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Gary Davis - Gospel Blues Guitar Master

Updated on April 2, 2013

Reverend Gary Davis - The Complete All Rounder

Out of the many blues guitar masters to appear near the beginning of the last century, none had the complete all round skills of Reverend Gary Davis.

Reverend Gary Davis born in South Carolina in 1896 was a very influential blues guitar player in that swinging technique sometimes named Piedmont, which is a predominantly ragtime blues style. From his blues roots beginnings he developed a style which few can copy and had an immense repertoire. He was ordained as a minister in 1940 and refused to play 'Devil's music' any more, preferring to play Gospel songs of his own creation.

Ragtime blues, swing, slide or show tunes, Gary Davis could do it all.

Photo Gibson J200 - Gary Davis preferred guitar Creative Commons

The Beginnings

Although we often use the the all encompassing description 'ragtime' guitar, there are smaller categories, like piano style finger picking and ragtime blues. The ragtime blues style originated due to the fact guitarists tried to emulate the carefree dance sound of the piano style developed by Scott Joplin and others. Guitarists at that time were attracted by the exciting 'bum-chick' bass patterns and general syncopation.

Blues Guitar Master Gary Davis Plays 'Feel Just Like Going' On'

Harlem Street Singer
Harlem Street Singer

If you are looking for a good introduction to this Blues/Ragtime master, "Harlem Street Singer" is unquestionably the best choice. The recording captures Davis at his most passionate vocally and at this top of his game as a guitarist. A lot of his early work suffers from poor recording technology, however this disc sounds like it was cut in a 21st Century studio.


Meeting With Willie Walker

In that part of the South, when The Reverend was a budding guitarist, the recognized guitar expert was a man named Willie Walker, who finger picked very precisely and very fast, a bit like Blind Blake. Davis learned many songs from Willie Walker, which included Cincinatti Flow Drag and Make Believe Stunt. This meeting was maybe essential to the development of Davis' technique, without doubt expanding his skills and song list. By his own admission, the Reverend 'was scared o' no guitarist' by his 30th year.

Even though an expert in ragtime blues, he could expertly play in any style and additionally all keys with equal panache. When he became licensed to be a minister, he would not play the classic blues tunes, and preferred gospel songs that spread the teachings of the Lord. He also had many party tunes in his song list. Entertainers at that time performed on the street, parties, and any where they could get a little money, a pallet on the floor or something to eat. It was essential that they played different kinds of music and provide songs attractive to a wide range of audiences.

Blues Guitar - A Little Advice From The Reverend

By Tashaila Nichole Meyers & User:Argon233 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
By Tashaila Nichole Meyers & User:Argon233 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

His Guitar And Technique

Davis played a big body Gibson acoustic, chosen for its rich, deep bass notes and penetrating trebles - great for making his music heard above street noise. Additionally, he wore finger picks, which behave as an acoustic amplifier and save the fingers from becoming sore if performing for many hours, as musicians did at that time. He wore a big plastic thumb pick worn high up, near his hand, and a stainless steel for his fore finger.

Amazingly, he used just a single finger to strike the guitar strings, which hardly seems credible, bearing in mind the complexity of his music. His thumb may jump all over the strings, not content to play just the lower notes. The thumb could additionally pick out of time and double the beat, which shows incredible dexterity. Yet another trademark movement was his ability to create runs on a single string. Davis would hit a single string alternately with his fore finger and thumb in quick succession at breathtaking speed, singing at the same time!

Several master guitarists picked using just a single finger (Doc Watson, Big Bill Broonzy, Blind Boy Fuller) but none so slick and inventive as Davis. His songs were truly original featuring a broad mixture in chord progressions utilized. A lot of ragtime blues songs use a standard chord sequence which depends upon the key used, and they chord sequences are significantly more complicated than a normal blues chord progression in E or A, but Davis further extended these sequences adding a new plateau of richness.

Reverend Gary Davis is a source of interest for many musicians wanting to learn blues guitar over the decades and the treasure he left will always be there.

Jim Bruce Plays An Original Song In The Style Of Gary Davis

Copyright Jim Bruce 2009
Copyright Jim Bruce 2009

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