The Language of the Blues
Excerpt from The Language of the Blues: From Alcorub to Zuzu (Billboard Books, 2006)
by Debra DeSalvo
To unearth the true origins and meanings of blues terms like “alcorub,” “mojo,” and “killing floor,” author Debra DeSalvo poured over lyrics, dug through obscure academic sources, and interviewed many blues artists. The result is a witty, ribald, and unparalleled dictionary of blues terminology, packed with anecdotes from DeSalvo’s interviews with such legends as Little Milton, Robben Ford, Henry Gray, John Hammond, Robert Jr. Lockwood, Bob Margolin, Bonnie Raitt, Smiley Ricks, Hubert Sumlin, and Jimmie Vaughan. The Language of the Blues also includes photos - some previously unpublished—of more than twenty artists, and an insightful foreword by Dr. John.
Vestapol is an open D Major tuning for the guitar. If a guitar tuned in Vestapol is strummed without fretting any notes, it will sound a D Major chord (D A D F# A D). Vestapol tuning was used quite often in the parlor guitar music that was popular from the mid-1800s to the turn of the century. It got its name from the publication in 1854 of an instrumental called “The Siege of Sevastopol,” named after the eleven-month siege of a Russan naval base at Sevastopol in the Ukraine during the Crimean War.
“The Siege of Sevastopol” being something of a mouthful, the tune became known as “Vastapol” and then “Vestapol.” While Victorians were enjoying “Vestapol” in their parlors, blues guitarists were also performing it. Acoustic blues historian Stefan Grossman reports first hearing Elizabeth Cotton play it in the 1960s; he then discovered versions, as well as use of the song’s open D Major tuning, in recordings by Mississippi John Hurt, Furry Lewis, and other blues guitarists. Slide master Elmore James used the Vestapol tuning to rock out on “Dust My Broom,” his electrified cover of Robert Johnson’s “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom.” Guitarist Robert Jr. Lockwood noted of Johnson,that “he tuned it [the guitar] in Spanish [open G Major] and in Vestapol.”
Blues players sometimes also call open E Major tuning (E B E G# B E) Vestapol.
Chicago blues guitarist Jody Williams learned how to tune his guitar to Vestapol in E from Bo Diddley. As a child, Williams played harmonica in a group called The Harmonicats that played standards like “Stardust” and “Peg of My Heart” on radio and amateur shows. Williams met Bo Diddley, also a youngster at the time, at an amateur show. “He had one guitar and a washtub bass,” Williams recalled. “That’s the first time I paid attention to the sound of a guitar. We got together backstage then and we played a little bit and I asked him, if I got a guitar, would he teach me to play a little something on it. He said he would and the next week I spied a guitar in a pawnshop for thirty-two dollars and fifty cents. So he taught me how to tune it to his tuning. It was E, open-E. He called it Vestapol. Williams never did learn to play guitar in standard tuning (E A D G B E). He taught himself to play the blues by imitating players he admired, such as T-Bone Walker and B.B. King, and created his own chord voicings. By the 1950s, Williams was a top session player for Chess Records, as well as a member of the Howlin’ Wolf band.
“I was one of the first guitar players around Chicago that could play B.B. King’s style,” Williams said. “If somebody was onstage listening, and they don’t see me, they don’t know if it’s me or him playing. So, when I worked for Howlin’ Wolf, one day in 1954 we were in Chess studio playing, and I was playing some B.B. King~style stuff. And this guy comes in the studio and sits down. I didn’t know who he was. I notice he’s watching me. Watching my hands, watching my fingers, you know. Watching my guitar work.
“So I say to myself, ‘This dude trying to steal my stuff!’ And I’m sitting there just ripping off B.B. King, playing B.B. King style. So I get up, and I move my chair to where he couldn’t see my hands. I say to myself, ‘He’s sitting there trying to steal my stuff. I am not going to teach this dude anything!’ I figured he was a guitar player, the way he was watching me. I said to myself, ‘If he know his guitar, if he know his instrument well enough, he can learn what I’m playing just by listening.’
“It went on like this for a few more songs with him sitting there trying to watch me. Then Leonard Chess said we gonna take a break and play the songs back that we had recorded. So I put my guitar down and go over to the piano and start talking to Otis Spann. Wolf called me over to him and he said, ‘Jody, I want you to meet a friend of mine. This is B.B. King.’ Oh man! I looked around and I said to myself, ‘The studio is too small for me to hide in!’ He was trying to see what I was doing ’cause he didn’t know how the guitar was tuned.”
That day B.B. King, Jody Williams, and Otis Spann recorded “Must Have Been the Devil” and the great instrumental, “Five Spot.”
Songs in Vestapol: Many fine examples of acoustic blues in Vestapol are on Elizabeth Cotton: Freight Train and Other North Carolina Folk Songs and Tunes, Smithsonian Folkways, and Furry Lewis in His Prime 1927-1928, Yazoo.
