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Watch the Fareed's 1st Principle of Chord Substitution online guitar lesson by Fareed Haque from Jazz Comping Survival Guide

Playing the blues

I remember playing at the High Sierra Music Festival and getting invited to sit in with The Radiators ( - the legendary New Orleans rock and blues band. I had just gotten off stage with my own group the Flat Earth Ensemble, wearing an all white Indian Kurta (formal long Indian concert dress).

When the Rads got a look at me, they sort of panicked - "Who is this weirdo, and what is he gonna do on our stage?" I’m sure I looked like I was more likely to offer them a ‘Hare Hare Krishna’ blessing, rather than throw down some jams.

I mentioned briefly that I was from Chicago (home of the blues right?) and that seemed to be okay, but when we hit the stage my one number turned out to be eleven songs 'till how 4 am, you know what they say: You can take the Pakistani kid out of Chicago, but you can’t take the Chicago out of the Pakistani kid.

The blues is a deep and wonderful art, and understanding it, or beginning to, was and is a profound lesson for me.

I like to say that the basic difference between blues (and many other African and afro inspired musical forms) and ’western’ music is one of intention. Most western music is obsessed with the need to tell a story, hence the operas, long concertos and symphonies of the great classical composers. Most of the tin pan alley ‘standard’ songs that jazz is built on tell a story too, they are often from musicals so they were an essential part of telling the story. I call this ‘prosaic’ music like the prose of our western literature but on a deeper level. What we love about the blues is that it does not have to tell a story. It is not prosaic but rather it is poetic, in fact one of the most striking and surprising things about the blues is that in the blues nothing happens! We start out at home(I), head to sub dominant (IV) go back home (I) then off to V and back to I where we start the thing all over again. It's hypnotic, right?

In fact the blues progression is basically the same for almost all blues songs. So a blues band plays its set of ten blues songs at the blues festival, 5 bands a day for say 4 days, that’s like 200 blues tunes in one blues festival - the same song like 200 times and 200 songs later the audience is still jumpin' and jiving! It still sounds great!

Why doesn't it get boring?

What is it about repetition? Blues feels good and the repetition gets you into a groove. I feel that this difference represents the difference in concepts of time between The West and Africa (and much of the tribal world).

We in the west want things to go somewhere or do something. As a result we are always in a hurry ‘cause we have to get there! To the end, the destination, the goal. But the blues just feels good, and sits there. It does not have to go anywhere or tell a long story to get there because it's already there! We’re not in a hurry because we are all ready there and it feels just fine!

So in the blues one of the best things you can do is simply play something that feels good, and then play it again and again and again. Maybe in a slightly different way, like poetry, we are always saying a few things again and again, but with beauty and grace or charm. So it is with the blues

And you’ll find the same in so called "bluesy jazz". To groove and play something that feels good and repeat with variation will eventually get the audience into the groove.

It was the great alto sax player Arnie Lawrence (RIP brother) that first clued me into the blues. I was so young (16, 17?) and Arnie and I were playing together in Chile, with some great musicians from down there. He’d sing or play the blues, and then I’d play. I played so corny. I’d play one solo and then have to run backstage to dump the corn cobs out of my guitar. Corny because I still did not understand repetition and variation. Arnie used to kid me - on and off stage – he’d say (In a huge pre-war radio announcer voice) “Ladies and gentlemen, now our young guitarist is going to play for you one of his favorite songs it's called, (and I'm sure you're all going to lovethis snappy little number) "The blues"


But I eventually started to get it, thanks Arnie for so much music, fun, and a seemingly endless supply of great jokes.

Even the great Joe Zawinul had his take on this. His very first instruction to me at our first rehearsal was "Play this part, and don’t ever change it! But be sure to never ever play it the same way twice". That took a week or a lifetime to make sense of, but Joe was making sense. He wanted me to play the part and never change it, but always keep making variations on it, like in nature no two leaves or snowflakes are ever the same, yet all the are the same - but slightly - poetically- different.

Check out Albert Collins, Freddie, Albert and BB King, Hendrix, John Lee Hooker, Robert Johnson for a start on great blues players.