5 Most Popular Types Of Blues

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We've all probably heard a blues song before. But, have you ever wondered what the story is behind the music? This unique genre of music that features several key instruments has many different styles. In this guide, we will explore not only the history of blues music, but also what makes it unique. We will also go over what instruments are used to make blues music. Finally, we will break down all there is to know about the 5 most popular types of blues.

History of Blues Music and Why It's Unique

Blues music is defined as a "secular folk music created by African Americans in the early 20th century, originally in the South". By the 1960s, the simple but expressive qualities of blues music helped it become one of the most popular forms of music in the United States. Today, you can find various types of blues music, each with its own style.

History of Blues

The exact history of blues is poorly documented. What we do know is that blues music formed in the southern United States sometime shortly after the end of the Civil War in 1865. Blues was played by Southern black men of this era. Work songs, field hollers, minstrel show music, church music, ragtime, and the folk and popular music among the white population influenced them. The earliest recorded references of blues music dates back to the late 1890s and early 1900s.

In 1912, W.C. Handy, a black bandleader, had a composition named "Memphis Blues" published. This song became very popular and soon after many other 'Tin Pan Alley' songs began to use "Blues" in their titles. By the 1920s, blues music had grown even more popular and began to gain its classic sound. This era is referred to today as the "Classic Blues" era. The most popular blues musicians of the "Classic Blues" era are Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, and Ma Rainey.

What Makes Blues Music Unique?

Although most types of blues music contains some form of instrumental accompaniment, what makes blues music unique compared to other musical genres is that it is essentially a vocal form that is more lyrical than narrative. To put it in simple terms, blues music tends to focus more on feelings rather than on telling stories. Often due to problems in love, most blues songs have a tone that is rather melancholy and sad. To express this melancholy feeling musically, blues musicians use different techniques with their voice.

Melisma is the ability to sustain a single syllable across several pitches. Blues musicians also use a rhythmic technique known as syncopation. Another unique trait of all types of blues music is the technique of 'choking' or bending the guitar strings on the neck portion of the guitar or applying a metal slide to the guitar strings to create a whining, voice-like sound. This guitar effect adds to the melancholy tone of the vocals.

What Is Musical Form of Blues Music and What Instruments Are Used?

Musical from blues

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Musically, blues music is characterized by 'microtonal' pitch inflections (blue notes), a 12-measure form, and a three-line textual stanza of the form AAB. Traditionally, in all types of blues music, the first two-and-a-half measures of each line are devoted to singing. The last measure-and-a-half consists of an instrumental 'break' that compliments, answers, or repeats the vocal line in the first two-and-a-half measures.

Harmony

In terms of functional harmony, blues music's harmonic progression can be described as follows (I, IV and V refer to the first (tonic), fourth (subdominant) and the fifth, or dominant, notes of the scale):

  • Phrase 1 (measures 1-4) I-I-I-I
  • Phrase 2 (measures 5-8) IV-IV-I-I
  • Phrase 3 (measures 9-12) V-V-I-I

Instrumentation and African Influence

African influences are found all throughout blues music. This is including the instruments which are prominently featured in blues music: the guitar and the harmonica. Other instruments featured in blues include pianos and home-made instruments.

Aside from the instruments, African influences in blues music include the following characteristics:

  • Tonality
  • Call-and-response pattern of the repeated refrain structure of the blues stanza
  • Falsetto break in the vocal style
  • Imitations of vocal idioms which mimic the instruments (guitar and harmonica)

What Are the 5 Most Popular Types of Blues?

Blues music

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As you can see, blues music is one of the most unique styles of music due to its history and musical style. Now that we have a better understanding of what blues music is, let's take a look at the 5 most popular types of blues.

Delta Blues

Delta Blues is said to be one of the oldest types of blues which originated in the post-Civil War South. Mostly known for its acoustic guitar style, delta blues reached its peak of popularity in the 1920s and 1930s. Many of its famous musicians worked as cotton pickers in Clarksdale, Mississippi and Helena, Arkansas.

