I firmly believe that the blues has to evolve. It’s not “back in the day” anymore, and I’m sure if Albert King and Albert Collins were alive today, those cats would be making blues for today—not copying what they did decades ago. I’m also sure that some of the blues critics— who do not appreciate change—would pan them for going somewhere different. This is why you have to be fearless if you want to bring out something new. You have to ignore what the blues police think.
Obviously, there are certain riffs and phrases that are part of the blues DNA, and it’s no crime to pay homage to those licks, and have them in your repertoire. I’ve spent a whole lot of time going back to the old blues records, and I also listen to what my heroes were listening to, in order to try to understand their feel. For me, getting the feel down is essential for moving forward and not being a blues clone. I don’t want to copy anyone’s licks, but I do want to honor their feel. From there, phrasing, attack, dynamics, and tone are key to putting your own stamp on the blues.
For example, Albert Collins’ phrasing was amazing, and he didn’t use a pick. So I decided to go for that feel by not using a pick, as well, but I also decided to switch back and forth rapidly between pick and fingers— maybe five, six, or seven times in the space of one solo. This knocks me out of my comfort zone and forces me to view phrasing in new ways because my attack and tone are always changing—which, in turn, makes my playing more personal and unique, even while I am sort of channeling Albert.
Another way to avoid clichés is to treat the guitar just like the rest of the instruments. If there’s a message to your song, you probably don’t need a whole lot of shredding. You wouldn’t want your drummer soloing all over the track, right? This is where I turn to Steely Dan as a fabulous example of playing with taste and serving the song. You don’t always have to show off.
Ana Popovic’s latest release, Can You Stand the Heat, was recorded in Memphis with a ten-piece band, and its deep, buoyant, and funky feel pays homage to roadhouses and juke joints while simultaneously adding a unique twist to traditional blues. —Michael Molenda
Rig Roll Call
Electric Guitars: ’64 Fender Stratocaster, ’57 Reissue Fender Stratocaster, custom Fame
Acoustic Guitars: Martin, Ovation, Yamaha
Amps: Mesa/Boogie Mark IV, Fender Bassman
Pedals: Ibanez Tube Screamer, Boss CE-2 Chorus, Vox wah
Slide: Dunlop tempered glass
Strings: DR, .010 or .011 gauge