"I'm certain that it was an incredible gift for me to not only be friends with some of the greatest blues people who've ever lived, but to learn how they played, how they sang, how they lived their lives, ran their marriages, and talked to their kids." -- Bonnie Raitt
Here's my favorite Bonnie Raitt song. What's yours?
Dm7 Em7 G Am7 F F/G G C C Dm7 | Em7 | A friend of mine she cries at night, and she F | F/G | Calls me on the phone Dm7 | Em7 | Sees babies everywhere she goes and she F | F/G | Wants one of her own. Dm7 | Em7 | She's waited long enough she says F | F/G | And still she can't decide Dm7 | Em7 | Abdim | Am | Pretty soon she'll have to choose and it tears her up inside... F | F/G G | C | She's scared...scared she'll run out of time. I see my folks, they're getting old, I watch their bodies change... I know they see the same in me, And it makes us both feel strange... No matter how you tell yourself, It's what we all go through... Those eyes are pretty hard to take when they're staring' back at you. Scared you'll run out of time. Bb | F | When did the choices get so hard? C | C | With so much more at stake. Dm7 | Em7 | Abdim | Am | Life gets mighty precious when there's less of it to waste. F | F/G G | C | C | Hummmm...Scared she'll run out of time. Just when I thought I'd had enough All my tears were shed... No promise left unbroken, There were no painful words unsaid. You came along and showed me How to leave it all behind.... You opened up my heart again and then much to my surprise. I found love, Love in the Nick of Time. Dm7 Em7 | G Am7 | F | F/G G C
The roots of the blues are preserved in earlier recordings, which are definitely recommended listening for any blues lover. The light they shed on more recent blues is not to be underestimated1 In much of early blues, the meter was anything but strict. Beats and bars were added and omitted freely, according to the whim of the performer. In fact, it could be said that early blues performers felt the music as a flow of beats rather than regular meter and phrase lengths. Today’s blues are rigid and predictable in comparison.
Two main elements make up the blues: the blues scale and the chord changes.
There are zillions of sets of “blues changes.” Having said that, let’s get back to reality: There is a single, commonly accepted set of three-chord blues changes, more or less unchanged since the earliest days of jazz, and still played today.
All of these chords-C7, F7, and G7-are dominant 7th chords. We’ll call them (relative to C) I, IV, and V. Some good examples of three-chord blues include songs by Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk.
Blues changes evolved slightly in the 1930’s. The additions of the IV chord (F7) in the second bar, and the V chord (G7) in the last bar.
More complex set of blues changes came into being during the bebop era. Now we’ve added tritone substitutions and descending chromatic progressions. A quick note about what it is: Tritone substitution means substituting a V chord a tritone away for the original V chord (F#7 for C7).
So which version of the blues do you play when soloing or comping on a blues?
1. The original three-chord basic blues?
2. The variation from the 1930s?
3. Any of the various bebop-era changes?
The answer is all of the above. Today’s jazz musician s freely mix all versions of the blues, borrowing and switching even in the middle of the chorus.
You might just play C7, F7, C7 on the first four bars (from the 1930s version), play F7 and C7 on the second four-bar phrase from (the basic blues) and then play II-V-I changes on the last four bars (the changes from the bebop era). If you are soloing, you can do whatever your ear, mind and soul tell you to do. If you’re comping, (the pianist, guitarist, or bassist), your job is to listen and follow.
How do you master all this variety? Start simple, with the three-chord blues, and add each new chord or substitution when you can hear it and feel ready to play it.