From the February 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar | BY PETE MADSEN
Not enough can be said about the influence of Charley Patton, a musician who is widely considered the father of the Delta blues. He informally mentored none other than Robert Johnson, and Son House, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Elmore James, and John Lee Hooker are just a few of the pioneering blues guitarists indebted to Patton.
Charley (sometimes spelled Charlie) Patton was born in 1891 near Bolton, in southern Mississippi. He was of a mixed racial background, a true American melting pot of African American, white, and possibly Native American blood. In 1897, his family moved to the Dockery Plantation, where he learned guitar from a fellow resident, Henry Sloan.
While living at the plantation, Patton met Henry C. Speir, a white music store owner who worked as a talent scout for several record companies and produced the important recordings of many Delta Blues artists. Beginning in 1929, Patton recorded several sides for Paramount records, including “Pony Blues,” which became a hit and allowed him to establish a somewhat lucrative career.
Audiences all over the South soon packed in to witness Patton’s flamboyant performances—he was known to play the guitar behind his back—matched with his loud, gravelly voice. He went on to record great tunes like “Banty Rooster Blues,” “Green River Blues,” “Shake It and Break It,” “A Spoonful Blues,” and many others before his untimely death in 1934 from a mitral valve disorder.
Patton’s recordings can be a bit challenging because they suffer from the poor quality of the times. So I came to Patton’s material not from the original sources but through modern players like Alvin Youngblood Hart, whose rendition of “Pony Blues” on his Big Mama’s Door album captures the dynamics and rhythmic propulsion of the playing with much improved audio.
Patton played many styles, from deep blues to hillbilly songs to 19th-century ballads and other forms of country dance music. He achieved a bold sound by tuning his guitar up a step and a half, which gave his slide playing a bright and articulate panache. In this lesson, you’ll look at how he played in open G, up a minor third (F Bb F Bb D F). You probably don’t want to tune up so high, so play the examples in this lesson either with a capo at the third fret or simply in open G.
Begin this lesson by tuning to open G. To get there from standard tuning, tune your sixth and fifth strings down a whole step, to D and G, respectively, and your first string down a whole step, to D.
In several songs Patton uses a similar strumming pattern that can be played in a couple of different ways. “Tom Rushen Blues,” “High Sheriff Blues,” and “Hammer Blues” share this same rhythm. In Example 1a, use a down/up/down/up/up/down pattern, playing the downward strums with your thumb and the upward ones with your index finger. Example 1b is another typical Patton pattern; play it using all downstrokes. These two patterns provide the rhythmic foundations for the examples that follow.
Patton is believed to have played both lap-style slide (with a knife over the strings) and bottleneck. For this lesson, stick with bottleneck. It’s not known which finger Patton placed the slide on, but I recommend using your fourth finger, allowing you to fret chords and play single-note phrases with your index, middle, and ring fingers.
If you’re new to bottleneck playing, keep these pointers in mind: In general, heavier strings and slightly higher action work best with a slide. I prefer medium-gauge strings (.013–.056), but you can go thicker on the first and second strings. Some folks use a .015 or even .016 for string 1 and adjust accordingly for strings 2 and 3. Incidentally, it is thought that Patton used an unwound third string.
Try Example 2, a lick similar to those heard in “Tom Rushen Blues” and “High Sheriff Blues.” The bass accompaniment is almost a monotonic pattern but with some gaps and other rhythmic flourishes. For instance, in the second measure the bass drops out and the slide takes over. These slide phrases should be played very quickly. To work up to this, practice sliding from the second to the fifth fret, as well as from the fifth to the seventh—and stopping on a dime.
Example 3 is similar to the main phrase in one of Patton’s most famous songs, “Banty Rooster Blues.” Again, most of the slide is played on the first string. Keep in mind that the slide notes trace the melody of the song and have a slightly clipped sound.
Another Patton classic, “Mississippi Bo Weavil Blues,” serves as the inspiration for Example 4. This time the bass rhythm is centered on an alternating pattern that travels between the fifth and fourth strings, playing the chord’s (I) tonic and (V) dominant. By now, you might have noticed that the G on string 1, fret 5 serves as an anchor for Patton’s melodies.
In “Bo Weavil,” Patton gives extra emphasis to the note by playing it an octave higher, at the 17th fret. This may have been one of the songs that he played lap-style with a knife blade. If you are having a tough time catching that 17th fret, reach up with your entire hand above the fretboard, so that you only need to glance the first string.
Example 5 shows how Patton often played the IV chord (C) in open G tuning. The bottle-neck covers all of the strings and slides between frets 4 and 5. Make sure you keep even pressure along all the strings with your slide, otherwise you will get an audible—and unwanted—rattle.
In “Hammer Blues,” approximated in Example 6, Patton takes another approach to the IV chord. He plays it using slides on strings 1 and 2 only. The succeeding single-string slide notes played on string 3, fret 7 imply a V chord (D). Example 7 is similar to “Banty Rooster Blues.” Here a single-string slide movement reflects a change from the V (D) to the IV (C) chords and then back to the I (G). Try directing your slide by tilting in to play strings 3 and 4, thus avoiding strings 1 and 2.
“Low Down Sheriff Blues”
Example 8 is a tribute to Patton I call “Low Down Sheriff Blues.” It starts off with the basic strumming groove from Ex. 1, then progresses through a series of slide runs, mostly on string 1. One of the keys to Patton’s slide playing is to leave open spaces where the slide notes are not accompanied by the bass. For example, in bars 4, 8, and 11, the bass notes drop out. Also, most of the slide notes are played quickly, represented by grace notes (small ones).
Patton would sometimes make big leaps very quickly on the fretboard with the slide and stop suddenly—e.g., the slide from fret 2 to fret 8 on string 1 in bar 7. If these angular slides give you trouble, just isolate them and slow things down, gradually increasing the speed until you can play them fluidly—and with that certain panache.
Pete Madsen is a San Francisco Bay Area–based guitarist, author, and educator who specializes in acoustic blues, ragtime, and slide guitar. learnbluesguitarnow.com
This article originally appeared in the February 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.