Texas blues guitarist Johnny Winter once said, “I can tell if I like a person’s style after listening to his vibrato for ten seconds.” Putting aside Winter’s inadvertent declaration that only men play electric guitar, he makes an excellent point. Vibrato, which is the raising and lowering of a note’s pitch by moving the string producing the note back and forth, tells you everything you need to know about a guitarist’s strength, taste, and musicality.
It’s not surprising that some of the widest and strongest vibratos among guitar players belong to blues guitarists. Blues guitar, like blues singing, was influenced by the fact that African slaves spoke tonal languages. When singing, they used variations of pitch and timbre to convey many shades of meaning, resulting in vibrato, tremolo, overtones, and hoarse-voiced and shouting techniques.
Although vibrato is a prominent feature of European classical music performances today, this was not always the case. Prior to the 19th century, vibrato was used sparingly, as ornamentation; in fact, Leopold Mozart criticized “performers there are who tremble consistently on each note as if they had the palsy” and recommended that players use vibrato only on sustained notes and at the end of phrases. Early blues guitarists, in contrast, developed an unusually expressive, improvisational use of vibrato, not only in order to sustain notes on acoustic guitars, but also to mimic the qualities of African singing.
Listen to the slow back-and-forth moan of B.B. King’s vibrato. It is very challenging for guitarists to duplicate properly. King steadily bends the string back and forth an entire half step to create a smooth wide vibrato. If you watch King play, you’ll see that he shakes his entire hand to create this vibrato. The fingers that aren’t pressing down the note are relaxed, and his hand flutters like a butterfly. This technique is called “butterfly vibrato.”
Electric rock guitarists, blessed with loads of sustain from distortion and dense heavy guitar bodies, don’t need vibrato to keep their notes alive, so this technique often goes underdeveloped among guitarists who have not studied blues players. Many electric guitarists acquire a rather squirrely-sounding quasi-vibrato simply because they’ve never thought about putting the effort into acquiring a more defined one.
True vibrato requires significant hand strength. Listen to the opening lick from Stevie Ray Vaughan’s solo for “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” Not only does he bend the note a whole step, he then moves it back and forth a half step to create vibrato at the top of the bend. This takes enough hand strength to crush a Volkswagen, as well as a finely attenuated sense of pitch.
Sometimes a guitarist makes a conscious choice to use small or minimal vibrato to distinguish his or her playing. Stevie Ray Vaughan’s brother Jimmie Vaughan, also a highly respected Texas blues guitarist, said, “When I was very young I tried to play exactly like B.B. King. I'm pretty good at imitating him. But one day I realized that if I got in a room with Eric Clapton, B.B. King, and Buddy Guy and each guy played a solo, well, when they got to me what the hell was I gonna do? You get on the stage with B.B. King, Buddy Guy, and Eric Clapton and when it comes your turn, you can’t do what they do. If you do, you're an idiot.”
Vaughan distinguished himself by developing a clean spare style that uses minimal vibrato. “I realized,” Vaughan explained, “that you got to start listening to what you want to do. They're playing what they wanna hear and what they feel. What do you feel? What do you hear? At that point I started really playing different.”
If he’d done nothing in his life but turn his little brother Stevie Ray onto the blues, Vaughan’s place in music history would have been assured. But seven albums of slinky R&B with the Fabulous Thunderbirds; Family Style, recorded with Stevie Ray in 1990; and a solo career, launched in 1994 with the superlative album Strange Pleasure, proved him worthy of Stevie's oft-voiced idolatry.
“You should see Jimmie play,” Stevie Ray used to say when complimented....
About The Author
You can Check out more about Debra DeSalvo's Book and music here at: Debra's MySpace.com
and her book The Language of the Blues
"Oral Tradition and the Blues"
Born in the Mississippi Delta, refined in Chicago, its Mecca, the Blues has been described as an impulse to keep painful details and ... all » episodes of a brutal experience alive in one’s aching consciousness. It is a musical chronicle of personal agony and the possibility of conquering it through sheer toughness of spirit. Learn more about the people and places that created the music.
"... In 1938 I went out to Tulsa, Oklahoma to see Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys perform. After the set, a bunch of musicians were sitting around talking, and I remember seeing this young black fellow standing around. He came over and asked if I had an extra pick. I gave him one, and then he asked for my autograph. I asked him if he played. He said 'yes' and began to pick. I'll never forget what I said - 'My God, you're good !' that was the first time I met Charlie Christian. ... as a guitarist Charlie was simply the best around ... he had a way of getting on one note and driving it right into the ground. I figured if you're going to be great, you've got to play a lot of notes, right? not Charlie - he'd hit one note and he'd own it ..." - Les Paul