Tips on Borrowing the Blues Guitar Style from Muddy Waters

Muddy-Waters_NEWPORTFrom the swampy, a tad dark, slow and melancholic Mississippi blues scene, one of the greatest blues guitarists of all time emerged. His name was Muddy Waters and this name became legendary when it comes to both the indie rock and blues movements and more mainstream channels. Kids of many generations related to Muddy Waters as to a cult icon (among them was also a teenager who would later grow up to become the wonderful Eric Clapton), and for many of us the man had and still has a magic-infused mystique air about him. He is officially considered the father of modern Chicago blues and one of the first electric bluesmen, but his influence and impact on subsequent musicians doesn’t stop to the Southern or even American blues scene. Instead, the influence his genius had is tremendous and without it there would be no Led Zeppelin or Bob Dylan or Gary Moore or Eric Clapton.

Today, April 4, is the birthday of McKinley Morganfield, better known by his scene name Muddy Waters (originally a nickname he received from his grandmother). If he would be alive, today he would turn 101 (not very likely, but a nice thought nonetheless). If you want to honor him by borrowing a bit from his blues sound, here are a few tips to get yourself at least a touch of his style.

The Famous Slide Guitar of Muddy Waters

If we had to pick one single technique of Muddy’s from his multitude of guitar magic moves, I think everybody agrees that we would have to go with his slide guitar playing, a move often described as his guitar “whinnying” (in a non-sarcastic way meant to put emphasis on the sound’s highly emotional effect). This slide guitar of his was so powerful and jaw-dropping that few could upstage it in the years to come, though most musicians influenced by him did try. In his early Delta Blues days, the move was inspired from what he saw in icons like Son House and Robert Johnson, but eventually it matured into something completely unique to him.

The distortion in notes caused by the guitar chords being pinched in this manner was so strange and beautiful and rich with color that many compared the sound with the complexity of the human voice. In a way, Muddy Water’s guitar seemed to respond to his singing with a human-like cry and melodious humming that was sometimes smooth, sometimes darker, but always responding to the rhythm and upping the beat of the overall song. Not to mention that the guitar solos he would perform with this technique were not only powerful, but simply unforgettable.

If you want to try and replicate a bit of this sound, the first tip you need to know about is this: renounce using anything but your fingers and just a small metal slide on the tip of your left pinky. Then, you should start practicing the Muddy-style slide with ample yet gentle strokes and moves, until you get the right feel for it, even if you’re not applying any technique yet. After practicing this for a while, you can move on to the more technical aspects: at first, play single notes with your slides, regardless of the tuning (even Muddy preferred this to more complicated sequences). Then, when you’re ready to try that full-scale Delta-and-Chicago blues sound, try open A (E-A-E-A-C#-E) or open G (D-G-D-G-B-D). The latter is better to start with, since it’s more widely used and you can find plenty of step-by-step videos on it. Also, as an added bonus, if you master it (the open G), this will allow you to attempt Keith Richard’s “Brown Sugar” with the right kick and feel.

The world of blues will never tire of Muddy Waters and his oh-so-soulful sound, no matter how the style evolves and what new trends will catch the day’s eye. Happy Birthday to him and his mesmerizing slide.

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