Several years ago, after playing a concert in London, the blues singer and guitarist Eric Bibb was approached by a fan with a battered old guitar case in hand. The case contained a gem of an instrument—the 1930s National guitar that the legendary Delta blues artist Booker White (better known as Bukka White), a cousin of B.B. King, played for decades on albums and tours throughout the United States and Europe. Bibb was wowed not just by the historical importance of the guitar, the bass side of which still had a handwritten set list taped to it, but by its superior sound. “Booker’s guitar had an incredibly rich, bell-like timbre, an unquantifiable sound far beyond just a good guitar tone,” he says. “The guitar resonated not as separate parts but as one piece; it felt a little otherworldly to play it.”
White’s guitar inspired Bibb to create Booker’s Guitar, his 17th solo album, on which he paid tribute to the Delta blues tradition in a stripped-down setting—just guitar, voice, and harmonica. While Bibb used his own Fylde guitars on most of the album, he borrowed White’s guitar from its owner to record the album’s stark and haunting title track. “Having access to Booker’s guitar was kind of a talismanic thing,” says Bibb. “It signaled to me that I should make some new music from old acoustic blues materials and extend the tradition in my own style.”
As a teenager, Bibb spent a great deal of time in New York City’s Greenwich Village, where his father, Leon, was a singer on the folk scene. Bibb learned firsthand about music from such legends as Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan; the latter advised him to keep things simple on the guitar. At the same time, Bibb was exposed to jazz; his uncle was the pianist and composer John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet. And when Bibb moved to Europe in his early 20s (he now lives in Sweden), he delved deeply into blues guitar as well as world music. All of these different strains can be heard in Bibb’s modern style, which uses fingerpicked Delta blues as a foundation. I recently sat down with Bibb in an apartment on the Upper West Side of New York City to learn more about the playing on his latest record and his use of unorthodox chords in blues music.
Can you give an example of how the traditional acoustic blues repertoire guided your work on Booker’s Guitar?
There’s a song on there called “Walkin’ Blues Again.” It’s a reworking of certain blues imagery, lyric-wise and guitar-wise. There’s a kind of walking riff in the guitar part that calls to mind many older songs. I’ve got my capo on the third fret, and my guitar is tuned to dropped D, down a half step, so while I play in the key of D, everything sounds in the key of E. The whole tune is just one main riff [bars 1–2 of Example 1] and a turnaround [bars 3–4].
A number of your songs are built on a similar single-riff approach.
“With My Maker I Am One,” also on the new record, is typical of the approach I use for writing new blues tunes with repetitive modal riffs that can really keep something going rhythmically beneath the lyrics. Since there aren’t a lot of changes, I try to use compelling riffs that aren’t quite standard. This riff [Example 2] is based on a D5 shape. It ends up being kind of a contemporary field holler or work-song riff; it’s almost like you have a gang of hammers coming down after the vocal line. The song has one turnaround—the V chord, A7sus4 [Example 3]. I love using a big, open V chord like that.
It’s not uncommon to hear chord sounds in your recordings that aren’t exactly typical of blues music. How did these harmonies find their way into your playing?
At the same time that I was getting into country blues, I was studying classical and jazz guitar. From these experiences extended chords [those adding notes beyond the seventh] stayed in my mind and fingers, and I came to realize that I could use the chords in any style, as long as I did so sparingly and in the right moment. I never thought it was necessary to avoid extended chords just because traditional blues guitarists tended not to use them.
Can you give an example of an extended chord in one of your songs?
On my interpretation of “Come Back Baby,” which I appropriated from a Dave Van Ronk arrangement, there is one interesting chord—a G triad with a C in the bass, also called Cmaj9. It’s quite radical for a country blues setting, but it seems to work well. I play the song in A major, which sounds in Ab since I’m in standard tuning, down a half step. Here’s the chord as it appears in the turnaround, preceded by the IV chord (D7/F#) and the iv minor (Dm/F) [Example 4]. It’s great to have the unexpected sound of the iv minor in a major-key context.
You’ve been known to unexpectedly use an extended chord to end a piece.
Yes—here’s a move fingered in the key of A major I sometimes use when ending “Don’t Ever Let Nobody Drag Your Spirit Down” [Example 5]. It’s got some jazzy 13th chords a half step apart and ends unexpectedly on the flat VI chord, Fmaj7, in this case containing the flat fifth. That’s the kind of interval they used to crucify people for. I love that chord.
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New and Old Sounds
“I like finding an old gospel tune or spiritual that talks to me and rearranging it—setting it harmonically in a new space that doesn’t upset the tradition,” Eric Bibb says. Here, Bibb adds a modern-sounding section to a more traditional melody in D.
This article originally appeared in the September 2010 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine and was reprinted in the September/October 2020 issue.