Tag: gerhard kubik

Blues Parallelism

Blues Parallelism

Ever since last year when it clicked that parallel chord movements are probably an essential part of blues, I’ve been working them into my bass style. As a musical force, parallelism is probably familiar to jazz listeners from the style of guitarists like Wes Montgomery. Check out his playing from 4:16 in this iconic performance.

What I’ve been trying to do relates very much to jazz guitar and even more so blues guitar traditions. I remember how refreshing it was to hear Simon Jermyn once point out that bass guitar and guitar are closely related instruments. Rather than model my approach on double bass or synth bass, I’ve often taken guitaristic paths in my playing. So, to my mind, the parallel chord movements I’ll look at today are completely native to fretted bass guitar.

“Parallel”, for anyone unfamiliar with the term, means that each new chord has the exact same inner structure (distance between its component notes) as the one before, but starting in a different place. So, each note moves in “parallel” with the others to reach the corresponding notes in the new chord.

The reason this is native to guitar and bass guitar, is that you can form a chord shape, and then easily slide the whole shape up or down to make a new chord. (You’ll see it in the solo I do at the end of the post.)

The first time I really noticed parallelism was in electro house tracks with basslines doubled in major 10ths. Remember this one?

But, actually, since childhood I’ve loved hearing blues slide guitar which is built on completely parallel “open-tuned” chords sliding up and down. Guys like the hippy blues savant Alan Wilson (seriously check out that magnificent performance by his band Canned Heat!) or George Thorogood.

Not all chord shapes are equal for this application. The strongest shapes are those that resemble part of the overtone series. This similarity causes the notes to interact and buzz. Gerhard Kubik calls acoustically resonant chords like this “timbre-harmonic clusters”.

D Harmonics to 11th

So, the first interval (counting up from the bottom note) in the series is the octave. Wes Montgomery is famous for his use of parallel octaves, for example at 2:50 in the first video above. But I don’t particularly like the sound of them on bass. This is partly due to the lack of a satisfying way of sounding them – Wes strums them with a muted string between the root and octave, but that doesn’t work for me. Also, they don’t achieve that chiming sound in the bass’s register.

The next interval is the perfect 5th found between the second and third harmonics (D and G). This one is, again, completely guitaristic – the “power chord” of rock and metal. As an interesting demonstration of a distinctive resonance, if you play a power chord on bass or guitar with distortion, a strong difference tone an octave below appears.

(Sorry for the poor sound quality by the way – I’ve upgraded my microphone but forgot to plug it in here.)

Without distortion, the phenomenon is much weaker, but still noticeable as an extra fatness/bassiness at gigging volume levels. (Actually I think that’s due to the slight distortion in the preamp stage of my amp.) So I do use power chords sometimes at gigs to augment a simple bassline.

Okay so some quick thoughts on the use of the other intervals available… 4ths are very buzzy and strong, and obviously easy to play on an instrument tuned in fourths. Major 3rds are strident and bright, sometimes overwhelmingly so, but it can be used for some parallel cliches. In particular, the blues scale fragment b5 4 b3 can be harmonised a major 3rd away by b7 6 5, another bluesy cell.

Another interval I use a lot is the 10th – it’s good for “prog house” or “electro house” sounds. One interesting thing about lines consistently harmonised in major 10ths is that it becomes unclear whether the top or bottom note is the “main” one, despite the fact that a single 10th interval definitely sounds like the root is the bottom note. Try it!

Minor 3rds are a flexible interval for parallel cliches, and I wrote an article about one of those. Major 6ths are used in the classic blues chromatic descending run, but can also be extended into half-whole diminished sounds like Scott Henderson’s. Minor 6ths basically can work as the 3rd and octave of a dominant chord or its 2nd and b7th. Minor 7ths sound good but can only really function as the 1st and b7th or the 3rd and 9th of a dominant chord. So minor 7th and minor 6th parallelisms in blues are basically targeting these landing points.

