Kelly Joe Phelps is the total package. He’s not just an excellent guitarist and singer, but a songwriter of depth and complexity. Prewar blues is just a stepping-off point for Phelps’ intricate fingerpicking and soulful vocals; his guitar style is rooted in alternating-bass picking but extends far beyond, with a range of other syncopated approaches.
The depth of Phelps’ musicianship perhaps owes to his unusual trajectory as a musician. Prior to becoming a blues-inspired fingerpicker, he was a bassist, heavily influenced by postbop and free jazz musicians like Ornette Coleman, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane.
Ever since his first recording, 1995’s Lead Me On, Phelps has experimented with open tunings and slide techniques. He initially played lap style, in open D (low to high: D A D F# A D), but more recently has taken to playing bottleneck style (on a National Style O), in open G (D G D G B D).
In this lesson you’ll adapt Phelps’ open-D ideas to bottleneck style, with some examples inspired by “The House Carpenter” (from 1999’s Shine Eyed Mister Zen). Then, you’ll delve into his open-G work with some figures like those heard on 2012’s Brother Sinner & The Whale.
Because Phelps’ playing flows so hypnotically, you can be lulled into thinking it’s easier to play than it really is. So take your time in learning his techniques—highly useful bottleneck moves, regardless of your style.
“The House Carpenter” is built around a classic alternating bass pattern on strings 6 and 4, taken at a brisk tempo of 225 bpm. When you play the single-string slide notes in Example 1, hold the slide low, just covering the strings you are playing.
Example 2 is similar to a lick from one of the many guitar breaks in “The House Carpenter.” It stretches up to the 15th fret, which might be a bit of a reach for a bottleneck player, especially if your neck joins the body at the 12th fret. But it’s fine to use your entire hand above the neck to make the occasional long reach with your slide.
Examples 3a and 3b demonstrate two approaches to playing the same lick. Both examples use a double pull-off at the 15th fret, produced with the slide. In 3a, punctuate the lick with a double-stop at the 17th fret, but in 3b, play the same notes without the slide, on string 2/fret 14 and string 3/fret 13—a position that’s easier to access for most bottleneck players.
Now switch to open G to explore a few examples inspired by Brother Sinner & The Whale. Examples 4–8 are built from an alternating-bass backdrop on strings 5 and 4, and, occasionally, string 6. In Example 4, inspired by “Down to the Praying Ground,” start out with your slide covering strings 1 and 2, landing on the flatted seventh (F♮) on the “and” of beat 1. Then move to the third string and perform a backward slide.
The last two bars of Ex. 4 are based on what are open-C-type shapes in standard tuning, but which take on more colorful sounds in open G—namely C7, with the fifth (G) and then the flatted seventh (Bb in the bass, and Fmaj9, a sonority seldom heard in bottleneck blues. Start out bar 3 with your first and second fingers on strings 2 and 4, respectively, and keep these fingers held through the end of the next measure.
The instrumental “Spit Me Outta the Whale” is a showcase for Phelps’ behind-the-slide playing. Example 5 begins with a series of hammer-ons played above an alternating-bass pattern. In the third bar, move to a C chord by placing your slide across fret 5. To access the third-fret F, lift the slide slightly away from string 1 and fret the F with your first finger. (Note: Phelps wears his slide on his fourth finger, which frees up his other fingers to fret notes behind the slide.)
Prewar blues is just a stepping-off point for Phelps’ intricate fingerpicking and soulful vocals . . .
Example 6 takes this idea one step further. Begin the figure with your slide across the top three strings at fret 5 and then slide up to fret 7. To nail the descending chromatic lines, from A to Ab to G in bar 1 and from F# to F♮ to E in bar 2, keep the slide in place and lift it slightly while you play the sixth- and fifth-fret notes with your second and first fingers, respectively. This is a tricky maneuver, so you’ll need to be patient in order to pull it off.
For the descending double-stop phrase in Example 7, remember to keep your slide low, just covering the strings you’re playing with the other fingers of your fretting hand behind the slide. In bar 3, your first and second fingers should be in the perfect place to fret the double-stops on strings 2 and 3.
In “Talking to Jehovah,” the benchmark for Example 8, Phelps puts his own spin on the classic “Walking Blues” riff popularized by Delta blues players like Robert Johnson and Son House. Instead of a straight alternating bass line, he plays a slightly syncopated bass. Think of the F on string 6, fret 3, as falling into the G note played on the open string.
‘The Blue Whale’
I’ve pieced together some of Phelps’ open-G ideas in a miniature I call “The Blue Whale” (Example 9)—a 14-bar I–IV–V blues in the key of G major. Start out on the I chord (G) with the slide covering strings 1–4 at fret 12. The phrases here wrap around an alternating bass with slide-based melody and a few notes played behind the slide. The slide covers four strings, which might sound a little odd as the fourth-string bass lands at the 12th fret. You could cover only three strings with the slide and use the open strings for the bass, but I find that makes behind-the-slide notes a little more difficult to play.
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In bar 5, play the V chord (D) with the slide still covering four strings and just one note, the fifth-fret G on string 1, played behind the slide. It’s back to the I chord in bar 7, where you’ll do a little descent, from D to C to B, with the slide on string 1.
In the ninth measure, you’ll need to move your slide over one string to cover five strings for the C chord. Measures 11–12 use a descending phrase over the V chord, similar to Ex. 7, and the last phrase uses two double pull-offs and a hammer-on in resolving to the I chord. For the double pull-offs make sure to place both your first and second fingers down at the same time.
Once you’ve mastered “The Blue Whale,” try assimilating some of these ideas and techniques—especially the behind-the-slide stuff—in your own bottleneck work. You’ll be a deeper player for it.