Historians believe that the first music that could rightly be called blues appeared in the Mississippi Delta in the Deep South of America in the late 1890s. African slaves would sing or chant so-called 'field hollers', which were often in the call and response format and these songs helped the work flow. This type of song was closely linked to spirituals sang in the Churches at that time and were not often accompanied by any kind of instrument.
The very first guitars and fiddles were home made and not very high quality. This fact, and the humid weather conditions were major factors in the creation of bottleneck blues, where the guitar was might be tuned down to open G or D, for example. This kind of song was often very basic, with just four lines of verse and no chorus. Very often, the first three lines of the verse were identical, and the fourth brought in a small variation.
In normal guitar tuning, a particular fingerpicking style developed called 'monotonic bass' and was common throughout all regions. The fingers generally picked melody on the treble strings, while the thumb hit one or two bass notes to keep the beat. The string was damped or muted heavily just after sounding, so that it became more of a 'thwack' than a musical note. It was a lot like a drum beat and this theory makes a lot of sense, as drums were actually outlawed for the black community in the early 1900s.
In the early part of the century piano music became popular but was obviously restricted as pianos are much more expensive than guitars. A young brothel pianist called Scott Joplin created highly syncopated piano instrumentals and called it Ragtime, probably after the type of dance popular among the Negro community at that time. A particular feature of ragtime piano music is the bum-chick sound of the left hand bass patterns. Some guitarists realized that this could be simulated using the thumb alternating between the bass strings of a guitar and ragtime blues or Piedmont style was born.
The very best guitarists took both of these styles and combined them, creating some very exciting music indeed. Such players would alternated their thumb across the basses, but could switch to monotonic bass when required to produce the desired musical effect. Many took the style even further and used the thumb to pick any string at all. The thumb is truly king when it comes to fingerpicking the blues, whatever style is played.
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