Texas Blues

December 3, 2007

Despite what legend and lore may tell you, the blues did not originate in the Delta. It grew out of the African American experience in the early 20th Century, wherever musically inventive people faced oppression and adversity. And that was happening in plenty of places besides northwest Mississippi. The blues was a product of its times, and so developed in parallel in many areas of the southern U.S. Each region produced its own dialect of the blues, though the Mississippi Delta and the Piedmont of the Southeast were certainly major centers. But of all the regions where blues flourished, Texas—being practically its own country in terms of culture, population, and size, and being home to hotspots such as Austin, Houston, and Dallas—had a profound impact on blues. The Lone Star state still remains a major influence on modern music styles, including and especially the blues.

Besides the performers, there are some Texas genres that are closely related to the blues. For example, Western swing is often called “Texas swing,” and a “Texas shuffle” refers to a groove that is more swing-like than Delta or Chicago shuffles, and more laidback than the bouncier two-beat stylings of the Piedmont. But what often defines any “school” is the makeup of its members. And Texas has put more important blues guitarists on the map through more periods in history than any other region.

Songsters and Folkies

In the early days of Texas blues, the sound was a lot like the stuff coming out of the Delta. It was acoustic, song-based (with only occasional instrumental breaks), and it freely mixed folk music with true blues. Leadbelly and Blind Willie Johnson didn’t discriminate between folk, popular songs, and blues in their repertoire, but played all their material with a world-weariness and a blues heart. One of the best-known performers from this early era was Blind Lemon Jefferson. He showed remarkable variety in his playing, which was a loose conglomerate of fingerpicking, slide, and strumming techniques, all to back his powerful and cutting vocal delivery. Jefferson influenced two significant performers, fellow Texan and Lightnin’ Hopkins, as well as the Delta-born B.B. King.


Although jazz guitarists became a dime a dozen after electric guitars became affordable in the 1930s and ’40s, one name stands alone as the early, lone voice of electric blues guitar: T-Bone Walker. Aaron Thibeaux Walker (“T-Bone” is a corruption of his middle name) is one of the most influential blues guitarists of all time. He inspired countless electric players—Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton, Otis Rush, Magic Sam, Buddy Guy, Albert King, Albert Collins, Freddie King, and, most significantly, B.B. King—because it was he who brought the electric guitar to blues, and along with Muddy Waters, helped transform acoustic country blues into the urbanized, electric sound of Los Angeles, Memphis, Kansas City, and Chicago.

Walker’s style and musical sensibilities were sophisticated and evolved, qualities he developed probably for very pragmatic reasons: He was a versatile and skilled musician and master showman who worked a lot. He incorporated jazz harmony, string bends, and a harmonic sophistication (such as ninth chords in his rhythm playing) his Delta counterparts would hardly recognize. In the key of A, Ex. 1 shows a lead passage in the style of Walker’s (and perhaps the blues’) most famous tune, “Call It Stormy Monday”—his own composition, and one where he really stretched out, taking the blues to places other melodic players of the day had never been.

Delta players tended to stick to the minor pentatonic scale (A, C, D, E, G), and Texas-shuffle players would throw in the major 3 (C#) and sometimes the major 6 (F#), which Walker did too, but one particular touch gives away the T-Bone-ness of this lick: the use of the major 2 (B in the key of A), which occurs in beat 3 of the first bar. That unusual sound was all T-Bone.

Classic Electric Blues

Just after World War II, a great migration was happening: Many musicians from the rural, deep South headed north to the more industrialized cites, including St. Louis, Kansas City, and of course, Chicago. As transportation became more viable as a way of getting musicians from place to place, recordings were becoming more accessible, so one didn’t actually have to hear someone live to listen to them, study them, and be influenced by them. Still, regional alliances persisted, and two of the Texas-based performers who came into their own in the post-War era were Albert Collins and Freddie King.

The Iceman Cometh

Nicknamed the “Master of the Telecaster” and “The Iceman,” Albert Collins was an accomplished showman and a fierce guitarist. Born in 1932, in Leona, Texas, he received his initial musical training on the keyboards, but he soon picked up the guitar and started hanging out in Houston clubs and absorbing the influence of his Texas-based idols, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Lightnin’ Hopkins (a distant relative), and T-Bone Walker.

