Widely known as the Father of the Delta Blues, Charley Patton is generally recognized as one of the most influential blues artists active in the first decades of the 20th century. Although no single individual can be credited with inventing the Delta blues style, Patton was one of the first stars of the genre.
Old-fashioned and modern at the same time, Patton’s music bridged the traditions of the 19th century while creating a framework of its own that would inspire just about every other blues musician from that point on. When you listen to Patton’s recordings you’re listening to three things: 1) the music and playing styles that predated him; 2) how the guitar was being played in the Mississippi Delta at that time; and 3) what would come in the future, as heard in his string bends, single-string lead lines, and song structure.
Breaking down Patton’s fingerpicking technique, you also will be looking at three things: the strum, the bass, and the single-lead line. Take a listen to his masterpiece “Pony Blues,” recorded in 1929, and work through those three techniques. Using an E chord, begin with a single sixth-string bass note, then three strums, then sixth-string bass again, and finish with two more strums. The recipe (Ex. 1) is: bass, three strums, bass, two strums.
This strum can be heard throughout Patton’s recorded works, both in standard tuning and Spanish tuning. The execution can be done any number of ways—watch Son House perform “Death Letter Blues” and you’ll see how percussive this basic strum can be. However, it’s important to execute the strums in the same direction, either all downstrokes or upstrokes, to get the Patton sound.
To produce the trademark Patton snap with the bass, add the fifth string before the open sixth string, concluding with the strum. One way to do the snap is to place your thumb under the string and let the string slip off the thumb. The string will snap against the fretboard, creating the desired effect. Snap (fifth string), snap (sixth string), four strums, then snap (fifth string) into the next bar (Ex. 2).
“ Every day seem like murder here,
I’m gonna leave tomorrow, I know you don’t bid my care
Can’t go down any dirt road by myself.”
—“Down the Dirt Road Blues,” by Charley Patton
Next, take a look at the single-string lead line that is meant to follow the vocal, something that is often done in country-blues guitar playing. Patton uses this during the first line of the second verse, “Hello central, the matter with your line?” You can employ the same snapping technique you used for the bass strings, or simply pluck the string for this section. Using the first string, start at the twelfth fret, move down to the ninth, seventh, and third frets, and finally to back to your E chord. Again, this passage follows the vocal line (Ex. 3).
As a performing musician, Patton employed many different styles of songs, including spirituals, hillbilly songs, country dance songs, topical songs, popular ballads, in addition to deep blues. “Some Happy Day,” “Going to Move to Alabama,” “Shake It and Break It,” “Some of These Days I’ll Be Gone,” “Tom Rushen Blues,” “Pea Vine Blues,” and “Running Wild Blues” are a few examples of the songs Patton recorded from 1929 to 1934 that shed light on the fact that he had a song for every occasion. But it’s his deep blues that shines most, making him a star in his day and a legendary figure in ours. My top three picks are “Pony Blues,” “Screamin’ and Hollerin’ the Blues,” and “Banty Rooster Blues.”
Patton’s influence also goes beyond just his guitar playing and recorded works—he literally shaped musical history. There are many stories of his influence, but two early ones come to mind. One involves Son House. In 1930, Patton brought the young Eddie James “Son” House to Paramount Studios in Grafton, Wisconsin, to record his first tracks, which would go on to influence Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters—guitarists who would in turn influence countless others.
The other story involves another legendary Delta blues musician, Bukka White, who said, “I always wanted to be like old Charley Patton.” Bukka White not only recorded his own powerful songs in the ’30s, ’40s, and ’60s, but following his move to Memphis became an important influence on his cousin, B.B. King.
Perhaps both of these anecdotes and their impact could have happened without Patton, but they didn’t. Today, Patton’s influence can be seen by doing a simple YouTube search—you’ll come up with countless performances by groups spanning many different genres, languages, and races, all tipping their hat to the genius of Charley Patton, the Father of Delta Blues.
This article originally appeared in the November 2016 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.
Many of the teachers who contribute lessons to Acoustic Guitar also offer private or group instruction, in-person or virtually. Check out our Acoustic Guitar Teacher Directory to learn more!