I had the great privilege to sit and talk music with a friend and fellow musician. He’s a professional performing artist, with a big heart and an astute instinct for music.
We had planned a jam, but it turned into an impromptu guitar lesson since there was only one guitar between us. I played him a blues song I am working on. The way he critiqued the arrangement and my technique gave me a deep insight into his personality and philosophy on music.
He didn’t say it was shit. Even though it was really! He took my focus off the value judgment and helped me looked at the opportunities to improve my technique. He explained the difference between concert (standard) and open chord tuning. And then he showed me why. He tuned down to an open D chord and started to noodle.
It was a sublime, defining moment in my life. I saw the guitar in a completely new way. It was like a new universe opened up to me. No longer was the guitar a jail of chord changes. It was an open meadow of licks, riffs, and droning bass lines. I finally understood how the Delta blues masters were able to create so much with their guitars.
He made it feel like it was possible. It is common to be spoken to in a condescending manner, that you’ll never make it because you don’t have “it”. He did no such thing. He showed me the ropes, what I had to keep in mind, and what I had to work on.
One particular passing comment stuck with me: “It takes years to get to their level… or months if you work hard.” That second part he said with a glint in his eye and a knowing smirk. The comment lit a fire in my belly. I could be like Son House or Robert Johnson if I play and practice every day.
He gave me a place from which to start and something to practice. I had watched YouTube videos on the 12-bar blues, but this made more sense because he placed it with the context of songwriting. It wasn’t just another thing to practice because you’re supposed to. He broke down the 12-bar blues and helped me remember the positions by using the dots on the neck as a reference.
For years, blues guitar and songwriting has felt like some distant alchemy I’ll never figure out. I resigned to the fact that I’ll only write primitive arrangements and compensate with more emotion in my singing. Seems that that is changing now!