Last weekend my wife and I embarked on what turned out to be the most exciting vacation we’ve ever taken. Our three days and nights in historic Clarksdale, Mississippi, birthplace of many of America’s greatest blues artists, was as much an education on American history and culture as it was a vacation. In this small, struggling, yet proud town born in one of the darkest periods in American history, we met some of the friendliest and most soulful people you could ever meet. All the locals made us feel welcome and at home, and we also met and became friends with visitors from several other countries, as well as many other parts of the states. The experience was so massive and life enriching that I will not be able to share it in just one article, so I will spread out my writings about this adventure over several.
Several years ago my wife, Kelly, and I watched a fascinating documentary about an old Mississippi juke joint that was still continuing the traditions of ‘old-school’ Delta blues music. At the time, we talked about how great it would be to go to Mississippi and experience this tradition born out of a time and place that gave birth to so much of our favorite music. By the time we got around to exploring that possibility a couple of years later, sadly, we learned that the place had closed down. So, this year, as her birthday approached, I did a little research to see if there were any other juke joint experiences on which we could embark.
I remembered hearing something about Morgan Freeman owning a nightclub in Mississippi and, also aware of his ongoing work to preserve American roots music, this was where my research would begin. A quick Internet search revealed that he is the co-owner of “The Ground Zero Blues Club”, the namesake of this club derived from its location in Clarksdale, Mississippi, a town in which many of America’s greatest blues artists were born. Artists like Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Son House, and many more. At about 300 miles from Nashville, or a 5 hour drive, the trip was easily feasible, so this idea for a birthday vacation/blues exploration became an instant hit.
When we began looking on the Internet for hotels in the Clarksdale area, we stumbled across what sounded like the perfect place to stay. “The Shack-up Inn“, located on the historic Hopson Plantation, is a series of renovated “sharecropper houses and/or tenant houses” and, after reading what must’ve been 50 or 60 glowing reviews on trip advisor, we booked a couple of nights at the shack that seemed to get the most comments, the Robert Clay shack. Among the amenities toted on the Shack Up Inn website are; AC and heat, running water – both hot and cold, indoor bathrooms, and wireless Internet “which tends to work better if you are near the lobby”. While there is a television in each of these units, the sets receive and play only one channel – Sirus radio’s Bluesville. Our particular shack would also be outfitted with a full kitchen, and old piano, and a screened in porch. The Inn also touts themselves not as a bed and breakfast, but as a “B and B” which they will tell you stands for bed and beer, as they don’t serve breakfast. Another uniqueness offered is the option of using a loner acoustic guitar, available by request in the main lobby.
In the midst of all this research we also began learning about the current live music scene of Clarksdale. While the Ground Zero blues club had some decent reviews, further digging revealed that “Reds Blues Club”, right around the corner, offers a real juke joint experience and is “the real deal”, regularly featuring some of the finest local talent. Of course this town built on such a rich history of musical heritage has plenty to see in the daytime as well. The Delta Blues Museum, Cat Head Delta Blues and Folk Art, and the Rock and Blues Museum all came up in numerous reviews as must sees in Clarksdale.
So our plan was to check in to our shack on a Thursday afternoon, attend the weekly blues jam at Ground Zero that night, explore the town on Friday, party at Reds Friday night, and leave Saturday morning for Memphis where we planned to see Graceland in the afternoon, Beale Street at night, and then spend the night at a local hotel before driving back to Nashville on Sunday. Sounds like fun, right? Well as it would turn out, fun would be the understatement of the year, and we wound up changing some of our plans at the last-minute. As you will read later, the only thing we would see in Memphis would be a view of it from our van window as we passed it on our way home.
As a guitarist, having good control of vibrato has been a key component in my ability to effectively communicate through my instrument. For many music purists, the use of vibrato has been widely debated, as so many artists and performers have used it with such a wide variance of efficiency and taste. There is the rapid fire, “billy goat” style vibrato as used by singers like Joan Baez and Eddie Vetter, the emotive, stinging vibrato used by guitarists like Jimi Hendrix and Buddy Guy, and the stark, subtle almost non-vibrato of Miles Davis. All these styles, and others, have their place, but some approaches, arguably, may be more effective than others.
When I was first learning how to play guitar, it took all of my ability to simply play notes and chords cleanly, I wasn’t even aware of what vibrato was. A few years later, as I progressed, I gradually began to learn about the concept of vibrato from other guitarists. But my early development, similar to that of many guitarists, led to a quest for speed, rather than emotional content. When you are playing fast all the time, there is little time for vibrato as you never land on one note long enough to apply it. Fortunately, my early possession by a speed demon eventually came to an end, and a stronger, more pronounced sense of vibrato gradually became inherent to my playing.
What is vibrato? Here is a definition from the website answers.com:
“Vibrato is a musical effect consisting of a regular pulsating change of pitch. It is used to add expression to vocal and instrumental music. Vibrato can be characterized by the amount of pitch variation (“depth of vibrato”) and speed with which the pitch is varied (“speed of vibrato”).”
It goes on to say:
“The use of vibrato is intended to add warmth to a note. In the case of many string instruments the sound emitted is strongly directional, particularly at high frequencies, and the slight variations in pitch typical of vibrato playing can cause large changes in the directional patterns of the radiated sound. This can add a shimmer to the sound; with a well-made instrument it may also help a solo player to be heard more clearly when playing with a large orchestra. This directional effect is intended to interact with the room acoustics to add interest to the sound, in much the same way as an acoustic guitarist may swing the box around on a final sustain, or the rotating baffle of a Leslie speaker will spin the sound around the room.”
