Lately I’ve been trying to learn to play delta blues. I’m not ever going to play like Robert Johnson — nobody ever will — but I’d like to learn it as well as I can. Well enough so that, if you like the blues, and you heard me at a coffee shop, you’d enjoy it.
(Not that I’m going to start playing at coffee shops.)
I’ve been playing guitar for 38 years, and I’ve known the 12-bar blues progression and the blues scale for almost as long. But I always figured that learning to play like this would be way beyond my abilities.
* * *
The first thing to notice is that, in the hands of someone like Robert Johnson, it sounds like two guitars playing.
Roughly speaking: the thumb is doing a regular shuffle beat, often with two strings, while the other fingers are doing fills and melodies. At the same damn time.
I’m a life-long strummer and power-chord player. Flat pick. Rhythm guitarist. I’ve never had to develop this kind of coordination. It’s difficult.
The second thing to notice is that every single pitch your guitar can make is on the table. Sure, there’s a progression and a scale — but players regularly use notes outside the standard blues scale, and they hit pitches, by bending strings, that are between the notes.
And throw a slide in — which I’m learning to do — and it’s just nuts.
This music is incredibly complicated compared to the pop rock I’ve always played.
* * *
But I am learning it. Slowly. It’s going to take a few years before it sounds effortless. Right now I sound like a person trying really hard.
The thing is this, though, and this has wider application: for some reason, when I was a teenager, I told myself that I didn’t have the talent to play anything more complex than basic rhythm guitar.
I learned the cowboy chords, barre chords, power chords, notes in first position — and convinced myself I didn’t have the ability to learn fingerpicking or delta blues or anything that would make me a musician as opposed to just someone with a relaxing hobby.
I honestly don’t know why I thought that! I mean, I learned all this stuff, and figured I couldn’t keep learning at some point?
But here I am, now, learning it. It’s hard, but I’m learning.
* * *
Maybe I was confused by the word “talent.” I didn’t think I had that thing — where is it? I can’t see it — and I figured that, without it, I had hit my wall.
But… I’ve always been good at rhythm. It comes so easy that I thought everybody had that ability. And then I’ve seen other guitarists struggle at rhythm bits that take me no time to learn.
I’m also very good at remembering songs. It’s like I have a karaoke machine in my head. This comes with little effort at all — once I learn a song (sometimes just by hearing it) then, usually, I know it forever.
At least the chords. At least enough to be able to play it by the campfire. (Or at a piano, because that’s a thing I do too. Though I play piano like a rhythm guitarist. :)
Maybe these are some small musical talents that I actually do have?
But: hearing pitches and intervals and understanding melody is much harder for me, and that’s just come with a ton of practice. Mostly by listening, trying to recreate what I hear, and trying to figure out why it works.
* * *
I think I’m making a point about impostor syndrome. I told myself I couldn’t learn to play guitar at a deeper level — at the level of real musicians — and here I am at age 50 wondering why I told myself that, because here I am doing it.
Why did I wait so long?
And, sure, maybe I do have some small amount of musical talent, but whatever. If I hadn’t, I probably wouldn’t have been interested at all.
So maybe it’s a good bet that if you’re interesting in a thing, you may already have some talent for it. And maybe, just maybe, interest and talent are really synonyms, or close to it.
* * *
PS I started playing with a thumbpick to get that bass shuffle sounding good.