How To Play Acoustic Blues Guitar – The Jim Bruce Interview
Very few players have perfected finger picking blues guitar quite like Jim Bruce. His timing and approach are ‘just right’. Born in UK, Jim has moved around the world, living and playing in France, America, Denmark and Germany. He is one of the few expert guitar players who is additionally a gifted teacher.
Jim was good enough to give ‘Down Home Blues Guitar’ an interview.
JB: When I was 14 I heard Dylan singing Times they are a-changin’ on the radio. I bought the LP and heard Don’t Think Twice fingerpicked. I was hooked – that was what I wanted to do. Don’t Think Twice was the first song I ever learned. I never strummed at all, and I’m not very good at it!
After playing folk until about 1973, I heard a guy in a club in the North of England play Kat’s Rag. It was simple compared to some of the stuff I was playing, but there was this superb syncopation about it. Shortly after moving down to London, I found some old Biograph Blake albums and locked myself away for 5 hours a day, for about a year, until I could play it! I suppose it’s always been the challenge that attracts me.
JB: That’s a tough one – there’s so many! I can remember playing on the London Underground for hours making nothing. I still play on the street, because I like the feel of it, but back then I wanted to be noticed, not ignored. It was also nice to eat, now and again!
Bad gigs were normally in noisy bars, when no-one listens at all. Thankfully, I don’t have to do this anymore – I can choose where I play.
Funnily, when I was a kid, the worst gig was also the best. I played one song and the club owner didn’t like it – he wanted Country. It was the tradition in UK at that time to pay artists if your rejected them, so I got paid and had a nice night somewhere else!
JB: I played only complicated ragtime for several years – Blake stuff and Scott Joplin rags. I never bothered with blues in E or A, as I thought they were too simple.
Of course, later on I realised my error. I saw a film with Lightnin’ Hopkins who didn’t play anything very complicated, but the technique and the power was completely awesome. Maybe we need time to mature. As a youngster, I just wanted to show how good I was.
No matter how well we play, none of us will ever match up to the old guys. However, we can incorporate their techniques into our music and pay homage. Thanks to Blake, Blind Boy Fuller, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Mance Liscomb, Floyd Council, Scrapper Blackwell, Reverend Gary Davis and many, many more …
DHBG: Fingerstyle blues isn’t for everyone. What made you want to learn ?
JB: After playing finger style folk up to around 1973, I heard someone in a club in the north of UK perform Kat’s Rag. It was pretty easy in comparison to some of the songs I could play, but there was this really appealing syncopation to it. Just after moving to London, I bought some classic Biograph Blind Blake albums and hid myself away for six hours every day, for over a year, until I could play the stuff! I guess that it’s always been the great challenge that appeals to me.
DHBG: What made you start playing acoustic blues guitar?
JB: When I was a kid I heard Dylan performing Times They Are a-Changin‘ on the wireless. I bought the LP of the same name and heard Don’t Think Twice in finger picking style. I was fascinated – this was exactly what I wanted to play. Don’t Think Twice was the first finger picking piece I ever taught myself. I could never strum at all, and I can’t really do it very well now!
DHGB: Your style is straight blues guitar with a Blind Lemon feel. Who were your influences?
JB: I played just complex ragtime guitar for some years – Blind Blake and Scott Joplin rags mostly. I never looked at messing with delta blues guitar blues in E or A – I thought they were not challenging enough.
As you might guess, later on I knew I had been wrong. I saw some video featuring Lightnin’ Hopkins who really didn’t play anything at all complicated, but the style and the delivery was absolutely awesome. Perhaps we need time to wise up about these things. As a kid, I only wanted to show off. How do you learn to play acoustic blues guitar like that?
It doesn’t matter how well we might play, very few people match up to the blues legends. Mind you, we can blend those techniques into our own style and tip our hats to the greats, such as Blake, Blind Boy Fuller, Mance Liscomb, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Floyd Council, Reverend Gary Davis, Scrapper Blackwell and others.
DHGB: Do you remember the worst gig you ever played?
JB: That’s a difficult one – there were a lot! I remember playing on the London subway for hours making very little money. I do play on the street nowadays, because it’s in the tradition of the blues, but back then I need to be noticed, not just ignored. It also enjoyed eating, once in a while!
The worst gigs were usually in noisy bars, where no-one takes any notice at all. Luckily, I don’t have to play these places now – I can mostly choose where I perform.
Strangely enough when I was a young man, the worst booking was also one of the best. I started to play one night and the club owner didn’t like it at all – he thought he had booked Country. It was usual in UK at that time to pay performers if you didn’t want them, so I got my money and had a great evening somewhere else!
DHBG: How many guitars have you got and what are they?
JB: I change guitars very often. I play hard, and I’ve never thought that an really expensive instruments makes you play any better. Sometimes, when I’m out playing, someone might say ‘That’s a great sound – what’s the make of the guitar?’ It doesn’t matter that much – a better guitar only makes it a bit easier for the player, that’s all really. At this time I use a Vintage VE300 Parlor guitar, with pre-amp and tuner for playing on the street, a Johnny Joyce Aria, which I was given 35 years ago, and a small bodied Martin 000X1
DHBG: What tips for players who would like to know how to play acoustic blues guitar??
JB: First of all, take it slowly. Pay attention to the basic patterns, like the alternating thumb and keep playing them until you can do it while you sleep! Build on a strong foundation and slowly increase the difficulty of the songs you take on. It’s a gradual road learning how to play blues guitar and the best guitar lessons show you the most effective path.
Guitarists progress in steps, now and again leveling off at a plateau of expertise for a little while before passing through to a higher one. Play for an hour every morning, no matter what happens, and then again for an hour in the evening. Don’t try to make time for it, just do it fit other activities around it. If you need to get up earlier, or you get to bed later, then that’s what you have to do.
DHBG: Thanks, Jim
JB: A pleasure.
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