- UNC-TV Series
- UNC-TV Specials
- Programs A-Z
- UNC-TV Science
How do you play Piedmont blues?
Blues guitarists used several different techniques to play. The older styles seem more typical of banjo fingerpicking style. Maybelle Carter picked out a melody on the bass strings with her thumb, while she used the index finger of the same hand to brush up and down across the higher strings, combining both chords and rhythm. Other guitarists use all of their other fingers on the upper strings. In the 1920s Piedmont musicians introduced the slide style, most commonly played with a bottleneck. This effect was also called "reels." Guitarists played these songs in two basic open chord tunings: "Spanish" and "Vasta pol." The chord details are below:
Open Chord G (D-G-D-G-B-D)
Open Chord A (E-A-E-A-C#-E)
Open Chord D (D-A-D-F#-A-D)
Open Chord E (E-B-E-Ab-B-E)
Some musicians, like John Henry Fortesque, otherwise known as Guitar Shorty, deviated from these chord patterns and made up their own. Instead of playing a song using one chord sequence, Fortesque would switch from one pattern to another whenever the change sounded right.
Willie Trice used a slide effect on a banjo rather than on a guitar.
Instruments for blues run the gamut from piano, saxophone, trumpet to guitar and harmonica. Piedmont blues musicians traditionally chose guitar as their main instrument, but other instruments often accompanied the guitar. Below are the instruments and their players that sometimes were the exception in the Piedmont blues style.
Harmonica: Sonny Terry,
Robert House (former chancellor of UNC-CH)
Autoharp: Thomas Burt, John D. Holeman
Fiddle: Thomas Burt
The Piedmont blues beat is most often a cross between ragtime and 1960s rock and roll. In fact, several rock musicians, such as Bob Dylan, picked up some of the Piedmont blues style, so it's possible that the older style influenced the 1960s artists. The regular, alternating thumb bass melody creates a highly syncopated rhythm reminiscent of country dance songs. In fact, since string bands were more popular in the southeast than in the Mississippi Delta and in Texas, the blues of the Southeast could have adopted the rhythm of string band dance tunes.
Piedmont blues has a "rock" sound and a heavy beat, unlike some of the more melancholy numbers of its Delta and Texas cousins. The tone tended to be more lighthearted, similar to bluegrass music; in fact, Piedmont blues may be an uncle to the contemporary, fingerpicked folk music.
Just as regions exhibited different personalities, so did Piedmont blues rhythms. Guitar Shorty fragmented the typical rhythm. Some guitarists fingerpicked most of their songs. Others, like Blind Boy Fuller, used a slide technique with some regularity.
What were some of the other early blues styles performed in the South?
Delta Blues: The first documented blues in the United States, Delta blues adopted a plaintive expression of pain, like the African slave descendants who labored as sharecroppers in Mississippi. Most of the performers could not read or write and were among the poorest blacks, even being rejected from jobs as house servants and by their own communities. The music inspired hope to people in similar straits and gave a meager allowance to its artists. In some way, it sustained a community until they began to experience a breakthrough in freedom during the civil rights era.
Musicians: Tommy Johnson,
Sonny Boy Williamson,
Robert Lockwood, Jr.