Collins concocted a unique recipe for snarly sounding blues that consisted of a Fender Telecaster, a capo (which was often strapped on at the 5th, 7th, even 9th fret), unorthodox tunings, and a stinging fingerstyle approach that fairly snapped notes out of the guitar. The essence of Collins’ style was his aggressive attack, piercing sound and staccato phrasing. (For a one-on-one private lesson with the late, great Tele master, see the July ’93 GP.)

A Two-Pick Man

Freddie King played with a plastic thumbpick and a metal fingerpick, in a two-finger plucking style that he said he learned from Muddy Waters sideman Jimmy Rogers and Jimmy Reed sideman Eddie Taylor. King’s early influences included fellow Texan Lightnin’ Hopkins and saxman/jump blues star Louis Jordan, but he himself influenced others, too, including Jeff Beck, Keith Richards, Jerry Garcia, Peter Green, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, and John Mayer.

King’s best-known song is the infectious instrumental “Hide Away,” recorded in 1961, and covered by John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and just about every blues cover band in North America and Europe since. Following the success of this tune, which placed on both the pop and R&B charts, King followed up with more instrumentals, including “San-Ho-Zay,” “The Stumble,” and “Side Tracked.”

Example 2 shows a lick in the “Hide Away” style. Keep the approach light and crisp, as King did, and play “on top” (slightly ahead) of the beat to capture his sound. Note that that free-flowing feel is aided by the placement of the riffs in open position, and by the liberal use of hammer-ons and pull-offs. What keeps this lick from sounding “too vanilla” is the way King switches from the happy, E major pentatonic (E, F#, G#, B, C#) sound in bars 1 and 2 to the minor pentatonic notes (E, G, A, B, D) in bar 3.

Texas Blues-Rock Titan

Blues-rock firebrand Johnny Winter exploded out of Texas in 1968 and proceeded to become one of the top concert draws of the early ’70s. Winter was a fiery soloist who played with a thumbpick, and his speedy solos lit up a number of gold albums. You can hear him trade red-hot blues leads with co-guitarist Rick Derringer on the 1971 cover of B.B. King’s “It’s My Own Fault” (from Johnny Winter and Live). To play like this legendary Lone Star guitar slinger, develop the best blues vocabulary you can and work on making any phrase fit in any groove—straight, shuffle, or sixteenths-based, fast or slow.

A typical Winter blues line, Ex. 3 is aggressive and authoritative, and just as much of a blues figure as a rock one. Note that the opening phrase is up high above the 12th fret, which helps give it its searing, soaring quality. The first complete bar kicks off with a whole-step bend followed by a couple of “fall-offs” (descending slides at the end of notes) and is based on 12th-
position A minor pentatonic moves. After shifting down to 10th position, the next phrase is played out of a 5th-position A minor pentatonic position.

Just Lookin’ for Some Top

For decades now, the power trio ZZ Top (featuring guitarist Billy Gibbons, [left]) has been serving up a greasy and volatile mix of Texan music and the blues. Unlike Johnny Winter, Gibbons has never been a high-speed player, but his slow, smoldering solos set the standard for “soulfulness” in the rock guitar world in the ’70s and ’80s. Gibbons is a masterful blues stylist with a well-rounded approach, but as a lead player, he’s best known for a single technique: his edge-of-the-pick (or pinch) harmonics.

To play a pinch harmonic, grasp your plectrum so that only a small piece of the tip can be seen from between your thumb and index finger. As you strike the string, give the pick a little forward twist, almost digging into the string and touching the flesh of your finger to the string, to stop or mute it slightly. With some practice you should be able to evoke a harmonic—a high, bell-like overtone resulting from the string being partially stopped.

Example 4 shows two of Gibbons’ hallmarks—his smoky, Texas-style riffing and a rippin’ single-note blues line that closes off with his patented pinch harmonics. Play the rhythm riff with hybrid picking—where the middle and ring fingers pluck the double-stops on the 3rd and 4th strings while the pick plays the open A string. The minor pentatonic riff in bar 7 serves to set up the lead lick in the last two bars. These slower quarter-note triplets allow the pinch harmonics to ring out for maximum effectiveness.

