Sue Foley Channels Memphis Minnie’s FingerStyle Blues

The modern blues guitarist faces a quandary. To enter the tradition with force, you’ve got to keep it simple, while simultaneously avoiding clichés—as even the best of the best can end up in 12-bar purgatory, their flight to pentatonic hell already booked. But for blues picker Sue Foley, the riddle’s answer springs from one eternal fount. “I always go back to Memphis Minnie,” she says . “She is far and away my favorite musician of all time, and her approach to the blues is always inspiring and never clichéd.”

Minnie was a pivotal force as the blues moved from front porches in the Mississippi Delta to nightclubs in Chicago, and she brought a blend of eloquent finger-and-thumb-picking, rich open tunings, and bucket loads of attitude to the form. For Foley—who regularly covers Minnie’s “Me and My Chauffeur” in concert—the first-generation blues icon offered one cardinal rule above all others. “Tone is in your fingers, in the relationship between your fingers and the strings,” she says. “You don’t get it from a particular amp or pedal.”

Foley cut her teeth learning Beatles and Stones songs, and immersing herself in an older sibling’s Led Zeppelin records—all of which eventually pointed back to the blues. As a teen, she experienced an epiphany during her first blues concert—a gig by Sonny Boy Williamson II protégé James Cotton. “I’d been totally into punk rock and the Stones, but that show changed my life, and it’s been all about the blues for me ever since.”

Foley’s take on the blues is a broad one, encompassing aspects of rockabilly grit, surf twang, and the inimitable stinging bite of the genre’s Texas strain. Central to all of this is her right-hand technique, which combines a thumbpick (the Golden Gate Extra Heavy Pearloid variety favored by banjo and Dobro players) in combination with a finger attack that shifts between graceful, flamenco-like rolling, and taut, percussive, single-finger stabs. “This comes from studying flamenco guitar and practicing on a nylon-string at home—though I’m far from mastering the technique,” she says. “But I really like the blend of fingers and thumbpick. A straight flatpick approach doesn’t appeal to me at all, as it’s not dynamic enough for what I’m going for.” Evidence of Foley’s dexterity and mastery of the thumbpick-and-fingers technique is in abundance on her recently released Live In Europe DVD [Ruf Records].

Foley elicits her unaffected tones from a seasoned Pink Paisley ’87 Fender Telecaster strung with D’Addario .010-.046 strings, and plugged into a ’59 Fender Bassman reissue loaded with Jensen P10R speakers. The only effect in her signal chain is an Electro- Harmonix Holy Grail reverb pedal. “I mostly use the Spring setting, though the Hall and Flerb settings can do some pretty neat stuff, as well,” she says. “I keep the mix pretty light, as it’s mostly just to add a touch of ambience, and I use no amp reverb.” She also tracks with a Martin D-35 when recording.

Foley says her conception of spare, economical phrasing—one of her greatest assets as a player—is not born of her considerable talents as a singer, but rather, vice-versa. “I’m a guitar player, first and foremost. That’s always my primary focus. In fact, aside from Memphis Minnie, my singing may have been most influenced by my guitar playing.”