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Learn Blues Guitar - Do The Guitar Strings Matter?

Updated on July 15, 2016

The Old Folk Club Scene

A long, long time ago I was sitting in a folk club near London listening to some jug band music. This was a little unusual in itself, as many acoustic clubs at that time were strictly traditional in the UK, which means ‘no blues’ and ‘no electric guitar!’

In fact, the resident group was a multi-instrument jug band called ‘Ginger Jug’. They played anything from Blind Blake ragtime to Manouche jazz and everything in between. The act was entertaining and striking, just like one would imagine an authentic jug band to be. The musicians would often call out to the audience during a song, who would often reply by singing a part of the chorus or refrain. This was superb stuff, made all the better for the fact that the line up was hardly the same each time they performed.

'Ginger Jug' Band

Of course, there was a hard core group of members – possibly 6 in all, but other musicians would arrive and simply join in. At times, the effect was remarkably good. Even when less than perfect musically, the sense of fun about the whole thing made it all worth while.

It was during this particular evening that I had a lesson in how to play the blues and the importance of string choice. During one of the breaks, a lone guitarist walked to the front carrying a beat up old guitar. Before I carry on, let me give you some back ground into my situation over the previous few years.

From Ragtime Blues Guitar To The Delta

After moving from the North, I settled (for a while) in London and began to study old blues guitar, such as the style played by Blind Blake. I also played for a living and so my guitar strings were important to me, maybe overly so. First of all, I tried several kinds and different thickness strings before deciding on light guage phosphor bronze? Unfortunately, I play with steel finger picks exclusively, which really tore up the strings. Eventually, I found myself changing the strings every few days, which was really expensive. I accepted this situation, as I reasoned that the strings are absolutely vital to what I do. Any way, back to the folk club ...

It strikes me that I was pretty arrogant at that time, but hey – I was young and we all go through it. I can remember sniggering about the state of his guitar, particularly his strings. The wound strings were green with corrosion in place and the higher strings were a little rusty. Looking a little closer, I saw that the bass E string had snapped at some time and was back together in a knot just above the nut! This was unbelievable. Suerly he wasn’t going to play that thing?

Muddy Waters

A Lesson In Authentic Blues Guitar

You’ve probably guessed it by now. He started to play and I was instantly chastised. His playing wasn’t very complicated, but so real that I was deeply envious. He played authentic blues and that’s all that mattered. The strings were of little importance. The basses didn’t need to sustain, as he damped them heavily with his hand. If the treble strings were a little out of tune, then he’d bend them in. This sure technique added to his impeccable timing made for a superb listening experience, which taught me a lesson.

It reminded me of Muddy Waters famous quote. When asked what was his favorite guitar to play blues, he said , “It doesn’t matter – just give me a guitar and I’ll make you cry.”

So Much Trouble by Brownie McGhee - Played By Jim Bruce and Ken Mayall

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