An interesting larger shape is one using the fourth, seventh and ninth harmonics, which ends up as a root, minor 7th and 9th (a dominant 9th with no 3rd or 5th):

9th no 3rd no 5th

This shape has a lovely resonance. Other 3-note shapes that are nice for parallelism are the 3rd inversion of a major triad (fourth on the bottom) and 2nd inversion of a minor triad (fourth on top). These are both particularly compact shapes on bass. And of course the skeletal dominant 7th, 1st 3rd b7th.

I busted a blues solo using many of these shapes in parallel movement. Have a listen and let me know what you think! I’ve timelined the appearance of different chord/interval types below.

0:02 6th

0:06 minor 3rd

0:12 minor 6th

0:22 dominant 7th (no 5th)

0:27 minor 7th

0:31 major 3rd

0:47 4th

1:02 major 10th

1:08 dominant 9th (no 3rd no 5th)

Thanks for reading/watching!

Book Review: Origins of the Popular Style

Book Review: Origins of the Popular Style

I’d been meaning to read Origins of the Popular Style by Peter van der Merwe (published 1989) for quite a while. It’s a musicological look at the origins – European and African – of 20th century styles like popular song, jazz, blues and rock’n’roll. I finished it a few days ago.

Basically, author Peter van der Merwe has turned around my ideas on the development of black music, including ideas I’ve written about on this blog. Today, I’ll first of all look at these revelations.

After that, I’ll evaluate the book’s approach and style.

So, first up, what are the big ideas? Number one is the complex connection between British folk music and blues. Van der Merwe is great at matching up variants of a song or song type, on different staves, so you can identify bar-by-bar how they changed over time and in passing between cultures. This reveals how blues song forms slowly evolved. For instance, the “4 bars of verse, 8 bars of refrain” structure of “Good Golly Miss Molly” and “Long Tall Sally” are traced back through the early blues “Tight Like That” then to Mississippi John Hurt’s “Frankie” to the hillbilly song “Josie”, itself a variant of a Scottish folk song, “Tattie Jock”.

As well as stanza shapes, melodic skeletons can be traced back to Europe. So, a prison work song like this one recorded by Alan Lomax, as stereotypically African-American and rootsy as one can imagine….

… uses a melodic skeleton from 15th century France, known as “Le Petit Roysin”.

An example that amazed me was the use of the flat 7th in blues. This note often features beautifully on the V chord of blues songs, for example at 0:30 in Barbecue Bob’s “Going Up The Country” (you can also hear it in both the improvised harmonies and the main line of the prison song above, e.g. at 0:50). I had always assumed that it was an African-derived use of the 7th harmonic of the root. This book neatly points out that it is a feature of British song known as the English cadence. But this is not to discount the African lineage. Van der Merwe is at pains to show how similarities between two different cultures reinforce each other during cultural interchange. He makes that point about, for instance, the originally separate British and African tradition of songs of complaint. I think it applies well to the merging of separate African timbral and British folk music derivations of the flat 7th.

Another aspect with much emotional resonance for me, the lyrics of blues songs, also turned out to have more British ancestry than I realised. For example, “One Kind Favour” (here in a seriously great boogie version by white hippy blues experts Canned Heat) is a  compilation of floating couplets of English lyric and poetry.

Moving on, the second major discovery for me in this book was about jazz and blues harmony. Van der Merwe paints a convincing picture of 32-bar popular songs (which became jazz standards) being the end result of harmonic/melodic trends initiated by great Romantic composers. To over-simplify, melody became more and more independent of harmony, by granting the 3rd, 7th and 6th greater modal power. A classic example is “Mack The Knife”. The melody is completely built off the 6th, which becomes a chord extension over standard major harmony (e.g. the 9th of the V7 under “und die tragt” at 0:31).

One of the great insights of the book is that such techniques pioneered by Liszt and Schubert became too vulgar for “serious” or “art” music in the middle of the 19th century but thrived in the trashier end of Victorian music: music-hall, salon music, arrangements for amateurs, dance music, etc. (The book names all of this “parlour music”). From there, they went directly into the jazz standards.

The biggest surprise for me in “Origins of the Popular Style” was the origin of blues chromatic parallel cliches. I’m talking about the descending 6ths used by almost all blues guitarists, discussed in this article, and the descending minor thirds that permeate music as disparate as Chuck Berry, Skip James and Thelonious Monk, discussed here. Very simply, these are Romantic-era innovations that became cliches of parlour music, and from there, ragtime and early jazz and blues.

