What is Blues?

The blues is the trickster of musical genres. It’s a joyful, exuberant music full of upbeat rhythms and playful humor – but it’s also a deeply sad music that deals with suffering and loneliness. It’s a music of dance halls and wooden porches, open fields and grimy factories, the city and the country, the North and the South. The blues captures something deeply familiar, yet impossible to describe.
That’s probably why it has had such an enormous influence on modern music. Every style of popular music today – hip-hop, R&B, EDM, country, rock, metal, and jazz – they all have their roots in the blues. The blues gave rise to musical tropes so basic that today we take them for granted. The scales, rhythms, and harmonies of the blues have become so deeply ingrained in modern music that we’re hardly aware of them anymore.

The blues is at the center of modern music – so it’s ironic that it was invented by people who lived on the very margins of modern society. The first blues musicians were poor African Americans in the years just after the end of slavery, dealing with grinding poverty and social exclusion. As Cornell West famously said, blues musicians were hated and yet taught the world something about love, terrorized and yet taught the world something about courage. In spite of their suffering and mistreatment, they created one of the most important art forms in American history.

Musical Features of Blues

Different subgenres of blues are very different musically (see next section). But in general, blues musicians favor stripped-down pentatonic scales rather than the more ornate diatonic scales. Pentatonic scales are a simplified version of the diatonic scale, so they sound more bare-bones and less elaborate.

Within the scales, blues has the unique feature of shifting seamlessly between major and minor keys. The classic example of this is the “blue note,” which hovers in between the notes of the typical Western scales. A blue note can’t be played on a piano because it falls right in between the keys, but you can hear it on the guitar. Play any open string, then hold that string on the third fret and bend it up a quarter-step. Alternatively, get on a piano and play an E, then go back and forth between G and G# as quickly as you can. This will give you a clue about where the blue note lies.

What’s fascinating about the blue note is that it’s right in the between major and minor third. The “third” is one of the defining notes within a scale, which is why the blue note sounds like it’s hovering in between major and minor. So it isn’t the sad, lyrical sound of a minor chord, and it isn’t the happy, bouncy sound of a major chord. It’s both at the same time. That’s the blues in a nutshell: hovering between one thing and the other, yet deeply rooted in both.

In addition to blue notes, blues music uses a lot of chromaticism, or notes that don’t belong in the expected scale. Blues basslines are especially chromatic: they use dissonant notes to build up tension before a chord change, then release the tension when the chord changes.

In terms of rhythm, the blues is usually heavily syncopated, meaning the emphasis is placed on “off” beats instead of the “down” beats. Syncopation is what gives the blues its momentum – the sense that the rhythm is rolling, or driving along. It’s also what makes blues fun to dance to!

There are also a few classic chord progressions in the blues. Many blues songs, for example, use a “12-Bar Blues” progression. The classic 12 bar blues is:
I-I-I-I
IV-IV-I-I
V-IV-I-V

So, for example, these would be the chords for a 12-Bar Blues in the key of A Major:
A-A-A-A
D-D-A-A
E-D-A-E

Instead of the usual major chord, blues musicians often use dominant chords. A dominant chord is a modified version of a major chord with a much more tense, dissonant sound. To a modern ear, dominant chords sound jazzy, and that’s because they are used extensively in blues-derived genres like jazz. It’s especially common to use a dominant V chord (E7 in the example above) because a dominant V gives a lot of momentum heading back into the I chord at the end of the progression.

Subgenres and Examples

Delta Blues

Bukka White: Fixin’ to Die Blues

Bukka White – Fixin To Die Blues

Delta blues was one of the earliest styles of blues ever to be recorded. It comes from the Mississippi Delta region, which was a major cotton-producing area in the 19th century and therefore had a large population of slaves and their descendants. Delta blues is typically performed by one musician, most commonly a singer-guitarist. In this example, you can hear a slide guitar, which is a classic instrument of delta blues. It’s built around a loose, driving rhythm reminiscent of a train engine or the rolling Mississippi river, but not quite the intense, upbeat dance rhythms that would be used in later blues genres. Lyrically, Delta blues is often centered on dark themes: death, loneliness, and poverty.

Important Artists

Son House
Robert Johnson
Skip James
Muddy Waters
Howlin’ Wolf
Bukka White

Piedmont Blues

Blind Willie McTell: Delia

Delia – BLIND WILLIE McTELL, Blues Guitar Legend

Piedmont blues comes from the Piedmont Plateau, which extends from northern Georgia up to Virginia. It’s similar to Delta blues in instrumentation: songs are typically performed by a single singer-guitarist. But the rhythms are more intensely syncopated, so to modern ears it sounds more “jazzy.” At the same time, the guitarists are using more fingerpicking, so Piedmont blues sounds a little like modern country or folk. As in country music, the vocal style in Piedmont blues is often sweeter and more melodic than the harsh sounds of Delta blues.

Important Artists

Blind Willie McTell
Etta Baker
Barbecue Bob
William Moore

Chicago Blues

Elmore James: It Hurts Me Too

Elmore James – "It hurts Me Too" | Remastered

When you listen to Chicago blues, you can hear how Delta blues was transformed into rock ‘n roll. Black musicians started migrating north to escape Jim Crow, and they brought blues music with the; but the new urban life brought a new set of experiences, and musicians like Elmore James and Buddy Guy lent a new, more modern perspective to the blues. They also started experimenting with electric guitars and larger backing bands. Chicago blues is unmistakably dance music, and is still performed in many blues clubs in Chicago.

Important Artists

Elmore James
Buddy Guy
Freddie King
Otis Rush
Joanna Connor

Boogie-Woogie

Clarence Smith: Pinetop’s Boogie

Clarence Smith – Pinetop's Boogie Woogie

Many blues styles are centered on the guitar, but not all. Boogie-woogie is usually performed on the piano, and had a major influence on jazz and piano-based rock ‘n roll. It was an extremely popular style of dance music in African American communities in the early 20th century, and became mainstream with the birth of “swing” jazz. Rhythmically, it’s similar to Piedmont blues – lots of syncopation with a steady, thumping bassline.
When you listen to boogie-woogie, you can hear how the blues transitioned seamlessly into jazz and early rock ‘n roll. This is a style of music that straddles the line between jazz and blues, incorporating blues rhythms and chords but with a sped-up tempo and a more upbeat feel overall.

Important Artists

Pete Johnson
Pinetop Smith
Clarence Smith
Albert Ammons