A private lesson with blues acoustic guitar master Eric Bibb
Extract from the September / October 2020 issue of Acoustic guitar | By Adam Perlmutter
Several years ago, after performing in London, singer and blues guitarist Eric Bibb was approached by a fan with a battered old guitar case in his hand. The case contained a gem of an instrument, the 1930s National Guitar that legendary blues artist Delta Booker White (better known as Bukka White), a cousin of BB King, played for decades on albums and tours in the United States and Europe. Bibb was impressed not only by the historical significance of the guitar, whose bass side still had a handwritten setlist, but by its superior sound. “Booker’s guitar had an incredibly rich, bell-like timbre, an unquantifiable sound far beyond a good guitar sound,” he says. “The guitar sounded not as separate parts but as one piece; it was a bit of a different world to play it.
White’s guitar inspired Bibb to create Booker’s Guitar, his 17th solo album, on which he pays homage to the delta blues tradition in a stripped-down setting – just guitar, vocals and harmonica. While Bibb used his own Fylde guitars on most of the album, he borrowed White’s guitar from its owner to record the album’s stark and haunting title track. “Having access to Booker’s guitar was kind of a talisman,” Bibb explains. “It signaled to me that I had to make new music from old acoustic blues material and extend the tradition in my own style.”
As a teenager, Bibb spent a lot of time in Greenwich Village in New York City, where his father, Leon, was a singer on the folk scene. Bibb learned music firsthand from legends such as Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan; the latter advised him to keep it simple on the guitar. At the same time, Bibb is exposed to jazz; his uncle was pianist and composer John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet. And when Bibb moved to Europe in his early twenties (he now lives in Sweden), he dove deep into blues guitar as well as world music. All of these different varieties can be heard in Bibb’s modern style, which uses finger-picked Delta blues as the base. I recently sat down with Bibb in an apartment on New York’s Upper West Side to learn about playing his latest record and his use of unorthodox chords in blues music.
Can you give an example of how the traditional acoustic blues repertoire has guided your work on Booker’s Guitar?
There’s a song over there called “Walkin ‘Blues Again”. It is a reworking of certain images of the blues, at the level of the lyrics and the guitar. There is a kind of traveling riff in the guitar part which is reminiscent of many older songs. I have my capo on the third fret, and my guitar is tuned to the D down, half a step lower, so while I’m playing in the key of D, everything sounds in the key of E. is only one main riff [bars 1–2 of Example 1] and a turnaround [bars 3–4].
A number of your songs are built on a similar single riff approach.
“With My Maker I Am One”, also on the new album, is typical of the approach I use to write new blues tracks with repetitive modal riffs that can really keep something rhythmic under the lyrics. Since there aren’t a lot of changes, I try to use compelling riffs that aren’t quite standard. This riff [Example 2] is based on a D5 form. It ends up being sort of a contemporary country scream or work song riff; it’s almost like you have a bunch of hammers coming down after the vocal line. The song has a turnaround – the V chord, A7sus4 [Example 3]. I love to use a big open V chord like this.
It is not uncommon to hear chord sounds in your recordings that are not exactly typical of blues music. How did these harmonies find their place in your playing?
While I was interested in country blues, I was studying classical and jazz guitar. From these experiences extended agreements [those adding notes beyond the seventh] stayed on my mind and my fingers, and realized that I could use chords in any style, as long as I did it sparingly and at the right time. I never thought it was necessary to avoid extended chords just because traditional blues guitarists tended not to use them.
Can you give an example of extended chord in one of your songs?
In my rendition of “Come Back Baby”, which I appropriated from an arrangement by Dave Van Ronk, there is an interesting chord – a G triad with a C on bass, also called Cmaj9. It’s pretty radical for a country blues setting, but it seems to work well. I play the song in A major, which sounds in lab since I’m in standard tuning, a semitone lower. Here is the chord as it appears in the turnaround, preceded by the IV chord (D7 / F #) and the minor IV (Dm / F) [Example 4]. It’s great to have the unexpected sound of minor iv in a major key context.
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You have been known to unexpectedly use a long chord to end a song.
Yes, here is a movement in the key of A major that I sometimes use at the end of “Don’t Ever Let Nobody Drag Your Spirit Down” [Example 5]. It contains jazzy 13th chords at half a step apart and unexpectedly ends on the flat VI chord, Fmaj7, in this case containing the flat fifth. This is the kind of time that they would crucify people. I love this deal.
New and old sounds
“I like to find an old piece of gospel or spirituality that speaks to me and rearrange it, put it in harmony in a new space that does not upset tradition,” says Eric Bibb. Here, Bibb adds a modern sounding section to a more traditional melody in D.
This article originally appeared in the September 2010 issue of Acoustic guitar magazine and was reprinted in the September / October 2020 issue.