Piedmont Blues comes from the southeastern region of the United States. This includes Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida. Musicians who play in the Piedmont tradition combine elements of blues, ragtime, jazz, and old-time music in their playing.
The major figures of the Piedmont style include Blind Blake, Reverend Gary Davis, Blind Boy Fuller, Blind Willie McTell, Pink Anderson, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, just to name a few. Piedmont blues had a major influence on young white musicians in the folk revival of the 1960s. Roy Bookbinder and Paul Geremia, for example, have been entertaining audiences with their versions of Piedmont blues for over 50 years.
Distinguishing Characteristics of Piedmont Blues
One of the first things that you will notice about the Piedmont style is the steady alternating bass lines and syncopated melody, which are part of why it so challenging. The alternating bass lines form the foundation for the syncopated melody notes. Rev. Gary Davis and Blind Blake are the unsurpassed masters in this regard.
A second distinguishing characteristic is the chord structure. Piedmont players did play straightforward 12 bar blues with the I, IV, and V chords, but many of the songs incorporate more sophisticated chord structures usually associated with ragtime and early jazz. One of the most popular Piedmont chord sequences is I, VI, III, II, V. In the key of C this would be C, E7, A7, D7, G7. Many of the songs favor the key of C major or G major.
A third distinguishing characteristic of Piedmont blues is the lyrical content. While lyrics often play a minimal role in Mississippi blues, lyrics often being interchangeable from one song to the next, the Piedmont style favors storytelling songs. Blind Willie McTell’s “Dying Crapshooter’s Blues” is an excellent example of the storytelling element of the Piedmont tradition.
Mastering the Thumb
The real secret to mastering the Piedmont style is to learn how to separate your thumb and fingers. The thumb simulates the left hand of a piano player while the fingers are responsible for playing the melody notes. The alternating bass line forms the foundation for the Piedmont style and the thumb lays the foundation and keeps the song moving, all without moving your hand all over the fretboard.
Basic chords such as C major and G major contain all the bass notes you need. For the most part, the bass notes consist of the root, the 3rd, and the 5th. The easiest way to begin learning this approach is to play basic chord changes such as C, F, and G and focus on simply playing the bass notes for each chord. The goal is to be consistent and play a steady 1-2-3-4.
Playing basic bass lines with the thumb seems quite simple, but it quickly becomes more difficult when you try to combine the thumb with the fingers. This is because in the Piedmont style, your thumb and fingers are playing two different rhythmic patterns. When learning how to play like this, it is very important to start slowly and work up your speed.
Begin by playing the treble notes of the chord in sync with the bass notes. Play the treble notes on the beat and then slowly begin playing treble notes in between the beat while maintaining the steady bass. The goal is to acquire enough facility with the thumb that you don’t have to think about it and you can focus on the melody notes with the fingers. This helps bring the song to life.
Moving Up the Neck
Once you have mastered the basic Piedmont style in the 1st position, you are ready to move up the neck. This makes it possible to play more interesting melodies and guitar up and down the neck. Chords in the 1st position give you everything you know. This is usually referred to as the CAGED position.
The CAGED system is so named because it refers to the five basic chord shapes; C major, A major, G major, E major, and D major. This is easily demonstrated by using a capo and simply playing the same chord shapes in different positions as you move up the neck. The goal is to visualize the chord shapes without the capo.
For example, you can play a C major chord in the 1st position, in the 2nd position (between the 3rd and 5th frets) using the A shape, in the 3rd position (5th to 8th frets) using the G shape, in the 4th position (8th to 10th frets) using the E shape, or in the 5th position (10th to 13th frets) using the D shape.
Find Your Own Voice
If you are serious about learning to play Piedmont blues, it goes without saying that you need to listen to the masters. What you will notice right away is no one player sounds exactly the same. Rev. Gary Davis, Blind Willie McTell, Blind Blake, and other Piedmont players each have their own distinctive style within the Piedmont tradition.
The goal of this article has been to provide a general overview of the Piedmont style that will provide a firm foundation for anyone who wants to play blues in the Piedmont tradition. Once you learn the basics, you will want to create your own sound. Take a little bit from Gary Davis and blend it together with a little bit of Blind Boy Fuller. Don’t worry about playing things note for note. Improvisation plays an essential role in Piedmont blues.