When I was taking bebop lessons many years ago from Lennie Tristano, he had me do this exercise where I would bring in a record and sing the melody, scat sing the solo note-for-note and sing the rest of the melody of the song.
His reasoning was that if I just learnt to play it I would be stuck with playing that version, but by doing this exercise I got the spirit of the music into my body so I could experience it and then go play my own stuff. It’s the same with the blues. When you hear Rollin’ Stone by Muddy Waters you know there is so much to experience rather than just studying and learning the music.
The most profound realisation of the blues early on for me came from my older brother. He was getting into playing harmonica so I’d hear him playing blues harp. I’d just started playing guitar and I was focused on mid-to-late 60s rock and was learning Black Sabbath, Jimi Hendrix and the Rolling Stones. All of a sudden I was hearing my brother playing John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters. I was fascinated by that.
Once that was awakened to me I realised I had listened to a lot of blues without realising. The first time I sat down and listened to John Lee Hooker I realised this is the golden source of Hendrix, Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton, it was what they must have been listening to.
I remember saying I had to find out what this was and I’d sit down and try to play along to John Lee Hooker. I had to find out what the mystery and the voodoo behind the timing and groove of it was. Today, the blues remains more often than not the basis to my phrasing and playing, I always refer back to the blues.
Jimmy Reed - Little Rain (Vee-Jay Records)
I get lots of CDs and YouTube links sent to me of this latest kid that is eight years old and plays like Stevie Ray Vaughan. It bums me out in a way because I’m excited that these people love music, but on the other hand I’m looking for next guy that will be as classic as Jimmy Reed. I mean, where did he come from? There’s something to be said for not nailing absolutely everything.
Little Rain by Jimmy Reed has magic on it, something happens on that recording that is magical, be it tape saturation, the room ambience, the microphones. All of Jimmy Reed’s songs had that thing. Hearing that makes me never want to focus on perfection ever again. Chasing perfection can stop you achieving true magic. There are so many things on that song that are going wrong, like the tuning of the guitar, but it is priceless.
The Rolling Stones - 12x5 (London)
I remember loving everything about that album as a kid. I think my family thought it was cute that the runt of the family would spend hours hunched over this portable record player listening to the Stones over and over again. I was feeding myself something that I found fantastic. It was those second generation electric blues players that I loved, but I had no idea where they got that music from. It took my teenage years to discover that.
BB King - The Thrill Is Gone (ABC)
I woke up and finally realised that those rock bands I loved were celebrating Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters and all these guys like Albert King and BB King. I saw BB King live and he blew me away. I saw him in a tiny club that held maybe 200 people. He used the skinny tone of the guitar to convey more heartbreak. When he started everyone was competing to be big bold guitar players and he stood up to all of them, but he just connected with the lyrics and the guitar on something like The Thrill Is Gone.
ZZ Top - Loaded (RCA)
Billy Gibbons reinvents how to write a blues song every time ZZ Top puts out a new record. It’s remarkable. Sometimes people focus too much on the playing but it is the writing that presents the canvas for the playing. They put out a record called Rhythmeen, it had the song Loaded on it, and it was absolutely stunning. Billy plays Loaded with a broken guitar sound, it boggles the mind how he got to that point and he convinced everyone that that was the sound!
Led Zeppelin - Since I’ve Been Loving You (Atlantic)
I raised myself on Jeff Beck, Hendrix and Jimmy Page. That’s what I started jamming along with. Something like Since I’ve Been Loving You [from Led Zeppelin III] was a perfect example of taking a blues structure but striking out on your own. They were breaking ground, they were not copying. I love that Page would always just go for it. He may not have thought he could always pull it off, some other guitar player might have better technique, but what Page did would always trump it because the spirit was so overwhelming. Whatever he did on guitar would turn into a technique.
John Lee Hooker - Boogie Chillen (Modern)
The first time I heard John Lee Hooker was an old collection that started with Boogie Chillen, I’m In The Mood and Boom Boom. I doubt that collection is still available but it was the original recordings. I sat there listening to the voice thinking, “Oh my God, there is so much going on in his delivery.” You could spend the rest of your life trying to figure out what was going on there.
His guitar playing was at one with this blues feeling that he put forward. His playing style wasn’t going to work for the bands I was in so I was interested in why he sounded like he did, I loved the whole package. As a kid who had been playing The Beatles, Stones, Hendrix and The Doors, they were extremely organised compared to John Lee Hooker, who would hold the chord for as many beats as he wanted to before going to the next one.
No 16 bars ever matched the previous 16. You couldn’t chart it out and learn something, charts had nothing to do with it. There was a mystery to a suburban kid putting on these guys like Mississippi Fred McDowell and learning from them.
Slim Harpo - Shake Your Hips (Excello)
Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters had real structured songs that made more sense to a young rocker than what John Lee Hooker was doing. Put Robert Johnson or Lead Belly on and it was like: “This is so old, I don’t get it. Why are they going to the chord then?” The first time I heard a lot of this stuff was through covers, like Slim Harpo’s music I first heard through the Stones’ Exile on Main St.
I’d go back and hear the original versions and wonder what was going on. I found the blues and then appreciated the rock bands that I loved for where they had taken it. You can hear the bands that did it badly, but the ones that did it well did it with love and respect.
Eric Clapton - From The Cradle (Warner Bros)
One of my favourite records in the mid-period of blues was Eric Clapton’s From The Cradle. I loved the way he approached that record by recording everything live. I was a fan of Clapton ever since I started playing guitar but that record was really remarkable.
Joe Satriani was speaking with Rich Chamberlain. Tickets to Joe's 2022 UK tour are on sale now.