From the book and video guide Play the Blues Like … | BY PETE MADSEN
Eddie James “Son” House (1902–1988) played and sang the blues as if he were possessed by demons. It might never be known whether this intensity was due to a conflict between his work as a bluesman and his role as a preacher or to some other phantom, but there is plenty of video footage from the 1960s to give you a taste of the power and intensity of his performances.
Son House was born near Clarksdale, Mississippi, and grew up with a musical father who played the tuba and drank heavily. Eventually, the senior House gave up the bottle and became a Baptist deacon. The younger House also took to religion and eschewed the blues until, at the age of 25, he heard a fellow musician playing bottleneck guitar and became obsessed.
Not long after House began playing at juke joints and parties, a fight broke out at one of his performances, and he shot a man. He was sentenced to 15 years at the infamous Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman, but was released after just two years.
In late 1929, Son House crossed paths with bluesman Charley Patton, and the two performed and recorded together off and on until Patton’s death in 1934. House eventually gave up music but was rediscovered by blues revivalists, who found him living in Rochester, New York, in 1964. He went on to perform with blues artists like John Hurt at venues such as the Newport Folk Festival.
From the 1960s on, House usually played a 1930s National Duolian. His style was a visceral mix of string popping, bottleneck slide, and dramatic physicality. Though he favored open tunings like G, D, and D minor, he sometimes used standard. In this lesson we’ll focus on House’s work in open G (low to high: D G D G B D). Remember, to get into this tuning, lower strings 1, 5, and 6 down a whole step from standard.
I, IV, and V Chord Moves
House’s best-known song, “Death Letter Blues,” is the inspiration for Example 1—a passage anchored with a dead-thumb bass pattern and punctuated by single-string slide lines. Videos of House on YouTube reveal that the bluesman wore a bottleneck on his third finger and held the slide at a severe angle. Note that while this is fine for single-string lines, it’s not ideal in terms of intonation for playing two or more strings at a time.
Example 2 reflects the I-chord (G7) phrases in the verses of “Death Letter Blues.” Key to this figure is the repeatedly bent third-fret Bb. Nudge the string subtly, such that the pitch lands somewhere between the Bb and Bn. This creates a nice tension between the major and minor third—a signature blues sonority.
In songs like “Death Letter Blues,” “Jinx Blues,” and “Low Down Dirty Dog Blues,” House played IV-chord passages similar to the one demonstrated in Example 3. Here the chord’s root, C, is played on string 5, fret 5. Note that House sometimes played the fifth (G) instead as the lowest note, on the open fifth string. To play Ex. 3, bar strings 1–5 at the fifth fret and use your third finger to grab the eighth-fret Bb. If this is too much of a stretch, wear your slide on your third finger and grab the Bb with your fourth finger.
Example 4 depicts a move from the V chord (D7) to the IV and uses the same techniques as the previous figure. In Example 5, you’ll see the I-chord phrases similar to what House played on “Jinx Blues.” The bluesman was known for his prodigious snapping moves on the bass strings. To cop this approach, place your picking hand’s thumb under the sixth string and snap or pop the strings—in this instance, as you play a smoothly descending bass line. I use the blade edge of a thumbpick to get underneath the string before picking. This makes for a dramatic rhythmic effect.
Two phrases inspired by House’s intro to “Special Rider Blues” are shown in Examples 6 and 7. To play Ex. 6, ditch the bottleneck, maintain a steady bass pattern, and embellish the melodic phrases with finger slides and hammer-ons. Ex. 7 brings your bottleneck back into the fray. Notice the welcome change in texture that occurs after the first beat, when the bass drops out. A phrase on the upper strings takes over until the third measure, at which point it yields to a melodic idea on the lower strings.
Example 8 is similar to the I-chord phrases in “Low Down Dirty Dog Blues.” The slide lines are focused at the 12th fret and employ two and three strings. I would recommend forgoing technical authenticity in favor of intonational accuracy for this phrase. Remember, House’s slanted slide sometimes gave him a slightly out-of-tune sound—forgivable, as his performances were so intense. To achieve pitch accuracy when playing Ex. 8, line your slide up with the given fretwire.
In Example 9, you’ll learn a IV–V move similar to one House played in “Low Down Dirty Dog Blues.” There’s a nice juxtaposition between the down-stemmed bass notes, which are played squarely on the beat, and the up-stemmed notes, which are more rhythmically active.
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Example 10 is based on House’s version of “Walking Blues.” Focus on the bass line, which uses a syncopated phrase and hammer-ons. In the third bar, after the repeat, play a slide phrase similar to that in “Death Letter Blues,” and then move up to the 12th fret with the slide.
Walking and Talking Blues
I’ve put House’s ideas together in a 12-bar piece I call “Walking and Talking Blues” (Example 11). The first four bars combine the “Death Letter Blues” opening with the descending octave bass run from “Jinx Blues.” Then there’s a move to the IV chord in the fifth bar, leaving the fifth string open. I added a backward roll on the second beat of bar 6; pick this flourish with your ring (a), middle (m), and index (i) fingers.
In measure 7, for the return to the I chord, I have taken the Bb microtonal bend from Ex. 2 and pitted it against the open B string to create tension. The move to the V chord in measure 9 is exactly like Ex. 4. Here I’m borrowing the C7 chord move from “Low Down Dirty Dog Blues” (Ex. 9). I finish things off with one more descending octave run, culminating in a bass-focused slide lick.
To really capture the essence of Son House’s guitar style, it’s best to go beyond the page and watch some of his performances. I would never suggest sacrificing accuracy, but intensity and passion are perhaps the most prominent characteristics of House’s playing. Find a median between technique and emotion and you will be heading in the right direction.
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 lesson is excerpted from Play the Blues Like… written by Pete Madsen and published by Acoustic Guitar.