Ragtime Blues Guitar - Blind Blake

You could think of ragtime blues guitar as the pinnacle of acoustic blues guitar finger picking, and Blind Blake would be the King of the genre.

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Blind Blake wasn't called the King of Ragtime for nothing - he had the title before Elvis even! Any guitarist who has explored finger-picking blues techniques will know at least one or two of his songs. Blake's music inspired many later guitarists and even legends such as Reverend Gary Davis and Big Bill Broonzy admitted to listening to his records with admiration.

Arthur Blake's style was very precise and crisp, with a bouncy ragtime syncopated feel. Although with most of his pieces we can quite easily work out where to put our fingers, it's often the sheer speed of his work that defeats those not willing to invest a lot of time into the style. Luckily, he also produced slower songs which had basically the same structure, so we have plenty to go on.

Having cut over 120 sides, it must have been incredibly difficult to vary his output enough to keep the public's interest. Blake did this by using several keys (but mostly C and G) and experimenting with the bass patterns and overall timing. For example, in "Tootie Blues," he starts off at a leisurely pace and suddenly doubles up on the timing, complete with single string runs thrown in! It's very challenging and huge fun to play.

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In his instrumental "Guitar Chimes" he shows us one of the Golden Rules of blues guitar - how not to bore the listener! The piece is over 3 minutes long and he almost never repeats himself - impressive.

Two of Blake's pieces are legendary because of their complexity and speed. "Police Dog Blues" in open D tuning is a fast masterpiece of precision picking and it's quite rare to hear a faithful rendition by a modern guitarist - Ry Cooder is the closest there's ever been, I think.

"West Coast Blues" is a showcase for Blake's trademark technique, which was to roll the thumb across two bass strings so that we hear two notes "bu-bum" instead of just one. When this is done using an alternating bass picking pattern the result is an extremely syncopated sound that almost defies belief. When I first heard this I was certain that two guitars were being played. It's almost impossible to play it like Blake and one day I'll get it right. Saying that, I'm finding that some of my students are making a better job of it than I do, which is what it's all about.

4 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Nice little article about the king of the Piedmont blues players. His playing was not only fast and musically sophisticated but he could also sing at the same time as he played!
    Yes, that's the kicker. Takes a while to get into his way of picking, and then singing along with some of those thumb rolls and single string runs is a whole new ball game.
    I never actually knew this guys name until this article, now I have some stuff to search for on youtube. Thanks for the article!