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What is the Blues?

When people mention “blues” they may be referring to one of several things. This can confuse musicians early on.

When speaking of the blues, non-musicians are usually thinking of the musical style of the blues. Musicians think of the blues not only as a musical style but also as a musical influence and sound, and a song form. I'll explain the differences:

The Blues as a Musical Style

The blues as a style, or genre, evolved beginning around the 1890’s in the Mississipi Delta area of the United States. The classic blues figure is a singer accompanied on acoustic guitar and sometimes harmonica. The legendary bluesman Robert Johnson is the quintessential example. The blues can be, and is, played on any instrument or with any combination of instruments. Typical blues bands consist of a singer, guitarist, bassist, pianist, and drummer.

Much of what ties together the blues as a musical style is its lyrical content. Most people associate the blues with depressing lyrics about loss or loneliness, but that’s not completely accurate. It doesn't have to be depressing to be the blues. As the famous blues composer and bassist Willie Dixon explains, “It's got to be a fact or it wouldn't be blues.” Blues players will often tell you the blues is about life – the good parts and the bad parts.

Another key feature of the blues style is the unique harmonies, rhythms, and inflections it uses. The blues sound is hard to describe in words, but you know it when you hear it.

The Blues as a Musical Influence and Sound

The blues style has had a far-reaching effect on music. Many of the characteristic sounds found in the blues have popped up elsewhere. Some of these blues qualities include particular slides, bends, and “blue notes”. They are heard both in the singer’s voice and on the instruments playing the blues.

Having the blues sound doesn’t necessarily make something “The Blues”. For example, a pop song could have blue notes while not being the blues. In this case we’d say something is “bluesy” rather than being the blues.

Another common misunderstanding is that the use of the blues scale makes something the blues. Again, the blues scale has bluesy sounds, but is not necessarily the blues style or doesn't make something a blues song. It's simply a sound derived from the blues.

The Blues as a Musical Song Form

When musicians talk about the blues, many times they are talking about a specific song form used in countless blues songs. If a musician says to you, "Let's jam on the blues" they are talking about the blues song form.

A song form is a structure, or formula of sorts, for a composition. All art forms have classic structures used as launching points for compositions. For example, playwrights write 3-act plays, poets write sonnets, painters paint still lifes, and dancers might dance a Cha-Cha. Music is no different and has many types of structures, or song forms as we call them.

Part of your development as a musician is learning about and using song forms. A lot of people might think, “Use a formula?! How uncreative!” You have to realize a song form doesn’t tell you what to play or write, it simply helps you organize what you play or write.

I don’t want to dive too deeply into the importance of structure in music in this lesson, but it’s very important for creating pleasing music. A multitude of song forms have evolved over hundreds of years and are used over and over for a reason. And, there’s nothing stopping you from deviating from or creating your own structures. But, it’s highly likely that they won’t amount to much if you haven’t mastered and understood classic song structures used throughout music history. There's a lot to be learned from musical forms.

Learning the Blues is Essential

I will get into more detail as to why later, but I would say the blues form is the most essential song form to learn for any developing musician. You'll be very wise to take my advice and get very comfortable with, if not master, playing the blues.

About the Blues Bass Lesson Category

In this category I will go into detail about the blues form, it’s importance, how to learn it, and how to play on it. We’ll look at common blues basslines and patterns as well as the many variations of the blues song form. We’ll also examine common rhythms found in blues bass playing and the blues style in general.

I hope you get a lot out of these blues bass lessons!