That descending 6ths figure? Here it is in 1841 (at 2:16, in the bottom right of the score on the video).

Last year when I first discovered the extent of these parallelisms in jazz and blues, I thought they were a basically African-derived phenomenon, of treating chords or chord fragments as “timbre-harmonic” units – sounds prized for their physical quality rather than harmonic function. So I’m really glad that this book opened my eyes. Now I would say the parallelisms are European material that fitted the African timbre-harmonic conception and so gained a new life, and completely new and sophisticated meanings, in African-American music.

A third idea from the book is blindingly obvious and yet blew my mind – that many folk and blues songs have a “mode” or melodic basis of as few as two notes! This is an extremely refreshing perspective for anyone with classical or jazz training. Van der Merwe is really strong on analysing melodies and dealing seriously with the simplest of tunes, sometimes irreverently comparing them with Western art music. For instance, placing Tchaikovsky’s Second Symphony beside “Oh! Mr. Porter” as two examples of a pentatonic mode.

And how well does he treat African music? Well, for one thing he’s clear about the unparseable variety of musics found on that continent and the impossibility of tracing African-American techniques to particular African styles (because of the cultural destructiveness of slavery).

Beyond that, though, the author impressed me with some insights into African-derived style. He mentions “the “false trail” introduction, in which the listener is presented with a rhythm which turns out, once the main beat is brought in, to be something quite different from what it seemed at first.”

Van der Merwe also mentions African “tapering” melodies that settle towards a powerful low “floor” note. “Devil Got My Woman” is a perfect example.

All in all, van der Merwe is not a specialist in African music, but his ideas seemed sound to me. And this is a general trend in the book. He doesn’t have academic rigour, (notably, he doesn’t work in a university or have qualifications as far as I can find) but everything he says is on-the-ball and backed up by examples. This position as outsider scholar frees him up to make bold but attractive generalisations. Out of many examples:

“Most African languages have… a fixed melodic relation between syllables…. This makes ordinary speech musical, and greatly narrows the gap between speech and song.”
“With most classical tunes, if you get a note wrong you spoil the whole. This is not true of the great folk tune patterns.”
“Bad taste, in the arts, is always a sort of failed good taste.”

Van der Merwe’s thinking style, based on bold, sometimes surprising connections, added a lot to the appeal of the book for me. Probably because I have a similar generalising, transcendental (“this thing is really that thing!!!”) thinking style.

Well, I better stop soon. All in all, this book gave me new ways to interrogate so-called Classical music and deepened my understanding of jazz and blues history. The lesson I learned is that connectedness and interchange are much stronger forces than we imagine.

Paradoxically, even though this book revealed a stronger European contribution to black music than I had expected, it still deepened my respect for the black music tradition. This is because I got a glimpse of how absolutely massive and sophisticated jazz and blues are. The mind-blowing achievements of 20th century greats like Parker, Ellington, Basie, Monk, etc., etc. were built off a subtle and complex body of work resulting from many decades, indeed centuries, of previous musicians’ experimentation and transformation.

After thinking about this development process, more and more I’m learning not to look for “roots” of African-American brilliance. Techno, hip hop, funk, bebop, swing, blues, etc. feature African stylistic retentions, but these were consciously developed and improved by black musicians. There is no mystical essence of African-American music filtering down from a forgotten past. Instead, African-derived approaches are constantly being reconsidered and recast to make new music.

To finish, let’s take a van der Merwe-influenced look at this jazz classic.

What do we have?A simple melody likely built off a folk skeleton. (Another famous Rollins track, “St. Thomas”, actually is a folk melody from England via the Caribbean.) Parlour music harmony such as extended dominants and use of the chromatic 5 b5/#4 4 voice movement. Almost banal reliance on the AABA form of popular song. Yet all of these materials are completely transcended by the sophisticated, part-ironic, bluesy, Signifying approach – and the remorseless swinging – that I don’t think could have been matched by any white band at the time.

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.

