“Today we’re going to learn to play the blues,” I said. We were sitting on the edge of the stage, our legs dangling into the security pit. “I’m betting you kind of know this already, instinctively, but it’s one thing to hear it and recognize it, and another to play it.”
Colin nodded. “Okay.”
“So, here’s the thing. You’ve learned a couple of chords, and you know how to strum, and how to pick two ways. That’s plenty to start improvising with.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, I’m sure. You don’t have to go to French cooking school and have five hundred ingredients in your fridge to make a sandwich.” I strummed a chord. “You know any music theory?”
“Not really? I mean, obviously I know notes and I can read if necessary. School band stuff.”
“No reading. This is how you learn to read with your ears instead of your eyes. You’ve really never done any jazz improv before?”
“Okay, so this works on chord progressions. You know how I taught you a folk three that go together?” I played A, D, and E7. “There’s a million folk songs built on those three.” I played a little of the Elvis song that was basically “Auralee” and then a little “On Top of Old Smokey.” “I can also do it without the seventh, but it’s the seventh and the flat three that make it bluesy.”
“Flat… oh I get it. Minor key.”
“Except it’s not exactly like using a minor chord in, like, a classical composition. Here’s the regular scale”–I played it–“and here’s the blues scale. It’s just a different set of paints on the palette, as one of my old teachers used to say. I can paint the same picture but it’ll look different.”
“Well, yeah.” It hadn’t actually occurred to me before then that “blue” might actually refer to a color and not, well, a mood or music itself. I’m not sure if I’m too literal or not enough. “So here’s the thing. There’s a twelve bar progression and then there are the eight bar versions. The eight bar is way more common in rock music.”
“Uh, I don’t know. Because rock musicians are impatient as all fuck,” I joked. Then I thought about it more seriously. “Actually, maybe that’s true. It feels like it takes too damn long to get back to the one in twelve bars, once you get used to eight. But quit distracting me with questions.”
I played through an eight bar progression. I wasn’t going to explain the whole business of how the twelve bar progression is pretty standard, but the eight has a lot of variations. I stuck with what seemed to me to be one of the more common ones.
I explained it. “The progression starts with the one, the chord that goes with the first note of the scale, and the goal is to get back to the one.”
“The tonic, right?”
“Right. I thought you said you didn’t know any music theory?”
“I don’t. Just picked that up somewhere.”
“Anyway, so I’m playing, one one, four one…” Then I decided I didn’t like it. “Wait, fuck that, let’s do the full twelve bars. The first four measures are all on the one, the next four it’s two on the four-chord and then two back on the one, and then the last third of it is five-four-one-one.”
That probably sounded like word salad, but playing it you don’t get confused by the numbers or what they refer to. “The twelve bar version really emphasizes the one as your ‘home base.’ You really get centered around that note, that chord. And everyone feels great when we get back to one, because it feels comfortable when you get back to it.”
“Okay. I guess I kind of knew that intellectually but never really had to think about it.”
“So if you play through the chord progression, I’ll play a solo on top of it. Four beats of each: one one, four one, five, four, one, one. Eight-bar blues.” I counted off pretty slow, and strummed through it with him one time.
Then I took off and played whatever came into my head–or my fingers–that went along. Because that’s how you do it. Yeah, sure, there’s a lot underneath that goes into how you pick what note to play and for how long and how it fits together with what came before it and what comes after it, and how it fits with what chord we’re on, but… but there’s a level at which all that drops to the background and you have to be just doing it. The guy on the tightrope isn’t thinking every minute about how much he weighs and how many feet long the rope is and how many feet it is to the ground.
What I played reminded me a little of the solo from the night before, like there was still an echo of it in my ears.
“Your turn.” I switched to playing the chords.
Colin struggled a little the first round through, and every time he got his hands out of synch and had a pluck go wrong, or hit too many strings, he’d say, “sorry.”
“Nothing to be sorry about,” I said. “It’s not like I’m a football coach and you have to do ten push-ups if you drop the ball. Mistakes are part of it.”
“But you don’t make mistakes.”
“Not technical ones, not anymore. But I used to.” A really long time ago. “That’s why you practice. You’ll get better. But that shouldn’t stop you from playing. So quit saying you’re sorry. Just play.”
“Wait, technical mistakes. What other kind of mistakes are there?”
“Shut up and play, Colin.”
He found a couple of riffs that he liked that time through, and tried to repeat them in different ways. It didn’t sound great, but it was progress. Then he passed it back to me and I played a bit more, digging into that same vein I had mined in the show last night. Might need to do more with that, I thought. Then I found a way to work in “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and that made him laugh.
When we were done, I noticed a guy with long, black hair sitting in the front row. He didn’t move until Colin had taken the guitars into the back. Then he stood and came forward. He was wearing a black T-shirt with the sleeves cut off, showing his arms and some tattoos.
“Hey,” he said.
“I’m Cain.” He leaned on the rail of the security pit, too far away for me to reach out and shake his hand.
“Yeah, I know. I wanted to tell you, last night…? You rock, man.”
“Seriously. You shred. You could be doing so much more in a metal band.” He shrugged like he was trying not to insult anyone but knew he wasn’t succeeding.
“I got a crick in my neck that last time I banged my head,” I said, trying to make it a joke, but I didn’t really succeed either. “You lead guitar?” I guessed.
“Nope. I’m second bass.”
Is that like second fiddle? I wanted to ask, but was pretty sure that would also come out as an insult instead of a joke, so I just nodded. “Kind of interesting arrangement,” I said.
“Yeah, Bish wanted it bottom-heavy. Works good.” He shrugged again like he didn’t want to brag.
I hopped down into the pit. “How long you been with BNC?”
“Just signed, oh, three months? Kinda cool.”
“Is Mills your rep?”
“Nah, some guy named Harper. Only met him once.”
“Ah.” Presumably the managers took care of everything. I was rapidly running out of small talk. “So you guys are from around here?”
“Dallas, myself. But we met at school here, and we’ve got following here and up there.”
“Uh huh.” Now I was out of small talk and feeling awkward. Was this the moment I was supposed to invite him back to the bus to smoke a joint or something? “Well, nice talking with you.” Oh god, that sounded cornball and condescending.
“Yep. Later.” He gave me a little wave and walked away.