What Is a Blues Musician?

Jennifer O.

A blues musician can be a singer, songwriter or instrumentalist who makes music in the blues tradition. This type of music was pioneered by African-Americans in the southern United States at the turn of the 20th century. The use of emotional lyrical content that emphasizes themes of sadness or depression is the most common identifier of the blues musician. Musical arrangement that employs 12-bar blues chord progression also typifies blues music. Musicians are skilled at blending African-American and European musical traditions.

A blues musician often bends notes on the guitar.
A blues musician often bends notes on the guitar.

Drawing on the call-and-response tradition in African-American spirituals is a key practice of the blues musician. Musical and lyrical phrases are repeated for emphasis, usually four times. Blues songwriters aim to connect emotionally with their audiences, who might add their own vocalizations to the music.

Hollowbody electric guitars are popular among blues musicians.
Hollowbody electric guitars are popular among blues musicians.

Blues singers have a particular way of using musical notes, often drawing them out in order to emphasize the attendant emotion. Often, the method of singing is used to express melancholy that is written in the lyrics. A blues musician who plays guitar might hold or “bend” notes in a way that similarly invokes a sense of melancholy. Flattening the fifth and seventh notes of the major scale accomplish this effect. At the same time, European harmonic structures also are present in blues music.

“The blues,” as this type of music is commonly known, are widely regarded as the influential predecessor to jazz music. There continues to be overlap among the genres, so that a contemporary blues musician might be alternatively referred to as a jazz musician. Blues artists are also commonly known as rhythm and blues musicians. A blues musician can come from any cultural or ethnic background, and there are numerous forms or styles of blues.

Oftentimes, a blues musician is known for his or her virtuoso electric guitar playing. Until about the second half of the 20th century, musicians would have performed acoustic music mostly in venues called juke joints that were known for lively performances and dancing that occurred late into the night. Today, touring and playing at clubs is still a common way for a blues musician to build a career. The countless annual festivals dedicated to blues music are also good places for new or veteran blues musicians to be heard.

Among the most influential and well-known early blues musicians were W.C. Handy, Mamie Smith, Ma Rainy, Mississippi John Hurt, Bessie Smith, and Blind Willie McTell. Later musicians of note include Son House, Muddy Waters and B.B. King. Many of them were both instrumentalists and vocalists.

Modern blues is often played through vintage amplifiers.
Modern blues is often played through vintage amplifiers.

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Discussion Comments

I have always been partial to Chicago blues musicians. Chicago blues is less about sadness and more about swing. It sounds a lot close to rock and roll than that old delta blues stuff.

I greq up in Chicago and igf you spend enough time in the city and hang out in enough bars you cannnto help but love the blues mucis the city invented. It has its own unique sound yet it has influenced


Here is a topic that I debate with my friends a lot. Who is the best blues musician of all time? I contend that it is Robert Johnson, hands down, no question. That man is the saddest and most powerful sounding person I have ever heard. And of course no one agrees with me. So I am putting it to you guys. Who is the best? What are the all time top ten?


I have seen all different kids of blue musicians, young and old, black, white, Asian, man, woman and on and on. And they were all valid and many of them had incredible skill. But when I close my eyes and think of a blue musician I always think of someone like BB King. He is my archetype.

Lots of people play the blue but you do not get the sense that many people really feel the blues the way those early great blues musicians did.

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