The Real Blues Scale? Part 1

The Real Blues Scale? Part 1

Two years ago I read Gerhard Kubik’s Africa and the Blues, and immediately liked how he explains blues melody. His emphasis on timbre (which for today’s purposes I’ll define as the distribution of overtones in a note) echoed Vijay Iyer, as well as my own experience. I’ll go through Kubik’s approach today using my own examples.

Skip James DGMW V 2
Verse 1 of Skip James’ “Devil Got My Woman” (1931). In the key of D.

I did my master research last year on this song. It doesn’t fit the typical explanations of blues melody: the minor pentatonic scale and the related six-note “blues scale”. Devil Got My Woman uses strong 5th and 6th tones (E and B) which aren’t in those scales.

Gerhard Kubik, an expert on African music, has perspectives other than Western harmony and melody. He claims that blues uses “timbre-harmony”.

I’ll do some lazy binary thinking for a moment to explain this concept, by comparing (timbre-harmonic) blues with (tonal) classical music.

In tonal music, harmony is considered separate from timbre. A chord or progression of chords is judged to be the same no matter what instrumental tone quality is used. The undeniable effects of tone quality are considered technicalities within the crafts of arranging and instrumentation (e.g. the “low interval limit”).

In timbre-harmonic music, there is no such distinction – the presence of overtones in the field of sounds, and the effects created when played chords resemble an overtone series, are a part of harmonic expression. Changes in timbre are potentially as meaningful as playing different notes. Chord tones may be employed more for their acoustic resonance than for voice-leading or functionality.

In tonal music, there is a fine gradient of dissonance leading towards the stability of triads. However, in timbral music, higher overtones such as the 7th, 9th and 11th may be heard as stable parts of a chord, while the general acceptance of (multiple) overtone series means that semitones or tones are less likely to be heard as clashing, and more likely to be “tasty”, desireable phenomena. Compare the typical highly altered final chord of a jazz piece, or the final chord of a traditional blues with its stylised b7th, with the triad closing a classical piece.

(Once more, this kind of binary comparison is lazy thinking. As counter-examples, African-American Scott Joplin used tonality; European Claude Debussy used timbralism. Composers like Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington and Darcy James Argue among many others have brought great sophistication to music that bridges both approaches.)

How does Kubik explain blues melody from his timbre-harmonic perspective? Well, the overtone series of the tonic note can explain the major 3rd, 5th, b7th and 9th (2nd)…

D Harmonics
Overtones of D from fundamental to 9th. Then arranged in one octave.

… but not the 4th and b3rd. These are a crucial part of blues melody, as in the Fs and Gs in Skip James’s “Cherry Ball Blues”:


Skip James Cherry Ball V 1
Verse 1 of Skip James’ “Cherry Ball Blues” (1931). In D.

How can these notes be explained? Kubik’s insight was that blues melody combines the overtones of the tonic note with the overtones of the fourth degree (IV, the subdominant).


D Blues Scale
Gerhard Kubik’s system

Kubik posits that around the 1890s, African-descended musicians familiar with pentatonic field hollers, West African use of the overtone series, and European chord progressions on guitar, synthesised these into a new melodic and harmonic system. I and IV chords could be used to accompany minor pentatonic melodies. Cultural retentions of timbre-harmony strongly influenced guitar and vocal technique. Knowledge of the interference between the overtone series (where two tones are close, e.g. the 7th harmonic of IV, F and the 5th harmonic of I, F#) led to variations of pitch around the 3rd, 5th and 7th.

We’re still far from a full explanation, though. What about the use of bends and melisma? Kubik ascribes this to an “Arabic/Islamic influence in the western and central Sudanic belt” of Africa. I would add that guitar and vocal bends have a strong timbral effect: they change the distribution of overtones, and they can be used to “tune into” pleasing resonances. (A basic example is Skip James swooping up to the tonic note at the start of “Cherry Ball Blues”.) Sliding while modulating a sung vowel can strongly emphasise a particular harmonic. These techniques help explain the near-supernatural blend of voice and guitar in Skip James’ music. (Which characteristically uses “heterophony” to achieve this: the guitar doubling, with variations but in the same register, the vocal.)

