GUITAR

Charley Patton's guitar tricks bridged the genre gap between Delta blues and rock'n'roll

Charley Patton by Olivia Wise
Charley Patton by Olivia Wise

Charley Patton played a crucial role in developing the early blues movement in the Delta region of northwestern Mississippi which is widely considered to be the birthplace of blues itself, the most influential music genre originated in the United States at the very beginning of the 20th century. 

Unfortunately, most songs Charley Patton recorded in the late 1920s for Paramount were preserved in very poor quality due to the company's practice of using cheap plastic for their 78 RPMs. Even though the lyrics are difficult to discern, the recordings reveal Patton's particular vocal talent which—along with some of his innovative guitar techniques—ended up influencing not only his contemporaries but also a whole generation of rock musicians of the 1960s, namely Bob Dylan and Robert Plant.

Unlike most bluesmen of the time who practiced itinerant life by arranging random concerts, Charley Patton could afford to plan long tours thanks to his popularity, giving shows for big crowds at plantations, taverns, and even the clubs of Chicago and New York. As a wonderful showman, he managed to sense the mood of every particular audience and build his recitals program on the wide repertoire of blues, gospel, hillbilly songs, and nineteenth-century ballads.

Charley Patton's guitar technique was rich with a variety of tricks such as sliding on the strings with a brass tube worn on the little finger of his left hand—a favorite way of playing in the genre that had been used by most blues musicians starting with Blind Willie Johnson

Patton's recordings probably contain the earliest use of a guitar slap which is achieved by a right-hand thumb hitting bass strings like a hammer and creating both a rhythmic figure and an interesting sound effect that would become popular with bass players and funk guitarists half a century later. To get the distinct sound of his slap technique, Patton most likely used guitar tuning about a tone higher than normal, while others players weakened the strings for the opposite tuning and used a capo for the right tone. Another explanation for his guitar tuning can be the necessity to maintain his vocals in a higher key while keeping the most comfortable position for an open-string slide-guitar performance.

Listen to Charley Patton's I'm Goin' Home recorded in 1929 in Richmond, Indiana:

It is reported that during performances Charley Patton showed off his ability to play while holding the guitar in incredible positions, be it behind his back or head, or even between the legs, which undoubtedly inspired Jimi Hendrix and other guitar virtuosos to search for their own expressive playing manner.

One of the most famous followers of Charley Patton and the blues movement was Bob Dylan who considered the socially conscious melancholic poetry to be the defining element that elevated music to art in opposition to light-hearted texts of mainstream rock and roll. 
 
Listen to Bob Dylan's High Water which draws its title from Charley Patton's High Water Everywhere referencing the 1927 Louisiana flood: 

Another famous musician whose style bears a clear imprint of the Delta is John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival. In 1990, he traveled across Mississippi in search of inspiration, visiting historical places associated with Robert Johnson and other Delta blues legends. Subsequently, he funded several memorial markers and headstones for blues musicians, including Charlie Patton, James Son Thomas, and Mississippi Joe Callicott.

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