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Jim Bruce is that rare thing in this modern age – a working, travelling bluesman in the old tradition. Currently living and playing in France, he has appeared on radio and TV, and is much in demand for live performances of old-style blues and ragtime guitar. He has 4 albums to his credit, the most recent ‘Metro’ featuring mostly his own songs in a fusion of modern and old-style blues sounds. Very few people have mastered fingerstyle blues guitar like Jim. His timing and phrasing are impeccable. Born in Sheffield, England. Jim Bruce has traveled the world, living and working in Paris, the USA, Germany, and Denmark. Jim is one of the few master guitarists who is also a talented teacher. Jim was kind enough to give me an exclusive interview. DHBG: What made you start playing guitar? Jim Bruce: When I was 14 I heard Dylan singing TimesThey Are a-Changin‘ on the radio. I bought the LP and heard Don’t Think Twice fingerpicked. I was hooked – that was what I wanted to do. Don’t Think Twice was the first song I ever learned. I never strummed at all, and I’m not very good at it! DHBG: Fingerstyle blues is not everyone’s cup of tea. What attracted you to the style? Jim Bruce: After playing folk until about 1973, I heard a guy in a club in the North of England play Kat’s Rag. It was simple compared to some of the stuff I was playing, but there was this superb syncopation about it. Shortly after moving down to London, I found some old Biograph Blake albums and locked myself away for 5 hours a day, for about a year, until I could play it! I suppose it’s always been the challenge that attracts me. DHGB: What’s the worst gig you ever played? Jim Bruce: That’s a tough one – there’s so many! I can remember playing on the London Underground for hours making nothing. I still play on the street, because I like the feel of it, but back then I wanted to be noticed, not ignored. It was also nice to eat, now and again! Bad gigs were normally in noisy bars, when no-one listens at all. Thankfully, I don’t have to do this anymore – I can choose where I play.
Funnily, when I was a kid, the worst gig was also the best. I played one song and the club owner didn’t like it – he wanted Country. It was the tradition in UK at that time to pay artists if your rejected them, so I got paid and had a nice night somewhere else! DHGB: Your style is straight ahead with a Blind Lemon feel. Who else influenced you? Jim Bruce: I played only complicated ragtime for several years – Blake stuff and Scott Joplin rags. I never bothered with blues in E or A, as I thought they were too simple. Of course, later on I realised my error. I saw a film with Lightnin’ Hopkins who didn’t play anything very complicated, but the technique and the power was completely awesome. Maybe we need time to mature. As a youngster, I just wanted to show how good I was. No matter how well we play, none of us will ever match up to the old guys. However, we can incorporate their techniques into our music and pay homage. Thanks to Blake, Blind Boy Fuller, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Mance Liscomb, Floyd Council, Scrapper Blackwell, Reverend Gary Davis and many, many more . DHBG: How many guitars do you own? What are they? Jim Bruce: They come and go. I play hard, and don’t really think that an incredibly expensive guitar will make you play better. Often, when I play somewhere, people say ‘Great sound – what’s that guitar?’ It doesn’t really matter – a good guitar just makes it a little easier for you, that’s all. At the moment I have a Vintage VE300, with Shadow electronics and tuner (for the street), an Aria, which I’ve had for 35 years, and a Martin 000×1 DHBG: Do you have any tips for beginning players? Jim Bruce: Obviously, take it slow. Look at the basics, such as the alternating thumb patterns and practice them until you can play them in your sleep! Build on the strong basics and gradually increase the complexity of the songs you tackle. Guitar players progress in levels, sometimes sticking at a level of expertise for some time before breaking through to the next. Practice an hour in the morning, no matter what, and then in the evening. Don’t fit it in, but fit everything else around it. If you have to get up earlier, or go to bed later, then do it. DHBG: Thank you, Jim Jim Bruce: A pleasure. Jim is also a very effective teacher of these old acoustic blues styles. His first project was to develop a great series of video lessons on how to play the songs of Blind Blake. These lessons walk you step by step through the songs and techniques of everyone’s favorite mythical creature, Blind Blake. For complicated passages Jim will play through a bar a time, at speed and again slowly, splits the screen so you can see his picking and his fingering hands, show chord diagrams and tablature on the screen in addition to printable pdf transcriptions.
