For the record, I would like to state that my favourite bluesmen are Sonny Boy (Aleck “Rice” Miller) Williamson and Professor Longhair, neither of whom were guitar players.
But don’t get me wrong, I love a good guitar solo. I’m a guitarist after all, and it was guitar solos that I wanted to play when I first started to learn. Specifically (and I think we need to be specific), I wanted to play solos like ERIC CLAPTON!
I was about 12 years old when I discovered the music of Cream – the group that Eric Clapton formed with Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce upon leaving John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers in 1966. With true adolescent snobbery, I thought that their music was far more worthwhile than any of the contemporary music of the time and I remember saving up my pocket money to buy the double album called “Wheels Of Fire”. It cost £3.60 and when I got it I thought it was just wonderful, I even subjected my jazz loving father to it, and I especially liked the longest track which was a 17 minute version of a song called “Spoonful”, by someone called Willie Dixon. I would listen to it repeatedly and think about how interesting and clever it was.
A couple of years later I bought a 2nd hand album called “The Blues” on the Marble Arch label. It cost me 25p and I bought it for the picture of the guitar on the cover. On the record was another version of “Spoonful” by someone called Howlin’ Wolf. It was only two-and-a-half minutes long but it was definitely the same song: same lyric, same tune, same riff. But it sounded totally different. Howlin’ Wolf was obviously a much better singer than Jack Bruce, this much was clear, then I noticed that the guitar solo was only about 15 seconds long but that it seemed to say far more than the 17 minute version I knew so well, or, indeed the six minute Cream studio version I had uncovered in the interim. I wanted to be loyal to my heroes so it took a while to sink in but eventually I was forced to acknowledge that Howlin’ Wolf’s recording of “Spoonful” was INFINITELY SUPERIOR to either of Cream’s versions and that Hubert Sumlin – the guitarist on the track – was (gasp) BETTER THAN ERIC CLAPTON!!
OK. Calm down. I know that the comparison is very unfair. Both Hubert Sumlin and Eric Clapton were playing what was appropriate for their respective audiences: Black America 1960, White America 1968 – and the point of all this is not to make snide remarks about Eric Clapton (heaven forfend!) but to illustrate the difference between worthwhile and worthless guitar solos. Clapton would never again allow himself such gross self-indulgence, and Sumlin’s work on “Spoonful” is particularly choice. So lets have a look at it.
A basic truth that is often forgotten in the enthusiasm of turning up and letting rip is that your guitar solo must have some relevance to the song. This is also true of instrumental music. As well as anticipating the harmonic and rhythmic circumstances one is likely to have to negotiate, one also has to ask oneself: What is the vibe of the groove? One must also try to remember the absolute golden rule of guitar solos: IF IN DOUBT, SHUT UP.
“Spoonful” was a song that was written by Willie Dixon specifically for Howlin’ Wolf to sing. It was one of a run of hit records that the mighty Wolf enjoyed around the turn of the 1950’s and 60’s and it was, to a certain extent, a pot-boiler. But what a fine pot-boiler! Lyrically it was a variation on a perennial blues theme, a bleak worldview where “ev’rything’s fightin’ ‘bout a spoonful” – of water, or gold, or coffee, or “your precious love” – because those little drops in the spoon can be precious, and people die for them. So it’s a heavy song. A mean, tough song. Musically, it’s a one-chord-wonder: a mid-paced chug on E with a steady rolling beat and a dark, brooding two-note riff – a setting that producer/ songwriter/ bassist Willie Dixon knew very well that Wolf was a master of.
Guitarist Hubert Sumlin, Wolf’s right-hand-man, may or may not be thinking about this as he works the number, running it through with the band to get the groove to sit right. He’s playing his Les Paul and he has set up a tone with plenty of cut. His amp is set just this side of distortion and the sound is thick and weighty. Sumlin comes in on beat two of the first bar. He plays at the octave in standard tuning, basic blues scale, key of E. He starts by bending an A towards B. He holds the bend just below B natural and lets the note sustain for around five beats. A classic opening gambit: it says you’re serious. By ‘worrying’ the tri-tone (in this case E to Bb – Il Diabola Musica!) you are immediately stating dark intent. Of course, it is also an arch cliché of blues playing and what saves Sumlin from predictability is his poise: he places the note perfectly, lets it howl, and lets it lie. This is called STYLE.
