Ragtime Blues Guitar - Statesboro' Blues by Blind Willie McTell

Jim Bruce, Blues Guitar Teacher and Author

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2 Videos (26m)
    • Statesboro Blues Lesson Preview

      2:47
    • Statesboro Blues Blind Willie McTell

      23:31

About This Class

Blind Willie McTell - 12 String Guitar King

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Willie McTell was another one of those blues men that survived until he was middle aged and making records up into the late forties. His style was called Piedmont ragtime guitar, but it was a peculiar style all of his own. Like many blues guitarists, his timing was special to himself and the number of bars didn't have a lot of meaning for him. As a young man he traveled around making a living as a musician, as he was blind from birth there were not too many options in those days for a blind young negro. It was either play a musical instrument for a few pennies, or beg on the street. 

Later on in his career, he played with wife and they produced several records of the 'call and answer' variety, which was very popular in traveling carnival type shows in the early twenties. Often, these 'songs' were little more than very suggestive ditties meant to entertain an audience by titillating them. For example, in one song she sings 'hit me with your chocolate stick', which doesn't take much of a stretch of the imagination to guess what she's talking about!

He favored the 12 string guitar with a jumbo body which produced a big and rich sound for being heard in noisy streets and bars. He probably played with a thumb pick and bare fingers, unlike Gary Davis, who used a finger pick also to make his ragtime guitar sound. McTell could of course play in any key, and also open tuning, but he preferred the more varied chord progressions of the ragtime syncopated sound than the predominantly Delta keys of E or A.

         

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His best and most memorable work was done in dropped D, where the bass E string is lowered two steps from E to D. This produced a deep bass note and generally meant that it didn't need fretting, which frees up a finger for other work on the treble strings.

Statesboro' Blues is his most famous piece and it's played in dropped D. I get the feeling that Wille played with just one finger, rather than using his first and second finger, which is probably the reason why his timing sounds a bit strange to our modern ears. The fact that one finger is used indicates that sometimes it needs ot move fast between the strings, which produces a separation in the timing that's difficult to achieve when using two.

This is because the second finger tends to move quickly after the first finger strike in a kind of reflex action, and it needs to be held back a bit - tough to do! However, we can use this reflex action to play triplets, which is required for some other styles of ragtime - Blind Blake for example.

In fact I do play this song in a slightly different way than the original, in that I do use two fingers. I also changed the timing into a more fluid version, which suits the style of the harmonica player who joins me on this recording (Ken Mayall from UK). You'll find that most chords used are little more than half chords, moving a basic D shape, a G7 without the bass ( the bass isn't played at all - remember that the bass E is dropped to D) and the two basic variations of A/A7, one using two finger and the other using a bar and the little finger.

The verses are played in this format, but I change the chords when I want to play an instrumental break (there are two of these). For the first one I slide up to the fifth fret to make a D a couple of times and then simply slide down to use the basic D and G7 to add to the effect. The next time I use a long A shape up to the 9th fret to give the music another flavor and maintain interest.

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Jim Bruce

Blues Guitar Teacher and Author

After making a living out of playing acoustic blues guitar in Europe for many years, I became interested in teaching online about 15 years ago, and began creating lessons. In 2103 I was voted N?2 top blues guitar teacher by users of Truefire.com.

While blues guitar remains dear to my heart, the last year I've been concentrating on novel writing and future classes will reflect this. It's all about creating and being the best we can possibly be!

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