Backbeat Books, an Imprint of Hal Leonard Corporation
256 pages, $29.99 (list)
The Blues Guitar Handbook is appropriately named if only for its format: a 256-page instruction book that includes text, music, tab, chord and neck diagrams, and an accompanying audio CD, all in a spiral binding—which allows it to lay open and flat on a table or music stand. It is designed to be read, and used, by players.
But the musician-friendly format doesn’t begin to tell the story of this excellent reference for blues history combined with step-by-step instruction in all styles, whether it’s acoustic fingerstyle blues from the early 20th-century Delta or blazing lead guitar from modern masters like Stevie Ray Vaughan. In between are thorough explorations of styles and techniques ranging from rhythm, lead, special articulations, acoustic blues, classic electric blues, blues-rock, and jazz blues.
Author Adam St. James, an established blues player and educator, structures the material according to three parts and 12 chapters, or sections. The main parts are Blues Guitar Basics, Mastering a Blues Sound, and Blues Styles Through the Ages. Supplementary material makes navigating the book a breeze, allowing for a linear, start-to-finish read, or a more modular approach, where you may want to jump from, say jazz blues, to a discussion on blues scales.
Though it’s referred to as the “Introduction,” the first 40 or so pages are devoted to an in-depth chronological survey of the blues, starting with the blues’ humble beginnings in the South Central U.S. in the early 20th century. From there the story moves to the post-War migration north to the big cities, where the electric blues of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and B.B. King prevailed. Then it’s on to the blues-rockers of the '60s and '70s, including Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page, and Stevie Ray Vaughan, before bringing us into the modern day with Keb’ Mo’ and Duke Robillard.
This introductory section of the book is richly illustrated (see Figure 1) and quite uncommon for an instruction book. But it’s an excellent addition that helps readers understand the context in which the following instructional material fits.
Figure 1. A richly illustrated history appears at the front of the book, giving readers a good grounding in the blues before the instructional material begins. Note the spiral binding (extreme right), which allows the book to lay completely flat on a table-top or music stand. (Click images to enlarge.)
After the introduction come the instructional parts. Part 1 gets guitarists oriented to basic instructional practices as they relate to the blues. This includes the definition of terms and the basic of music theory, including identifying major and minor scales, and the building of chords.
Part 2 begins the real meat of the instructional stuff, and breaks down the four sections into two on rhythm and two on lead. This is very well-organized material, which is presented in a linear fashion that would make a good lesson plan for any student interested in a structured approach to the complementary techniques of the blues: rhythm and lead. Part 3 is a study of different styles through the ages, including acoustic blues, slide, classic electric blues, blues-rock, and ending with jazz blues. Supplemental material includes a discography (but there is no index).
The lesson material is easy to absorb, due to its elegant layour. Take a look at Figure 2, which shows a typical approach to rhythm playing. The music is presented in a double-staff system that shows standard music notation and tablature. The text explains how to execute the rhythms, strums, and any techniques involved, while the chord diagrams (see the right hand page) complete the visual presentation.
Figure 2. Rhythm guitar examples are presented in standard music notation as well as tab, and chord diagrams (on the right-hand page) show neck diagrams.
Here’s another example of the excellent visual presentation and integration of graphics and text, this time for a lead guitar example. Figure 3 shows the notation (complete with special symbols for showing guitar-specific techniques such as bends, vibrato, hammer-ons, pull-offs, and slides), along with the scale pattern on a neck diagram (on the left-hand page).
Figure 3. Lead guitar music is notated in detail, including bends and slurs, and shows neck diagrams with scale patterns.
Beginning in Part 2, every written music example is performed on the accompanying audio CD. The tracks consist of a count-off (allowing you to play along in time), a drum track, and the featured guitar. A handy track sheet allows you to locate on the disc every example (more than 120) in the book. These are performed by the author, and the sound quality, as well as the performance and tone, is top-tier stuff. Check out Track 86 from the CD, a dead-nuts-on rendition of classic Clapton, from the section on blues rock:
Other styles are just as adroitly captured, including those of Robert Johnson, B.B. King, Stevie Ray Vaughan, T-Bone Walker, and Robben. I mean, St. James just nails it.
My only criticism is that in the lead section, the performed rhythms often don’t line up with those in the notation (though the pitches do match perfectly). This means that as transcriptions, the written figures are not completely accurate. But either the notation’s version or the recorded one are equally viable in terms of an authentic interpretation of the riffs and licks presented in the lead section. Author St. James provides excellent explanations of the various theoretical concepts at work, including the different scales and hybrids (six-note blues scale, major-pentatonic, mixo-blues, etc.) used in the excerpts and solos.
This book covers all the bases, in terms of the scope of its subject matter as well as the depth of its instructional approach. In The Blues Guitar Handbook, you can devote yourself to any aspect of blues guitar, from creating a good rhythm groove to learning the scales that make up the different blues sounds to capturing the authentic sound of a particular style or era. And when you’re not playing from the tutorial sections, you can deepen your knowledge of blues history and codify your understanding of all things blues guitar from well-written instruction that graces every page of this fine book.
Jon Chappell is a guitarist and the Senior Editor of Harmony Central. He has contributed numerous musical pieces to film and TV, including Northern Exposure, Walker, Texas Ranger, All My Children, and the feature film Bleeding Hearts, directed by actor-dancer Gregory Hines. He is the author of The Recording Guitarist: A Guide for Home and Studio (Hal Leonard), Essential Scales & Modes(Backbeat Books), and Build Your Own PC Recording Studio (McGraw-Hill), and has written six books in the popular Dummies series (Wiley Publishing).