When the same rhythmic stress point comes round again he bends a D towards an E, holding it for two beats before following it with a clean E natural played straight. Playing off a syncopated triplet he then falls back on to the bent note between B and Bb and snaps the note off staccato.
This is a completely logical development which heightens dramatic tension for Wolf’s vocal entry by ‘worrying’ the tonal centre just below the fifth of the scale, and then ‘worrying’ the tonal centre just below the octave.
Did you get through all that? Sorry, but I get a little bit tired of writing about music that never writes about music. It’s not that hard to understand. What is much harder to understand is how Cream managed to inflate such a tight, economical and direct song to such a grotesque degree. Nobody ever talks about any of that stuff. It’s a taboo. Guilty males of a certain age choose to remain silent on such subjects as Ten Years After, Savoy Brown, Chicken Shack, Keef Hartley Band, Aynsley Dunbar’s Retaliation. But come on, let’s name them, get it out in the open. Let’s put the analysis to one side for a moment, take a break, and think about all the American tours that these terrible groups undertook in the wake of the psychedelic era. Ten Years After, for example, for many years, held the record for the most American tours undertaken by any British group. Why did they keep going back? All those dope smoke filled dressing rooms, all those blow jobs in crap hotels, all that sordid rock’n’roll fag-ash mythology. And all that lovely money! (Conspicuous by their absence from this indictment are, of course, Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac – for reasons that must be obvious to anyone who’s actually listened to ‘Love That Burns’ or ‘Need Your Love So Bad’.)
And where in earlier years the music that these English debauchees had been peddling was straight-forward pop, now it had developed overtones of meaningfulness as they gleefully plundered the songbooks of black American blues artists. Middle-aged, hard-working, professional black American musicians watched in amazement as these spotty, spindly, long-haired white English youths made off with their songs, played them excruciatingly badly, sometimes without even the vaguest understanding of the music’s forms and disciplines, and proceeded to make fortunes. A few bluesmen joined the party, when they realised that they could make some serious money, but many more just shrugged their shoulders and went to work as usual – playing soul more often than not, as blues had begun to lose favour with the urban audience. This process, of course, being monumentally exacerbated when black American audiences realised that their parent’s music had been annexed by a bunch of inept white guys from England. And who was to blame for all of this? Cream. The first kings of the English blues boom trough.
Ironic, or what? Nobody could doubt Clapton’s sincerity about the blues, then or now. But Cream’s success and the wave it created made a material contribution to the death of the blues as a living art form for black American people. If decadence in an art form is its death knell, then I believe history shows that decadence in the blues began when the active bona-fide practitioners of the music realised that they could make a much better living from a white audience by aping the trappings of white English adaptations of their own cultural heritage.
There’s a lovely story about a lesson in the blues - which may or may not be true, but I hope it is - concerning Eric Clapton and Hubert Sumlin. The time is 1969 and The Rolling Stones are bankrolling the recording of an album by Howlin’ Wolf that will become known as “The London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions”. It’s basically an opportunity for the Stones rhythm section and various other interested members of the rock aristocracy of the time to work with the legendary man himself. Wolf is old by this time, in his twilight, but still capable of greatness – when he can be bothered. His attitude on the record is decidedly nonchalant. Hubert Sumlin is still there on guitar, an added bonus for the guitar fanciers such as Clapton himself, who has studied Sumlin’s style at length in earlier years, and who has been invited to play lead guitar on the sessions - thereby relegating Sumlin to the rhythm section. But as it turns out, Clapton plays very well in front of his hero, the sessions gel nicely and everybody is in a good mood. So Clapton invites Sumlin round to his house in Surrey for dinner.
On the evening in question, perhaps over brandy and cigars, Clapton suggests that Sumlin view his guitar collection. Filled with bon-homie, he offers Sumlin a gift of any guitar that takes his fancy. Sumlin studies the wall of fine instruments, fingering one or two, but there is nothing there that he really likes. On the floor lies a closed guitar case. “What’s in the case?” he asks. “Oh, nothing”, replies Clapton. Nevertheless, Sumlin opens the case and takes out a battered Stratocaster. Immediately, on playing a couple of notes, he knows this is the guitar. “This is your No.1 guitar, ain’t it?” he asks. Clapton nods. “Well, you said I could pick any one that I liked and I like this one”. So Eric Clapton sighs deeply and gives his No.1 guitar to Hubert Sumlin.