Add plenty of distortion, and those pinched notes will scream and squeal. Move your picking hand up and down the string to find the most articulate harmonics. Gibbons’ fat lead tone is legendary among rock players. He’s particularly famous for using a flametop 1959 Gibson Les Paul Standard lovingly named “Pearly Gates,” as well as for the pink late-’50s Strat given to him by Jimi Hendrix, and for claiming not to use a pick, but a Mexican peso.

The Greatest Modern Bluesman

Austin’s legendary Stevie Ray Vaughan burst into the spotlight in 1983, first on David Bowie’s Let’s Dance album, and then on his solo debut, Texas Flood. Aside from the fact that Stevie Ray could channel Jimi Hendrix’s Strat attack [often performing “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” and “Little Wing” as a tribute], he developed his own style that put the Fender Stratocaster back on the map as a definitive rock instrument. Throughout the ’80s, this guitarist blew minds with both a blistering blues technique as well as the fattest guitar tone imaginable. His stunning lead playing overshadowed the fact that he was also one of the strongest rhythm guitarists the electric guitar has ever known. He achieved his tone by using a combination of classic Fender, Marshall, and Dumble tube amps, pumped up with an Ibanez Tube Screamer TS-808 overdrive pedal, as well as a vintage Strat set up with finger-mangling heavy strings.

Since Vaughan could play it all, I’ve tried to capture a couple of his techniques in a 12-bar blues. Ex. 5 opens with a hybrid rhythm approach mixing low, boogie-style bass notes with chords that chak on the offbeats. (Stevie often threw tasty little chordal riffs into his solos—a hallmark of Texas blues guitar.) Strive for complete isolation between the parts making the bass notes legato and the chord stabs nice and crisp, all the while keeping your right hand swingin’ and free-stylin’ the whole time.

The lead stuff begins in bar 7. Note that in typical Stevie style, it’s a mix of chordal material and single-note lines. Don’t be intimidated by the rhythmic notation in bar 8, beat two—it’s just a quick hammer/pull combination, ending with an open-string double-stop. Part of the fluidity of the playing in this exercise is the use of the open strings D, G, B, and E—all notes of the E minor pentatonic scale, which get incorporated with the fretted notes. The phrase in bar 10 is pure Delta, and is a common fill you’ll hear in the playing of Robert Johnson. SRV makes it his own, though, in the next bar, by adding the major-second double-stops on beat 3, and the little descending line that leads to the downbeat and turnaround of the final bar.

The Legacy Continues

While the Delta and Piedmont styles represent regions whose eras are frozen in early 20th-Century history, Texas blues lives on through the efforts of natives Jimmie Vaughan and Chris Duarte and transplant David Grissom, among others. They keep the Texas flame alive through their playing, but so do all the other players who don’t happen to live in the South Central U.S., yet nevertheless respect the heritage of Texas blues. Preserving a legacy means that you know enough not to mess with a good thing (though if you’re the caliber of T-Bone, SRV, or Freddie King, you may improve upon it), and you dang sure don’t mess with Texas.

Take the Blues Bus on a Tour of Texas

The tradition of Texas blues is still very much alive, as is exemplified by such active performers as Chris Duarte and David Grissom. But unlike the Delta and Piedmont regions, whose eras were brief, delineated, and limited to the early part of the 20th Century, Texas blues spans from the earliest songsters (Leadbelly) to the birth of electric-guitar-based blues (T-Bone Walker) to classic post-War blues (Albert Collins, Freddie King) to blues rock (Johnny Winter, Billy Gibbons, the Vaughan brothers) and beyond. Above is a map of the birthplaces or hometowns of great blues guitarists, all of whom hail from Texas, or at least called it home in their formative years. But unlike a tour of the Delta, which you could do in an afternoon, this journey would take weeks and send you all over the state. And this state is big. After all, it was once its own country (if briefly), and many Texans prefer you still think of it that way.

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