Arranging W.C. Helpful, the “Father of the Blues,” for Fingerstyle Guitar

From the January/February 2023 challenge of Acoustic Guitar | By Jon Shain

Born William Christopher Helpful in Florence, Alabama, in 1873, W.C. Helpful was often called the “Father of the Blues,” and he should not have minded the nickname—it’s the title of his autobiography. Helpful’s declare to that sobriquet isn’t in having invented blues music however in bringing it to the plenty in a number of the earliest printed and recorded songs of the style. Certainly, his “The Memphis Blues” was the first-ever recorded blues music in 1914. 


However Helpful was no itinerant guitar-slinger within the stereotypically imagined vein. He was a classically educated musician who wrote music, taught in faculties, and traveled the South with a big band enjoying the favored music of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—closely influenced by classical music, the brass band music made in style by Sousa, and the ragtime of his contemporaries like Scott Joplin. In 1903, whereas touring together with his group in Cleveland, Mississippi, Helpful heard a neighborhood folk-blues trio play, and witnessing the group’s response, grew to become satisfied of the music’s inevitable wider industrial enchantment. In Helpful’s personal phrases, “There earlier than the boys lay extra money than my 9 musicians have been being paid for the complete engagement. Then I noticed the fantastic thing about primitive music.”

So, Helpful took the guitar-based blues and commenced working it into advanced preparations for piano and, later, for full bands, to nice success. In my 2017 recording, Gettin’ Helpful with the Blues—A Tribute to the Legacy of W.C. Helpful, I got down to convey his music again to its unique supply and created fingerstyle guitar preparations of those largely ragtime-influenced songs. On this lesson, we’ll have a look at just a few of the important thing items of the puzzle in adapting a ragtime piano piece for fingerstyle guitar. We’ll deal with chord fingerings, transferring bass concepts, and anticipating the beat within the melody, culminating in a portion of my association of Helpful’s 1917 music “Beale Road Blues.”

A 1917 recording of “Beale Road Blues”

Good Fingerings

In creating an association of a Helpful tune, you will need to be capable to play the vocal melody and a few answering phrases together with the chords and attention-grabbing transferring bass elements related to the style. A lot of Helpful’s music was initially scored in flat keys (probably for brass devices or piano), so with a purpose to make preparations for a standard-tuned guitar, I transpose them to one in all our hottest keys—C, A, G, E, or D. To make issues stickier, lots of Helpful’s unique blues compositions have been way more advanced than latter-day blues, and infrequently modulated to completely different keys inside a music. 

In enjoying rags and instrumental blues with independently transferring melodies and bass traces, it’s necessary to decide on your fretting-hand fingerings properly. Start Instance 1, as an illustration, with a first-finger barre on strings 1–4 at fret 2. Carry the barre to play the open strings on beat 3 of bar 1, earlier than inserting the barre on the first fret on beat 4 after which transferring it again as much as the second fret on the downbeat of measure 2, and so on. This determine additionally exhibits an attention-grabbing notice alternative—by means of the most important seventh (fourth-fret G#), Helpful introduced brighter tones into his blues, maybe to make them extra upbeat for the bigger basic viewers. 

In Instance 2, the identical barre approach works properly for an answering phrase primarily based out of the A significant pentatonic scale (A B C# E F#). We once more dip all the way down to the primary fret for the minor third (C) earlier than ending within the acquainted main pentatonic field. There are arguments to be made for utilizing the thumb solely to select the D string notes of this riff, or for utilizing a thumb-and-index mixture for these notes. I’d counsel attempting each strategies and go together with what feels and sounds higher to you.

Chromatic Strikes and Chordal Anticipation

One actually enjoyable function of ragtime music is the transferring bass with plenty of main tones (notes which can be a half step away from a chord tone). Typically we see these bass notes on the finish of a measure main us to the bass notice of the subsequent chord. There are certain to be compromises when attempting to cowl melody, chords, and bass with one guitar and at instances we have to let go of a chord to have the ability to get to the subsequent one in type. We’ll have a look at two completely different concepts right here. Each could really feel unfamiliar to the strictly alternating-thumb type people guitarist, however these methods can actually open up a variety of enjoyable stuff if used as connective tissue in an in any other case alternating-thumb method. 

Instance 3 is constructed on a descending bass line transferring down from an open C7-shaped D7 chord to an A chord with an E within the bass. This determine may sound unusual at a sluggish tempo, however it’s a frequent theme within the tuba bass traces of the old-time ragtime bands. In any case, ensure that to desert that seventh-chord form on the “and” of beat 2. 

I’ve created somewhat train in Instance 4 the place the bass turns into a chromatic line in eighth notes, main in direction of the next chord. Use your thumb to do the entire work on strings 6–4, once more abandoning the chord form (on this case A) to make it occur. 

One other signature sound in early blues and ragtime songs entails the anticipation of a chord change, normally on the offbeat proper earlier than a brand new chord. In such cases, it’s necessary to worry not simply the melody however the entire chord form earlier than the downbeat of the next measure. As an example, within the first measure of Instance 5, on the “and” of beat 4, transfer to an open A chord along with your fourth finger on the first-string A. 

Beale Road Blues

Instance 6 depicts the primary part of “Beale Road Blues”—a four-bar intro, adopted by a 12-bar blues type. The concept of the quick instrumental intro earlier than the repeated verse type was already fairly commonplace within the in style music of Helpful’s day, however was hardly ever used within the folk-blues idiom. Later, seminal blues guitar information comparable to Blind Blake’s Police Canine Blues (1929) employed the instrumental intros commonly. The bass transfer of Ex. 3is seen within the second measure of the intro part right here.

I usually use completely different three-note voicings of the identical chord whereas retaining an open string within the bass, just like the pair of A voicings in measure 7, permitting me to make use of a transferring treble with my right-hand fingers whereas retaining a gentle bass notice with my thumb. It’s a lot tougher to convey the upper chords into play for those who use barre shapes. The A, D, and E chords, with their “freebie” open string bass notes, are the fingerstyle participant’s finest mates for improvising up excessive over regular bass notes.

A notice about a few the fingerings: Play the D chord in measures 9–10 with a first-finger barre throughout strings 1–3 at fret 2 and seize each the fifth-fret A and fourth-fret G# along with your fourth finger. In bars 13–14, type a daily open E form and use your fourth finger for the first-string notes at frets 2 and 4. You’ll be able to let go of the E chord in a short time to succeed in as much as that fourth-fret G#. 

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I hope that this lesson has given you concepts not only for arranging W.C. Helpful tunes however for enjoying folk-blues and ragtime on the whole.

Jon Shain, the creator of Gettin’ Helpful With the Blues (Mel Bay), is a guitarist, instructor, and producer primarily based in Durham, North Carolina.

W.C. Handy fingerstyle guitar lesson music notation sheet 2


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