Blues Has an Image Problem - It’s All Guitar Solos
True blues fans know that the music isn’t just guitar players playing 24 minute guitar solos. We are aware of the subtleties of instrumentation, and when someone is blasting us with note after note because they’re shouting about nothing (in a musical sense). The thing is though, to the general public thats what modern blues is, an endless, interchangeable parade of carbon copy musicians serving up overlong guitar-fests which merge into one another.
It’s easy to put the blame for this on the shoulders of Stevie Ray. Since his rise to fame there has been no end of white boys playing what they think is blues in pubs and clubs all over the world, obsessed with “tone” and keeping the cowboy hat industry in business. Stevie certainly served as inspiration for these people, but it’s not fair to put the blame at his door, especially when we actually owe him so much. Blues was pretty much dead on it’s feet in a business sense when Mr Vaughan woke up a generation to the genre, lighting up stadiums and nightclubs, helping Bowie to be cool again and generally cluing up the world to what good music is. Through him people discovered the genre, working back to Clapton and Bloomfield and further to Muddy and Robert Johnson. Without Stevie there would not be blues in HMV, this blog wouldn’t exist, you wouldn’t have Matt Schofield, Joanne Shaw Taylor or 24 Pesos. Stevie started another boom that is still to a certain extent going on.
So what has caused the general public to perceive blues this way? It’s not like there are any lack of talented harmonica players, keyboardists, sax players or even violinists out there taking solos, so why is the general perception that guitar is the only lead blues instrument?
The reasons are twofold. Firstly, it’s the record companies. When they discovered a market for big soloing guitar led blues, first with Clapton, then with Stevie Ray and Gary Moore, and lately with Joe Bonamassa they did what they always do and looked for the next one. How many times have you heard someone touted as the next this or that? It’s basic marketing, capitalise on your rivals successes by finding the first imitator you can and flogging it for all it’s worth. Don’t believe me? Look at 50 Shades of Grey, it’s crap, yes, but it sold and now we have rafts of “mummy porn” with “interesting” monochrome covers and titles like “80 Days Yellow” filled with poorly written tosh. The disadvantage of this is that, in their desperation to cash in, the record companies are anything but discriminatory in who they sign. They missed out on Bonamassa, so they need something now, so we end up with the first guitar slinger they could find.
Secondly, it’s us in the media. Me on the radio, the writers in the magazines, the blogosphere, we’re all ready to find the next big thing so we pay attention to what gets sent to us, and the people sending stuff are the record companies. We also need something to fill our pages and shows, to keep up the steady stream of content that makes a blog a success. So we write about what’s there to write about, we play the music we’re sent, we end up trapped in the loop, because what we do is also business.
It’s the media that is, I feel, the solution to the problem. The public get their information from us, we are the marketing machine that allows the record companies to pump out the clones, that perpetuates the loop. We can be more discerning, we can choose with more care the music we write about or play on our shows, we can cherry pick the very best and allow the new, the original to float to the surface. To an extent that’s already happening. Acts like 24 Pesos, Rick Lollar and Jon Amor are making original guitar based music that is miles from the typical style. People like Larkin Poe, Miss Quincy and Hat Fitz and Cara are moving blues in new directions, fusing it with folk and the like to create new sounds. These people are gaining traction and providing alternatives to the norm.
There will always be a place for the big solos, for the virtuoso guitarists, but it isn’t the be all and end all of the blues. If we demand variety, variety will be delivered.