Country Blues > Country Blues Licks and Lessons

The Thumb Has It

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Johnm:
Hi all,
I've been thinking for some time that a lot of our heroes of Country Blues guitar used the thumb of the picking hand in a more thorough-going and varied way, throughout the entire range of the guitar, than has been thought by most present-day players.  Here are a few examples of players whom I believe to have used the thumb, not only for time-keeping in the bass and bass runs, but for single-string runs ranging up into the treble.
   * Clifford Gibson liked to start and end many of his songs with treble runs.  These generally happen with no simultaneous activity on the bass strings.  I believe this is because he was using the flesh of his picking thumb to play the runs.  Using the thumb this way enables a player to get a very fat, smooth, penetrating sort of tone that would be very hard to duplicate by picking with fingers.  In addition to using his thumb to play the treble runs, Clifford Gibson hit single strings in the bass, but also did big rhythmic brush strokes with the thumb, using it almost like a drum.
   * Scrapper Blackwell, on some of his tunes out of D position like "Trouble Blues" and "Back Door Blues", goes into long treble runs behind which the bass drops out.  Like Clifford Gibson, Scrapper played these runs with a huge, round tone that I think may very well have resulted from his using his thumb to play them.  And the segues out of these runs into places where the thumb is adopting a more conventional role in the bass are not implausibly quick.  And of course, Scrapper, again like Clifford Gibson, could make his thumb drive his time like a drum.
   * Lemon Jefferson used a thumb pick to play a lot of his bass runs, but I believe that on many of his songs (especially his C tunes, like "Black Snake Moan")  he used his thumb to play practically his entire accompaniment.
   * For his song "Too Many Women Blues", I believe the post-War musician Willie Lane used his thumb to play everything except the odd note here and there.  He plays his treble runs with such power, I have a hard time believing he did them by picking with his fingers.
   * Apart from the musicians already named, for whom the varied use of the thumb may be conjectured but not proven, there are musicians whom we have film of, notably J B Lenoir and Buddy Moss, using their thumbs on all six strings, playing fast single-string lines, and using the thumb to bring out melodic lines with a rhythmic force and penetrating tone that could not be equalled by the fingers.  A number of you were fortunate to see John Jackson in action, and observe him playing rapid runs which he was able to execute by using his thumb to go both directions, down and up, the way a Bluegrass picker  uses a flatpick to play fast runs.

Achieving a more varied use of the picking thumb seems like a really worthwhile thing for anyone interested in playing Country Blues guitar to work on developing.  I'd be interested if folks knew of other players who made such all-encompassing use of the thumb in their picking.

All best,
Johnm   
   

lindy:
When I read your post, the first name that popped into my mind was Rev. Gary Davis.

However, rereading the post, I'm not sure that he fits the bill of "all-encompassing use of the thumb" that you are emphasizing--that is, the use of the thumb only to do long single-note runs.

Rev. Davis made great use of his thumb in combination with his index finger to do some amazing things on the top three strings, including playing 2- or 3-string strums that carried the melody. I spent some time on YouTube re-watching the 25-minute film of Davis that was shot in 1967, and whether or not it fits exactly with the idea in your post, that thumb was certainly all over the place.

(The YouTube page also had links to vids of Elizabeth Cotten--a completely separate category of using the thumb.)

Lindy

Johnm:
Sure, Rev. Davis's use of the thumb would be an example of someone using the thumb over the entire range of the guitar in varied ways, Lindy.
All best,
Johnm

Longsands:
I was lucky enough to see Honeyboy Edwards play a few times, and his frequent use of the thumb to pick treble runs was something that always struck me.  I had a go trying to emulate this approach, but found it quite alien and didn?t persist.  This clip shows a bit of it, around the minute mark:

Johnm:
Hi all
Another cut that is notable for the player's use of the picking thumb all over the instrument is Reese Crenshaw's "Trouble", which can be heard at:  http://weeniecampbell.com/yabbse/index.php?topic=10188.msg88351#msg88351 .  Crenshaw's playing here is so strong and original that he inspired me to transcribe his rendition from beginning to end.
All best,
Johnm

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