Blues music has been a cornerstone of American music for over a century. Its distinct sound and structure have influenced countless musicians and genres since its inception. Writing a blues song can be a cathartic experience, as the form itself is often associated with expressing deep emotions and struggles. In this blog, we’ll explore what makes a blues song and how to write one.
The blues is a genre of music that originated in the southern United States in the late 19th century. It was originally played by African American musicians as a form of expression for the hardships they faced in their daily lives. Over the years, the blues has influenced and been incorporated into many different styles of music, including rock, soul, and pop.
One of the earliest and most influential blues musicians was Robert Johnson. His songs, such as “Cross Road Blues” and “Love in Vain,” were characterized by his unique guitar-playing style and his raw, emotional vocals. Johnson’s influence on popular music can still be heard today, particularly in the work of guitarists like Eric Clapton and Keith Richards.
Another iconic blues musician was B.B. King. King’s signature style was characterized by his expressive guitar playing and his smooth, soulful vocals. His hit song “The Thrill is Gone” became an anthem for the blues genre and inspired countless musicians to follow in his footsteps.
What is a blues song?
Blues songs are typically characterized by their 12-bar structure and use of specific chords and scales. The lyrics often feature themes of heartache, loss, and struggle. The songs are usually sung in a call-and-response style, with the singer delivering a line and the instruments answering back.
Why write blues music?
Blues music has a universal appeal that transcends time and space. The blues structure and sound are recognizable by many, even those who are not familiar with the genre itself as the structure is found in other genres all the time. Furthermore, the foundations of the blues structure are rather simple, leaving a lot of room for improvisation and experimentation.
Now that we understand what the blues are and why you should write a blues song, here is how you can do so:
Start with the structure
The 12-bar blues structure is the foundation of the genre. It consists of three four-bar sections, with each section using the same basic chords. The typical chord progression has the chords, I-IV-V, meaning the first, fourth, and fifth chords of the key used. The following is the chord progression of the 12-bar blues:
I I I I
IV IV I I
V IV I I (or V)
Use blues scales
The blues scale is a variation of the pentatonic scale that includes an additional “blue” note – or the flattened fifth. The scale is used in both melody and soloing in blues music.
Repetition is a key element of blues music. Oftentimes, the first line of the blues song would repeat, following this pattern: AABA. Use repeating phrases and lines to create a sense of familiarity and emphasize the message of the song.
Study the greats
Listen to blues legends like B.B. King, Muddy Waters, and Etta James for inspiration and to get a better understanding of the genre. You can also listen to more modern songs that have borrowed from blues influence such as “La Grange” by ZZ Top, “Bad to the Bone” by George Thorogood and the Destroyers, and “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.
Include improvisation and soloing
Improvisation is a key characteristic of blues music. Most of the time, the improvisation will be done using the blues scale on the guitar. However, you can also solo on any other instrument including the voice, which in blues and jazz is called Scat Singing.
In conclusion, writing a blues song can be a rewarding and cathartic experience. By using the 12-bar blues structure and blues scales, you can create a powerful and emotive piece of music. Don’t be afraid to experiment with different instruments and genres to create your own unique sound. Most importantly, have fun and let the music speak for itself.