Arthur Blake didn't hold this title for nothing. He's generally accepted as the fastest and most accurate ragtime blues finger picker there ever was, except maybe for Willie Walker and Reverend Gary Davis. Walker only cut two sides in his career, but those two sides demonstrate formidable expertise, with lightning fast picking and impeccable timing. Davis learned from Walker in his early career and obviously picked up some amazing techniques.
Blake cut more than 120 records during his lifetime, which was cut short when he was about 39 years old. His personal life and untimely end are shrouded in mystery. Possibly hard drinking and unkempt by all accounts, he arrived in Chicago from the Deep South and already brought with him the fast Geechee guitar playing style learned in his youth. Musicians in the city must have been very impressed with the style of his finger picking - it was blues, but a happy go lucky variety that made you want to dance.
Blind from birth, his fingers had an almost supernatural relationship with his guitar, though we can only imagine what his style looked like. Unlike many blues guitarists, no film of Blake exists which is a great shame. Luckily, some blues men did remember him and described his technique. The sense of syncopation in his recordings is truly wonderful. When I first heard West Coast Blues, his first record, I thought it must be more than one guitar, but it was only Blake!
He achieved his sound by extremely clever thumb work and fast finger strokes, creating a complex mixture of notes that never clashed and represented a tour de force in acoustic blues picking. He also sang, but his voice was barely adequate for anything except playful ragtime and similar styles. It just didn't have the timbre or character to sing delta blues for example. His real power and expertise was in his finger style technique, and in particular his thumb work.
When playing ragtime, the thumb alternates between two or three bass strings, but can also move over to the treble strings if needed to make a fast single string run with thumb and fore finger. Blake would double up on many of his bass thumb strokes, so that where most guitarists would play one note, he would play two! This was done by rolling the thumb from one string to the next, rather than using separate strikes. It's a very difficult style to master, not least because the thumb roll hurts the thumb and it's necessary to practice very often in order to develop a thick callous at the contact point.
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