Playing the blues is easy, many a budding guitarist thinks—their starry eyes fixed on the mathiest, proggiest, djent-iest (or whatever) guitar pyrotechnics of their favorite 7- or 8-string slinger. Learn a minor pentatonic blues scale, a few barre chords, some sexy bends, a 12-bar progression and you’re off, right? Why spend time trying to play like Albert King (Jimi Hendrix’s idol) or Buddy Guy when you’re reaching for the ultimate sweep-picking technique, or whatever, in the competitive gamesmanship of guitar heroics?
I’ve encountered this kind of thinking among guitar players quite often and find it baffling given the blues essential place in rock and roll, metal included—and given how much more there is to playing blues than the stereotypical formulas to which the music gets reduced. Black Sabbath started as a blues band, Led Zeppelin never stopped being one, and it was Robert Johnson who turned the devil into rock’s brooding, Byronic hero.
The crossroads story has been told in hindsight as a metaphor for Johnson’s troubled, cursedly short life. But at the time, it was about envy on the part of his fellow bluesmen, who couldn’t believe how good he’d gotten in seemingly no time. Want to emerge from quarantine and inspire similar envy? The devil isn’t offering online lessons, but you can learn the blues from contemporary legend, John Mayer, who posted the lesson above on his Instagram Live a few days back.
As with all such online lessons, everyone will respond differently to the teacher’s style. The format does not allow for Q&A, obviously, but you can pause and rewind indefinitely. Mayer doesn’t move too quickly; if you’re an intermediate player with a grasp on the basics, it won’t be too hard to keep up. He comes across as easygoing and humble (not a quality he’s always been known for), and explains concepts clearly, relating them back to the fretboard each time.
As always, one will get out of the lesson what they put into it. Maybe no one will accuse you of conspiring with the evil one when you’ve mastered some of these techniques and incorporated them into your own playing. But you won’t have to lie, exactly, if you tell people you’ve been jamming with John Mayer. Or, if that’s not cool in your circles, come up with your own legend—abduction by a conspiracy of blues-playing aliens, perhaps.
However you explain it to your friends when we get out of the woodshed, I have no doubt that becoming a better blues player can improve whatever else you plan to do with the guitar.