Although The Beatles were my “jumping off point” in my rock ‘n’ roll dreams, they did not give me the roadmap to anything other than a dream. I needed to find a path, but I really wasn’t looking for it.
I was flailing around, trying different instruments. Maybe I could be a songwriter, or a drummer, or a bass player, or a singer, or a guitar player. I joined up with anyone and everyone. All the kids in my neighborhood seemed to be doing the same thing. Bands came and went, sometimes in the same day. Within a couple of years, through trial and error (some of it painful, as far as ego was concerned), the answers began to come into focus.
I decided that the guitar would be my instrument, but I still didn’t quite know where to find the inspiration to develop my skills.
Then, one day, it just hit me. It hit me through a song that I was asked to learn, while I was playing bass guitar in one of the local bands. I was just 15 years old when this event happened. I was asked to learn a song called “Born in Chicago,” by The Paul Butterfield Blues Band. Their newly released debut album was coveted by most of my friends. When I put the album on my record player, the first notes of “Born In Chicago” poured out of the speakers, and the sound and style of the guitar playing went straight to my heart.
The band’s guitarist, Mike Bloomfield, thus became my guitar hero. I wanted, no, I needed, to learn how to play like he did. It was magical, it was life affirming, and I not only wanted to play like him, but shortly thereafter wanted to know how he got to where he was. What did he know, and where did he learn that from? I kept reading about him and started making notes on his inspiration. What were his building blocks? I knew that if I could discover his foundation, then those pillars would soon become mine.
While I will never stop learning, the framework for all blues music began with Robert Johnson and Elmore James. One can never play this music without knowing that. Certainly, one can always learn to play the notes, but the secret to the blues is how you play them. That can never be faked, and anyone who has ever gone on to blues stardom knows this:
Technique is good when understanding structure, but that alone will never connect.
This is why, when watching YouTube videos of 8-year-old whiz-kid violin players, or singers, or piano players, you can easily marvel at their knowledge. It looks amazing and, perhaps, in some quarters, it transcends style in some people’s minds. It is, however, a false artistry, as it has no emotional foundation. It is like a Fugazi diamond. To the naked eye it looks stunning, but it isn’t real, it’s fake.
Blues is about “feel,” and feel only comes from the passion that one has to express the notes (whether it’s guitar, piano, organ, harmonica, sax, or vocals) that emanates from pain. It took me 20 years to figure that one out. Once I did, every note I now play, when I play the blues, comes from that place, and it is always…Real.
It took me 30 years to understand how to play just one note by BB King, and that feel can never be faked.
Before rap music became, in the words of Chuck D from Public Enemy, “The CNN of the Street,” the blues had been doing it for decades.
It’s not about technique, it’s about the feel that lies beneath the notes. That authenticity can never be faked.
In the end, Fake Blues is Fake News.