Essay: Blues in rock music

Typically, when people think of “rock music”, they would think of loud, hard hitting drums with fast, intricate guitar solos, and screaming vocals. People don’t usually think of slow, smooth, bluesy guitar playing when they think of rock music, but what most people don’t realize is that without the blues, musicians such as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, and even AC/DC would not exist. Blues music has had a dramatic influence the way rock music has, and is currently played, heard, and thought of in today’s scope of music.
 
For instance, when listening to rock music nowadays, and certainly early rock music, many aspects of that music is derived from blues. One of the most well known and highly used chord progressions in music is the twelve bar blues. As stated in the PBS (2003) article “Understanding the twelve bar blues”, the twelve bar blues is predominantly based on the first, fourth, and fifth chords of a given key. To play a twelve bar blues, simply play the first chord of a given key for four bars, then the fourth chord for two bars, then back to the first, then the fifth chord for one bar, the fourth chord for another bar, and finally back to the first for 2 bars.

Then, you can simply repeat the entire progression for as long as you would like. The twelve bar blues is an incredibly versatile chord progression as it can be easily switched into any key with not very much difficulty. Due to its incredible versatility, it’s no secret that plenty of artists took hold of its many possibilities. Because of its use by a vast majority of musicians, it is also one of the most recognizable chord progressions. Songs such as “I feel good” by James Brown, “Day Tripper” by the Beatles, “Rock and Roll” by Led Zeppelin, and even “Wipeout” by the Safaris all use the twelve bar blues progression. Even the original theme from Batman by Neal Hefti uses the twelve bar blues progression. As stated by Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones in his documentary “Under the Influence” (2015), “If you don’t know the blues… there’s no point in picking up the guitar and playing rock and roll or any other form of popular music.” Many musicians, especially rock musicians in the sixties and seventies, used this chord progression in their songs because of its versatility and it’s easily recognizable sound. One musician who utilized the tools of the blues to the fullest was Jimi Hendrix. The best way to describe the music of Jimi Hendrix is like listening to the blues on fire. The feedback from the hundred watt marshall stacks, the enormous string bends, and the guitar smashing and burning aside, he played with the blues in his soul, and in his fingers. Jimi’s guitar playing was loud and in your face, but all at the same time bluesy and musical, due to his experience playing jazz and his influence of jazz and blues players from the thirties, forties, and fifties.

He very much utilized the twelve bar blues, especially in one of his hits of his first album “Are You Experienced?” the twelve bar blues song, “Red House”. This song is a very straight forward, very recognizable twelve bar blues progression, just amplified for the style of the sixties rock era. The twelve bar blues has had an incredible impact on not only sixties and early seventies Rock music, but also on today’s genres of popular music.

Many rock musicians of the sixties and seventies were highly influenced by blues musicians, especially in their playing technique. Most notably of these musicians were guitar players.

One of the musicians who was highly influenced by blues music was Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones. Keith grew up listening to players such as Muddy Waters, which has definitely contributed to Keith’s bluesy, smooth guitar playing, especially when improvising and soloing. Keith and the Rolling Stones were looking to change the music scene in Britain. They combined the style of the American Rock and Roll music, such as elvis presley, and combined it with the smooth blues music of musicians, such as Muddy Waters, to create the sixties, British Blues Rock style. In many of the early Rolling Stones appearances, the Stones would cover Muddy Waters songs with a faster, more upbeat tempo. Keith Richards would play the same blues guitar riffs coming out of the blues scale as Muddy, just with a faster tempo and sharper articulation when picking. Many other up and coming British Blues Rock bands used the same formula as the the Rolling Stones did. Bands such as Cream, the Yardbirds, the Kinks, the Who, Free, and probably most famously, Led Zeppelin, all used the formula of combining the Rock and Roll music from the United States, with Blues music. A big influence on the British Blues Rock musicians of the sixties and early seventies was through they way the guitarists improvised when soloing. When listening to bands like Led Zeppelin, Cream, and the Who, just to name a few, have a guitar solo, the guitarist is usually predominantly improvising out of the blues scale. The blues scale consists of the five notes of the minor pentatonic scale, plus a flat five. In order up the scale it goes 1st, flat 3rd, 4th, flat 5th, flat 7th, and 1st notes of the major scale. Almost every single Rock band on the planet has had a guitar solo in which the guitarist has improvised using the blues scale, and the minor pentatonic scale.

Not only has blues had this effect on the rock music of the 60’s and 70’s, but it has also had the same effect on the musicians of todays music. A good example of this would be John Mayer. Many of John Mayer’s most popular songs are a rendition of the twelve bar blues pattern used for generations, such as his hit song “Something Like Olivia” and “Queen of California”. John’s first encounter with blues music came when a friend gave him a Stevie Ray Vaughan cassette tape. From that day forward, he continued to study blues music through the means of B.B. King and Muddy Waters. Mayer has successfully been able to bring the blues music that he has been influenced from into the forefront of his own pop music that is ever so popular. In an interview with For Guitar Players Only Magazine, John Mayer (2016) discussed his strategy when it comes to incorporating blues into his own music:

“It’s almost like collecting baseball cards. You collect the Texas blues card. You collect the Chicago blues card. You collect the country-western card. It’s sort of like this love of all these cards you can collect and walk around with. So really for me, it was about getting another card or trading a card, and when musicians look at music that way it’s sort of like this Rolodex of influences. It’s really great to have that conversation, musically. It’s just a matter of rearranging the cards a little bit when you have that building block; oh, I do a little Lightning Hopkins here or do a Muddy Waters thing there, and communicating that way. So when we go into “Smokestack Lightning” or something, it’s like, “Yeah, let’s do a Howling Wolf thing, but let’s filter it through who we all are.”

This goes to show how much of an impact Blues music has had and continues to have on not only Rock and Roll music, but popular music as a whole.

Throughout the history of time, many different styles of music had a great impact on the musical styles that would come after. No style of music had quite the impact that Blues music had on the Rock and Roll music of the sixties and seventies. The musicians of the time overseas in England took two genres and merged them together to form a completely different genre. The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, the Who, Jimi Hendrix, and many more would not have ever existed if it weren’t for Blues musicians such as Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Albert King, Robert Johnson, along with many others. Blues music has forever changed the way we listen to music today and has continued to have a great impact on the modern day Rock musicians millions around the world listen to today. For these reasons, Rock and roll music would not be the same, without it’s influence of the blues.

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