This brings up my first point, the battle to be heard. Although they are using classical music in the context of an orchestra, I believe the concept is universal. If you’re performing with a live amplified band, whether singing a lead vocal, playing a signature lick on a violin, or wailing a guitar solo, there is usually an effort required to make those notes audible and impactive above the roar of the band. Think of the total sound made by the band as one giant wall of sound. The lead melody, in most situations, is simply a group of chord tones and passing tones that fit into that wall of sound. A good strong melody in and of itself usually contains enough motion to create a contrast against the wall of sound, but when the melody sustains on a note, it begins to blend in. Using vibrato on those sustaining notes and at the end of phrases can create additional movement and allow the note to have a greater contrast against the otherwise static wall of sound upon which it sits.
Leopold Mozart, father of the famous composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, wrote a textbook for violin instruction, Versuch einer gründlichen Violinschule which was published in 1756. In it he writes “there are performers who tremble consistently on each note as if they had the permanent fever. ” Although he ultimately condemned the practice, he does go on to suggest that vibrato should only be used on sustained notes and at the end of phrases.
This is where the line between preference and taste becomes greatly blurred. Many successful artists use an excessive amount of vibrato, such as the previously mentioned vocalists, and this creates the trembling effect as noted by Mozart. And while this does not prevent these artists from having successful careers, this kind of “billy goat” style vibrato is often the result of a less than stellar technique. The lead melody was already designed to sit on top of the mix, containing enough inner motion to do so without constant vibrato. By singing with a constant vibrato, it’s like putting extra notes in where they weren’t intended. Some musicians and singers create these habits early on and simply choose to stick with what works for them.
Now take this to the other extreme. Listen to, or envision the sound of a great David Gilmour guitar solo. The fast passages are played cleanly with no vibrato, but then at the end of the phrase, he might just sit on the last note for a few seconds before slowly and incrementally adding some substantial vibrato, usually at a speed that is a subdivision of the songs tempo. A lot of great blues and jazz musicians also employed this technique as well as vocalists like Etta James, Ray Charles, Frank Sinatra, and Paul Rogers.
This concept radiates my other point, our need to express. Music is simply communication. As a musician we are trying to convey or communicate stories, concepts, ideals, and emotions. Vibrato is simply one of the tools on our palate. So are dynamics, volume, speed, phrasings, etc. If you play constant 16th notes in your solos or drum fills, there is no contrast, the passages will be static and predictable. Insert some slower phrases within the fast flurries and the slow passages will create a contrast, ultimately giving more meaning to the 16th notes. I believe the same is true for vibrato. Use it constantly, and there is no contrast. Use it where it is most needed and most effective, and it will only serve to enhance your overall expressiveness.
From an electric guitarists standpoint, I like to use vibrato not only to create drama within a lead line, but also to help coax more sustain out of a note, and at times to induce controlled feedback. I’ve also adopted the technique of adding vibrato to the end of a bent note, a trick I learned from listening to recordings of guitarists like Jimi Hendrix and SRV. Of course, some would argue that true vibrato must come from a feeling, not a thought
This is all highly subjective and to be taken in stride. Explore the endless possibilities of vibrato but don’t overthink it, it should feel natural. Like one of my great instructors at Berklee once said “Practice your technique at home. But when you get to the gig, just play.”
Last night I went to a blues jam at a local bar near my home. In my younger days, I used to frequent blues jams regularly, sometimes driving an hour and a half just to sit in for three songs. I haven’t been to a blues jam in quite some time, and last night was a reminder of a darker element inherent to some of these events.
This particular jam is held at a local watering hole, and in general, a fun place to go. The bar owner is a man of high spirits, and his good nature is a catalyst for the overall feeling of community which exists in this quaint setting. Kelly and I were meeting some friends, and when we arrived they were already there, hanging out and listening to the house band play their first set. These friends were also locals and had invited some of their friends, a three-piece blues band of passionate youngsters that drove down from Kentucky.
Shortly after greeting them and settling in, the fellow that runs the jam came over and asked our band friends if they were here to play. When they said yes, he barked “Do you guys play blues? You look like a bunch of rock and rollers to me, with the long hair and everything. This is a blues jam and we’ve got to pretty much stick to the blues.” Certainly not the friendliest foot to put forward. He accepted the fact that they were going to play, but told them they had to play with an additional guitar player, some local SRV type.
As they were the first players to arrive at this first come first serve jam, the jam master told them they were up, but to set up as quickly as possible as the clock was ticking. As they were setting up their guitars and getting situated, the “blues Nazi” walked over to the drummer and told him that he was too loud, even though he hadn’t played anything yet.
A few minutes later they started playing their first song, which was going well until halfway through it when the uninvited “guest” guitar player accidentally unplugged the bass players amp, essentially train wrecking the song. Halfway through the second song our less than friendly jam night commando was in their face again telling them they were too loud. They finished their short set to a decent response, and I might add that I thought they were quite good, full of that kind of youthful energy and passion that so many older players often lack.
When I chatted with a couple of these players shortly afterwards, they told me they frequent a lot of blues jams near their hometown, and at least half the time they get this kind of attitude. It made me remember the days when I used to frequent blues jams and how I had often experienced the same thing. The funny thing is, this particular blues Nazi, is not even a very good musician (as is the case with most blues Nazi’s). His condescending destructive nature wards off many a player. These three excitable youngsters drove 100 miles to come play music, as I had done many times in my younger years. So what if they were loud, isn’t live music too loud half the time anyway? If we wanted to hear quiet music, we would have stayed home and played the stereo.
The moral of the story is: Life is short, so don’t be a blues Nazi