Blake wasn’t called the King of Ragtime for nothing – he had the title before Elvis even! Any guitarist who has explored finger-picking blues techniques will know at least one or two of his songs. Blake’s music inspired many later guitarists and even legends such as Reverend Gary Davis and Big Bill Broonzy admitted to listening to his records with admiration.
Arthur Blake’s style was very precise and crisp, with a bouncy ragtime syncopated feel. Although with most of his pieces we can quite easily work out where to put our fingers, it’s often the sheer speed of his work that defeats those not willing to invest a lot of time into the style. Luckily, he also produced slower songs which had basically the same structure, so we have plenty to go on.
Having cut over 120 sides, it must have been incredibly difficult to vary his output enough to keep the public’s interest. Blake did this by using several keys (but mostly C and G) and experimenting with the bass patterns and overall timing. For example, in TootieBlues, he starts off at a leisurely pace and suddenly doubles up on the timing, complete with single string runs thrown in! It’s very challenging and huge fun to play.
In his instrumental ‘Guitar Chimes’ he shows us one of the Golden Rules of blues
Two of Blake’s pieces are legendary because of their complexity and speed. Police Dog Blues in open D tuning is a fast masterpiece of precision picking and it’s quite rare to hear a faithful rendition by a modern guitarist – Ry Cooder is the closest there’s ever been, I think.
West Coast Blues is a showcase for Blake’s trademark technique, which was to roll the thumb across two bass strings so that we hear two notes ‘bu-bum’ instead of just one. When this is done using an alternating bass picking pattern the result is an extremely syncopated sound that almost defies belief. When I first heard this I was certain that two guitars were being played. It’s almost impossible to play it like Blake and one day I’ll get it right. Saying that, I’m finding that some of my students are making a better job of it than I do, which is what it’s all about.
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