This is getting pretty technical. Before we finish let’s see if Kubik’s concept shines any light on Skip James’s vocal lines.

Skip James DGMW V 2
The first bar of “Devil Got My Woman”‘s melody uses strong E notes (in the key of D). We might be tempted to call these the 9th harmonic of D. In context, though, they sound more like the 5th of a blues scale built off A, the dominant degree (V). This use of a full V blues scale over V7 chords is found in other blues musicians (Stevie Ray Vaughan, quite beautifully, for example).

Things get subtle here…. So, the normal, tonic blues scale uses notes from I harmonics and IV harmonics, and can be played over both I7 and IV7 chords. Notably, when the chord switches from I7 to IV7, this is not usually a trigger for transposing the whole melodic/scale structure up a fourth. However, when the chord is V7 (actually a V-7 in this and some other Skip James numbers), the scale does often transpose up a 5th.

(Tones and root notes regularly bleed between different chords in Skip James’ work. Here, differences between chords are less important than in tonal music – though still present. Analysis like mine eventually finds its limits in this cloudiness. Kubik uses the term “timbre-harmonic cluster” instead of “chord” to hint at this more suggestive than definitive role.)

In the melisma I’ve notated with a quintuplet, above, Skip James switches from the b3rd-3rd pitch area of an A blues scale to the 5th and 6th of a D blues scale – i.e. the IV part of the D blues scale. Then we get notes from the I series with ornamentations.

“Cherry Ball Blues” is simpler. We have a crystal clear laying out of the tonic note, then notes from the IV series, resolving to I series notes at the signature b3rd to 3rd (F to F#) bend. Again, a resolution from IV to I sounds. Then we can clearly see the switch from the I7 part of the D blues scale to an A blues scale in the move from F# to a G and A – made even clearer with the A pentatonic descent to a C to C# bend, b3rd to 3rd of A (IV series to I series of A).

Skip James Cherry Ball V 1
“Cherry Ball Blues”, verse 1.

“Cherry Ball” also uses b5ths. Kubik explains this note by including some higher harmonics in his system.

D + G w 11th & Intonation.png
Kubik’s system up to 11th harmonics, with intonations.

I’ve mentioned the tunings of notes this time. When I was first thinking through this stuff years ago, I was attracted by the “secret notes” with non-equal-tempered tunings. Now I’m kind of cautious. Skip James approaches many notes with a quick upwards slide of a fourth – the opposite of microtonal precision. In the flexible pitch areas caused by intersecting overtones, he chooses his tunings freely and almost always bends to and from them. So for me, those intonations are only important if they have a musical effect – say like Sonny Boy Williamson II’s unbelievably good flat 7th in his final chorus here:



I hope you got something out of this perspective on blues melody. I’m hoping to tackle how timbre-harmony applies to chords in Part 2. The stacked-overtone-series concept opened my mind on a lot of things. For instance, how both the b3rd-6th and 3rd-b7th tritones sound bluesy, but don’t work in a single chord. It’s also a good explanation of the power of bends such as b3rd-3rd, b5th-4th, and 6th-b7th.

To sign off, a final speculation. Steve Coleman calls attention to the “negative dominant” resolutions used in bebop, where IV-6 and bVI-6 melodies are used over V7 to I progressions. He calls them “alternate paths” or “invisible paths” (particularly when they are used in chains). Could the IV7 to I7 sound of blues melody be an earlier type of alternate path? That is, a way to resolve to the tonic, with cadential force, but disregarding the V7 to I resolution? I’m curious if these rule-breaking harmonic approaches could relate to a general African-American aesthetic of misdirection, trickery and evasion which crops up in folk tales (Signifyin’ Monkey, Br’er Rabbit), dance (the moonwalk) and sport (basketball moves).

Anyway! Comment if you like it, hate it, or if you have any blues thoughts of your own!

Oh, and, I had some things I want to say about the racist power imbalances involved in the categorisation of “country blues”, the fetishisation of unschooled part-time musicians like Skip James, and my position as a European analysing blues from records…. but I actually had too much I wanted to write so it will have to wait for another post!