The music was popular among the black workers but received mixed reviews from the white plantation owners. Dockery Farms is one well-known plantation where famous Delta Blues artists Robert Johnson, Charley Patton, and Son House all spent time. Dockery Farms is now a museum dedicated to the history of Delta Blues and the surrounding area.

Although Delta Blues is most known for its iconic acoustic guitarists such as Keb Mo, R.L. Burnside, and Corey Harris, the truth is that other Delta Blues musicians played more than just the guitar. Other featured instruments in Delta Blues include harmonicas, pianos, and other home-made instruments. These musicians often played their songs together for shows. When it came to recording the music, however, the guitarists usually recorded the songs alone. This is what gave Delta Blues the unfair stereotype of being all about the guitar.

Chicago Blues

In the late 1930s and 1940s, many Delta Blues musicians moved to Chicago and took their music with them. This spawned one of the great types of blues known as Chicago Blues. Chicago Blues exploded in popularity, mainly due to the many clubs in the area that were looking for a new style of music to keep their customers entertained.

Muddy Waters is one of the most famous blues musicians to take his talents north to Chicago. His previous recording experience in the Delta Blues scene gave him the required confidence to rise to the top of the new blues scene in Chicago. In Chicago, Muddy Waters transformed, or 'urbanized', his music by adding drums and distorted guitar sounds. The music just simply needed to be louder due to the noise inside Chicago clubs. This new style of music was widely accepted by club-goers.

Muddy Waters began recording in the early 1950s for Chess Records and had a string of hits in that decade with the help of bassist Willie Dixon. Muddy Waters had a premier band he played with in concert. This band consisted of guitarist Jimmy Rogers, Little Walter on the harp, drummer Elgin Evans, and Otis Spann on the piano.

Other famous Chicago Blues musicians include:

  • Howlin' Wolf
  • Buddy Guy
  • Otis Rush
  • Magic Sam

Memphis Blues

Memphis Blues is one of the most unique types of blues due to the mixture of its musical content. This is in direct contrast to Delta and Chicago Blues. Beale Street was already known for its entertainment, and blues fit right into the culture in Memphis. Memphis was known for a range of entertainers who played vaudeville style, jug band music, country style, and jazz. When blues music arrived in Memphis, it incorporated these other styles of music.

Perhaps the most famous blues musician from Memphis was B.B. King. His music featured a new and popular mixed sound of Memphis Blues. King got his big break on the Memphis radio station WDIA. B.B. King would go on to be not just one of the most famous musicians from Memphis, but one of the most famous blues musicians in the world, with a career spanning decades.

New Orleans Blues

New Orleans is most known for being the birthplace of jazz, but the city also has a rich history of blues music. However, the exact history of New Orleans Blues is still debated to this day. This makes it one of the most mysterious types of blues. It is easy to infer that Delta Blues musicians from Mississippi traveled downriver to New Orleans, but exactly what transpired after that is hard to say. Similar to Memphis Blues, blues musicians adapted their craft to the current popular styles of music in the area.

Some famous guitarists of New Orleans Blues include:

  • Snooks Eaglin
  • Guitar Slim
  • Earl King

Kansas City Blues

In the 1920s, Kansas City was well known for its jazz music. Jazz in Kansas City always had a bluesy feel to it, mainly due to musicians Count Basie and Charlie Parker. Count Basie had the biggest influence on the two biggest names in Kansas City Blues: Pete Johnson and Big Joe Turner. These two artists would form a style known as 'jump blues'. This style had major influences on 1940s Rhythm and Blues and later on Rock-and-Roll in the 1950s.

Final Thoughts

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Blues music is one of the most unique styles of music. This is mainly due to the lyrical expression of emotion in the songs rather than the lyrics telling a story. Blues migrated from the Mississippi Delta to other parts of the nation to become one of the most popular and revered styles of music in history.

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