In the 1960s, fingerpicking blues players, folkies, and rockers alike—Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Bob Dylan, Dave Van Ronk, Townes Van Zandt, Keith Richards, and Jackson Browne, to name a few—fell under the spell of Reverend Gary Davis’ “Cocaine Blues.” Davis himself once told me he considered the tune to be an example of what he called “country picking.” This early style of playing remains in the first position and uses a straightforward alternating bass throughout, making it an easy introduction to Davis’ music.
Davis played “Cocaine Blues” throughout his career, sometimes with spoken lyrics. This transcription is based on an early version, an instrumental heard on his album Pure Religion and Bad Company, recorded in June 1957, in New York City. On the surface, “Cocaine Blues” might seem less sophisticated than Davis’ typically complex style (see lesson feature on page 22). But, using a common progression in C major—involving the I (C/C7), IV (F), V (G), and III (E) chords—he turns the piece into something really special, teeming with interesting details. For instance, on the I chord, Davis never once uses a C note in the bass, opting instead for a low fifth (G), which provides more color and tension. And in spots like bar 8, he hints at a chord seldom heard in the blues, Fmaj7 (F A C E), courtesy of the open first string.
When approaching the C/G chord, Davis often hammers-on a fourth string bass note on the fourth beat of the preceding measure. This contributes to the song’s contemplative and hypnotic effect, which is reinforced by the lines that snake around the upper strings to form a simple melody. Meanwhile, the simple alternating-bass structure acts as a platform that allows Davis to endlessly improvise.
Beyond the technical aspects, there is a seriously bittersweet tone to Davis’ guitar on “Cocaine Blues.” It seems to come from a very deep place in his soul. And when Davis added his extemporaneous spoken words to the piece, they could be funny, witty, down-and-dirty, nasty, and even serious. Be sure to check out the guitarist’s various recordings of the piece and try channeling his spirit when you play “Cocaine Blues.”
Due to copyright restrictions, we are unable to post notation or tablature for this musical work. If you have a digital or physical copy of the May/June 2020 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine, you will find the music on page 52.