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Author Topic: The Thumb Has It  (Read 3242 times)

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Offline Johnm

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The Thumb Has It
« on: October 27, 2016, 04:05:59 PM »
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   
   
« Last Edit: December 09, 2016, 06:18:34 AM by Johnm »

Offline lindy

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Re: The Thumb Has It
« Reply #1 on: October 27, 2016, 05:26:12 PM »
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

Offline Johnm

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Re: The Thumb Has It
« Reply #2 on: October 27, 2016, 06:26:36 PM »
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

Offline Longsands

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Re: The Thumb Has It
« Reply #3 on: October 28, 2016, 04:26:43 AM »
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:

Offline Johnm

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Re: The Thumb Has It
« Reply #4 on: October 29, 2016, 11:46:24 AM »
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

Offline Johnm

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Re: The Thumb Has It
« Reply #5 on: January 04, 2017, 09:40:56 PM »
Hi all,
I've recently had occasion to work on the music of two players not previously mentioned in this thread whom I believe to have used the thumb for picking and brushing in the treble as well as the bass.  The first is Arthur Crudup, a player who has gone relatively unexamined by present-day players in terms of figuring out exactly how he played what he played.  The piece I was working on was his version of "Mean Old Frisco Blues", and after transcribing the intro and first verse accompaniment, I'm convinced he handled the great majority of his right hand articulation with his thumb, only very occasionally using the index finger of the picking hand to do little brush strokes or occasionally hit the first string.  In the main, he really sounds like he was playing almost everything he did with his thumb.
The second player is Blind Blake.  I've been working on his "Detroit Bound Blues", and like many of his C position tunes in standard tuning, it has passages,  particularly in his instrumental responses, where the bass drops out and he plays single string runs in the treble.  Many of these runs resolve downward in pitch and eventually flow right back into his bass alternation.  The fat, penetrating tone he gets on several of these runs makes me think that he played them with his thumb in the right hand rather than his fingers.  It's pretty much impossible to get the big, round, rich tone you can achieve with the flesh of your thumb by picking with your fingers.  So I'm inclined to put Blind Blake on the list of players who used the thumb to play all over the guitar, including single string runs in the treble.

All best,
Johnm

Offline big joe weems

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Re: The Thumb Has It
« Reply #6 on: January 05, 2017, 08:12:48 AM »
I have recently been trying to play with a thumb pick and finger picks after playing for some time with bare thumb and fingers, because I like the increased volume with picks, especially in the single note treble runs. However, I have noticed a decreased level of dexterity (specifically, speed of movement) with the thumb while using a thumb pick. I'm wondering from you more experienced players, if this is something that will improve over time to the point where a thumb with thumb pick can have just as much dexterity as a bare thumb, or if it will always be a trade-off between increased volume but less dexterity with a thumb pick.
« Last Edit: January 05, 2017, 11:24:38 AM by big joe weems »

Offline eric

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Re: The Thumb Has It
« Reply #7 on: January 05, 2017, 12:10:15 PM »
John, I would interested in your take on Lemon's thumb technique.

I'm no expert, but some tunes just seem to make more sense using the thumb on the treble strings; sounds better and easier to do, to me anyway.
--
Eric

Offline Johnm

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Re: The Thumb Has It
« Reply #8 on: January 05, 2017, 02:28:48 PM »
Hi Eric,
I do think Lemon used his thumb on the treble strings quite a lot, both for brush strokes and for single-string runs, as in a lot of his material in C position, standard tuning, especially the sort of archetypal C tunes he recorded over and over later in his career.  I think he probably used the thumb pick for his tremolo, too.
All best,
John

Offline One-Eyed Ross

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Re: The Thumb Has It
« Reply #9 on: January 16, 2017, 08:47:24 AM »
... I'm wondering from you more experienced players, if this is something that will improve over time to the point where a thumb with thumb pick can have just as much dexterity as a bare thumb, or if it will always be a trade-off between increased volume but less dexterity with a thumb pick.

By no means am I an expert (an ex is a has been, a spurt is a drip under pressure!) but yes, you will get better with time and practice.  As a former 5 string banjo player, it just takes time and practice and time and practice.
SSG, USA, Ret

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Offline Slack

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Re: The Thumb Has It
« Reply #10 on: January 16, 2017, 07:16:51 PM »
This reminds me...

Grossman had a Friday lesson special and I picked up Johnm's and Frank Baslie's "Legendary Country Blues Guitar Duets" for 15 bucks,  sale is good until the 18th, I have only gotten through the first tune, but recommend it... as the first tune is Memphis Minnie's and Kansas Joes "Pile Driver Blues" where Johnm plays MM's part using thumb Up Picking ala John Jackson.

So add John Miller to the list.

I love Pike Driver Blues, but sorry Johnm, I have a hard enough time making my thumb go one direction, I think I'll try the tune with a flat pick!   :P

Offline Johnm

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Re: The Thumb Has It
« Reply #11 on: January 17, 2017, 06:47:19 AM »
I'm glad you like "Pile Driver's Blues", John D, and I do think it is likely that Memphis Minnie played the lead guitar part on it either with a flat pick, or possibly with a thumb pick.  Somewhere along the line, I just became more comfortable going both directions with my thumb.  Getting the best results definitely justifies whatever choice is made by individual players.
All best,
Johnm

Offline Lastfirstface

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Re: The Thumb Has It
« Reply #12 on: January 17, 2017, 09:26:40 AM »
I was watching some footage of Sister Rosetta Tharpe recently and she seems to pick up, down, and tremolo runs all with a thumb pick. She strums down with her fingernails a lot while comping and backing up her singing, but she seems to kind of pinch the the thumb pick and play lead parts with the thumb pick moving in both directions.

Offline Johnm

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Re: The Thumb Has It
« Reply #13 on: February 16, 2017, 07:06:19 PM »
Hi all,
I came upon another piece which I now believe to have been played almost exclusively with a thumb lead:  Blind Boy Fuller's version of "Careless Love", which Baby Tate also recorded as "What Have I Done To You?".  I'd played the piece for decades and had never been satisfied with the sound of the melody picked by my fingers--it sounded under-characterized, with inadequate sustain, weight and volume.  I was transcribing the Baby Tate version today for a lesson order, and it occurred to me to try it with a thumb lead phrasing the melody for the most part, and it all came together--much better sustain and volume, and much more satisfying bends, which surprised me, since it seems like a bend would be the same whether picked by the thumb or fingers.  Not so, as it turns out, at least for me.  Here is Baby Tate's version of "What Have I Done To You".  See what you think.



All best,
Johnm
« Last Edit: February 16, 2017, 10:10:18 PM by Johnm »

Offline Johnm

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Re: The Thumb Has It
« Reply #14 on: March 21, 2017, 02:59:16 PM »
Hi all,
I had occasion to be reminded of a recorded performance in which I believe the player, Gabriel Brown, used his thumb to pick runs on all six strings as well as having it operate in a time-keeping role and using it to chord with big brush strokes.  The song is his "Going My Way", a sort of dropped-D re-casting of Big Maceo's "Worried Life Blues" with a new set of lyrics.  Gabriel Brown really does some stellar playing on it, especially in his solo, if you're willing to put up with his toothache-inducing tuning.  It's definitely worth seeking out, and is one more illustration of how the picking thumb can sometimes come close to carrying an entire accompaniment.
All best,
Johnm

 


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