnson’s classic “Cool Drink Of Water Blues” demonstrates all of the tendencies I’ve mentioned so far. The tonic note and the neutral 3rd (between minor and major) have a drone-like presence throughout the whole piece. Often there is a strong alternation on every beat between the fifth and sixth note in the low register, e.g. at 0:34 – an echo of the boogie riff. And we note that the V7 is not used at all, not even suggested melodically in this case.

Contrary motion, suspension and key modulation don’t have much of a role in Delta and Chicago blues, but parallelism is quite common. I can think of a few different types: harmonica effects, slide guitar, guitar moving with a vocal melody, and (typically more urbanised & in standard tuning) guitar comping patterns.

At 1:11, the turnaround of his first solo chorus in his hit “My Babe”, Little Walter repeatedly bends the third and fifth of the key simultaneously (B and G), for distinctive wailing sound. This is possible because the draw (sucked) notes on a 10-hole harmonica form a chord and can be bent downwards by altering air pressure. So, if a player has the ability to bend a note, unblocking an adjacent hole very simply adds a parallel voice to to the bend. This limited form of parallelism is a basic sound of downhome and Chicago blues.

The first chorus of “I Feel Like Going Home” is a masterclass in the timbre-harmonic possibilities of slide guitar. Minor 3rds then major triads are used in parallel. Muddy Waters does some cool stuff with the upper notes in his timbre-harmonic clusters, giving them a heavier vibrato at 0:04 or re-plucking them at 0:16. It reminds me of how great blues singers hone in on particular overtones in their long notes, and has a similarly beautiful, ghostly effect. I’ll come back to that at the end of this article.

Okay I’ll try be quick in describing the third kind of parallelism – guitar comping patterns. Sonny Boy Williamson II’s Chess recordings are an absolute goldmine for these. In “Fattening Frogs For Snakes” the guitarist plays minor 3rds that are part of the standard blues 7th chords, but he uses a double chromatic approach to each one.

Fattening Frogs Minor 3rds Parallelsim

I really like that sound.

In “Decoration Day” we get chromatic parallel shifts of an entire C9 chord at 0:23 and 1:08 (played by Buddy Guy). I think harmonically-oriented music education can make us disregard these effects as trivially simple – yet in this context it sounds amazing.

Here’s a great example of parallel chords… white blues-rockers Canned Heat build a burning version of B.B. King’s “Sweet Sixteen” over Alan Wilson’s deeply-researched guitar shapes. I think what fascinates me about these sounds is how, emotionally speaking, they embody blues’ paradoxical mix of cool and sad and sensual, and, technically speaking, they have a simultaneous melodic, harmonic and a groove role.

Like Alan Wilson, I believe that “the blues essentially is vocal and various instrumental simulations of [vocals]“. And I think this is down to the huge timbral possibilities of the human voice.

This stuff is hard to talk about, even though, along with microtiming, it’s the main expressive channel in blues – and one without which electronic dance and rock wouldn’t exist (i.e. without wah wah, bends, power chords, parallelism and distortion – all timbral techniques popularised by blues).

How can something that influential be so hard to discuss? I’d say:

  1. Our hearing system automatically assembles harmonics into the impression of a “tone quality”, meaning we usually don’t consciously perceive them.
  2. In the Western world we are typically acculturated to focus on the fundamental tone of a note rather than its overtones.
  3. Jazz and rock/pop education tends to focus on the more easily measurable chordal and melodic aspects of music over microtiming, group interaction and timbre.

Well, I won’t get into a rant about this, but suffice to say our vocabulary for describing timbral music is inadequate. But I’ll try anyway.

Muddy Waters’ “Country Blues” is a really, really fine track. The vocal displays remarkable control of harmonics throughout, but I’ll point out some identifiable techniques. Muddy Waters has a mannerism of letting his lyrics break down completely into an open-voweled wordless expression, and he uses it at the same point in each verse, 0:22, 0:56 and 1:29, and elsewhere, e.g. “child” at 1:32. This effect creates a trembling 3rd harmonic (which is an octave and a fifth above the sung note). But actually this kind of expression is present throughout the song, for instance the whistling accentuated harmonics in the words “ole” and “now” in the line “well that’s a misery ole feeling now” at 1:08.

Muddy Waters also uses breaks into a higher register of his voice, e.g. in the very next line at 1:12. This technique is taken to a yodeling extreme in Tommy Johnson’s “Cool Drink Of Water Blues”, embedded above.

There’s loads more to say about that Muddy Waters track but I should wrap up now. Listening to all these tracks really brought home to me that there’s a whole other way of listening to blues, which, despite a lifetime’s exposure to the music, I never really did before. It is to listen to the overtones.

Doing this helps to explain bending, melisma, use of vowels, use of vibrato, and more. I even think it may connect with the widespread use of parallelism. Slide guitar and harmonica allow parallel notes to follow the same exact microtonal contour – just as an accentuated harmonic in the voice follows the microtonal contour of the fundamental.

Thanks for reading and enjoy the holidays! As always, comments and criticisms are very much appreciated.


5 thoughts on “The Real Blues Scale? Part 2

  1. Hey, my boy tom morris sent me here. Great stuff! Personally I’ve always found it difficult to understand timbre and tone separately which used to be a big stumbling block but now really helps me. So interesting to hear there is a correlate for that in a genre I love.

    Would be interested to hear more about the fetishisation of part-time singers like Skip James as you mentioned in part one. Also more deconstructing of hip hop beats as that’s the type of music I make. Finally to give you some feedback since you ask: seeing as I haven’t had any formal musical training, some pooints are hard for me to understand. I’ve ratified a bit by googling stuff like ‘parallelism, drone, V7’ but maybe something to consider as you write. Giving examples really helps and you do that well, especially where there are videos of you demonstrating, and especially where you give time markers and descriptors (e.g. ‘wailing’ sound) – it can be hard to pick something out of an entire song if you don’t know what you’re listening for, as it were.

    All in all deadly blog and hope you keep it up!


    1. The flute doubling a voice is very arguably a timbral effect! Interesting track, lots of layers of meanings – using “mighty low” blues for a very black/African-coded story about insulting a monkey. Pretty unusual mix of idioms with the flute, saxophone & Mississippi saxophone!


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