In other words, Jim walks you through these songs in exhaustive detail and really hammers everything home. In fact, if you can get over his peculiar accent, you’ll benefit great from these Jim added more lessons in various picking and playing styles to produce a 35 lesson set of videos called The Complete Ragtime and Blues Guitar Course. The package represents a complete course in acoustic bluespicking - the styles range from delta blues to Piedmont ragtime, open tuning and bottleneck. Artists covered include Robert Johnson, Big Bill Broonzy, Blind Boy Fuller, Blind Blake, Floyd Council and Scrapper Blackwell. Jim Talks About Blind Blake, The King Of Ragtime Guitar I always found it a bit strange that there is only one picture of Blind Blake, the King of Ragtime Blues Guitar. He cut over 100 sides for Paramount during his career and was very popular. Surely other photographs must have been taken? Even mysterious Robert Johnson ( photo to the right ) had two pictures taken and , at that time, he was less successful and famous than Blake. I suppose I'm a bit peeved about it all. It would be great if some old film were uncovered that showed Johnson or Blake playing in a club or elsewhere. Then we could actually see how their fingers produced those wonderful sounds. Ry cooder says he thinks Blake played with a light touch, while other sources maintain that he has a hole in his right thumb, indicating that he played hard. On at least one song he says' boot that thing' - this also indicated that he had a heavy touch. I've experimented playing Blake every way possible, using a light and heavy touch on different gauge strings, adjusting the guitar bridge height accordngly. It's very difficult to match the playfulness of some of his songs in G such as That'll Never Happen No More or Too Tight Blues. Of course, we're lucky enough to have film clips of other bluesmen, such Big Bill Broonzy, Mance Lipscomb and Lightnin Hopkins, which give us great insight into the various playing styles. Many modern masters, notably Stephan Grossman, Ry Cooder and Eric Clapton have done much to maintain an interest in blues guitar. Even so, that original bluesy feel is still hard to come by. Take Big Bill Broonzy's music, for example - it's fairly easy to work out where our left and right fingers should be, but the all-important swinging rhythm is another thing entirely! It's almost magical. Quote from Big Bill about timing - " you can either ride on the front of the horse, or the back of it and that's what I do when I play my guitar". His right hand thumb beat lags slightly behind the beat and produces the swing. Easily said, but try and do it! At the same time, he's using just one finger on the treble strings to lay down some syncopation. So how can we learn to play authentic blues guitar? The answer is always ' from someone who can play it'. Now, the search is on. There are many guitar lessons offered on the internet, all in various styles and prices. Some are even free. ( A word of warning here - mostly in life, you get what you pay for.) All too often, the courses offered don't match up to expectations. Sometimes the playing doesn't even match the tablature! Many courses offer licks or tricks to give your playing that 'bluesy feel', but is it the blues? Step 1 - find someone who can really play this stuff. Search locally, or on the internet. When you've found your man, ask him for lessons. If he doesn't give lessons then listen to him and follow him around, if you have to. Like anything else in life, if you want it, you have to go for it.
Most real bluesmen are not interested in charging a fortune for their lessons. Step 2 - don't listen to too many modern guitarists. The styles often become diluted and changed,particularly the timing and accents on the beat. DO listen to as many classic blues guitar recordings as you can, particularly if there is film of the guy playing. For example, you can get a lot from just watching Big Bill perform Hey Hey. Step 3 - Practice,practice,practice - particularly the basics. Control that right hand thumb! One hour in the morning and an hour in the evening is minimum. You don't really think Robert Johnson sold his soul to the Devil do you? No, just like,Clapton, he hid himself away for a year until he could play with the intensity we can clearly hear on his old records. Step 4 - for me this is crucial. When you are playing guitar, BE that song or that bluesman. Their lives were hard and completely unlike ours. Saying that, we all get the blues and that's how we can relate. The blues is a woman, having no job, bad kids, the weather, death and hundreds of other things. Express it through your fingers. Get the techniques first, don't take shortcuts with the basics and finally, put your soul into it. Jim has his own video site and also created a video site totally dedicated to classic bluesmen, containg nothing but the old masters. The Complete Ragtime and Blues Guitar Course Website.
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