MANY old-time blues fans, while talking of the influence the genre had on newer styles, often say: “The blues had a baby and they called it rock ‘n’ roll.” Their reference is obviously to the fact that rock ‘n’ roll music, as popular in the 1950s, was essentially derived from the blues. By the 1960s, rock music became so popular on its own, and to maintain an interest in the blues, some musicians came to play what was called blues-rock.
Today, a lot of blues festivals across the world feature blues-rock acts, and even those playing traditional blues songs like ‘Sweet Home Chicago’ and ‘Hoochie Coochie Man’ use more rock elements to pep up the sound. As a result, they manage to attract the younger generation.
What is blues-rock? Simply put, it is a genre that involves combining bluesy improvisations with rock ‘n’ roll styles. The primary instruments used are the electric guitar, piano, bass and drums, with the guitar usually amplified, and using techniques found in rock music.
The style evolved in the middle of the 1960s, when English bluesmen fused traditional blues with their increasingly sophisticated message, and sent out their own message. Though they were not blues-rock in the generally accepted sense of the term, the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds and the Animals incorporated a lot of blues influences into their sound. And in the US, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Canned Heat and the Siegel-Schwall Band conducted similar experiments.
In London, much of the success of ‘Blues Breakers’, the 1966 debut album from John Mayall’s band, hung on the dazzling playing of guitarist Eric Clapton. This indicated that audiences were ready to listen to the blues in a different way. Until then, the style — despite a legacy of great musicians — focused more on vocal music. Clapton adopted the techniques of bluesmen Buddy Guy, Freddie King, BB King and Albert King, and pushed them to a new level of virtuosity. Hesoon formed the improvisational blues-rock supergroup Cream, and the blues became associated with the sound of the guitar.
Soon, blues-rock became a fad, as acts like Fleetwood Mac, the Jeff Beck Group, Ten Years After followed the style, and even Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Led Zeppelin used a lot of blues influences. Southern rock bands like the Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd and ZZ Top were an extension of the genre. Established bluesmen like BB King, Buddy Guy and Albert King suddenly found themselves playing alongside rock stars before racially mixed audiences at large festivals.
Though the rise of other genres led to lower popularity of blues-rock in the 1980s, acts like Stevie Ray Vaughan and the Fabulous Thunderbirds filled packed venues. Blues-rock had a resurgence in the 1990s and early 2000s, with Gary Moore, the White Stripes, John Mayer, Blues Traveler, the Black Crowes and Joe Bonamassa creating some incredible music.
Over the years, blues-rock has had its critics too, with traditionalists claiming it has diluted the art, and made the whole sound noisier. But there’s no denying that it has kept the interest in the genre alive, and also helped attract a section of fans towards the older and more traditional blues form.