How to Sing the Blues

By Robert Russell
Big George Brock is an old-school St. Louis blues singer.

The story of the blues is interesting to say the least. Blues music is a unique American art that reflects the experience of black men and women during the Jim Crow South. Blues has influenced every type of popular American music, and it is possible to find blues bands and fans around the globe. As a musical form, the blues is a synthesis of African and European musical sensibilities and ideas.

Listen and Learn

Blues singers cover a wide spectrum. They range from trained professional singers such as Odetta to rural primitive voices heard on field recordings and everything in between. Female blues singers in the 1920s and 1930s such as Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith and Alberta Hunter represented a more sophisticated style of blues than acoustic country blues artists such as Charlie Patton, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Blind Willie Johnson. Blues vocals have a different feel and timbre than other forms of popular music. Singers develop their craft by listening, emulating and creating their own identity. Howling Wolf was one of the most popular Chicago blues singers, famous for his distinctive growl and showmanship. He learned much of his craft as a young man in Mississippi following Charlie Patton around from gig to gig.

Blue Notes

One of the distinctive characteristics of blues singing is the “blue notes” that separates the blues scale from the major scale. Musicians typically refer to the blue notes as the “flatted 3rd” and the “flatted 7th.” Major scales are diatonic scales made up of eight notes: 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8. The C-major scale, for example, is C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C. E is the third and B is the seventh in the C-major scale. E-flat is the flatted third, and B-flat is the flatted seventh in the C blues scale. Any major scale can be converted into the blues scale by flatting the third and seventh notes of the scale. Jazz singers and more sophisticated blues singers created additional blue notes by altering other notes of the major scale. These include the flat 9 and the raised 9 -- D-flat and D-sharp in the C-major scale -- and the flat 5 and the sharp 5 (G-flat and G-sharp). Singing the blues scale helps to train voice and ear, making blues vocals sound more natural.

Respect the Tradition

Although some blues singers and musicians are “schooled musicians," most blues singers and musicians are not. Blues essentially is folk music developed by black men and women throughout the U.S. South. The socio-economic context in which blues evolved made it difficult for young blacks to receive formal music training. Blues singers, nonetheless, sharpened their skills by singing in church, apprenticing with older musicians or listening to blues records. Anyone interested in learning to sing or play the blues should respect the tradition and appreciate its history and context.

Blues Jams

Practicing and performing are two very different experiences. Singing in front of people is an important part of a singer’s evolution and development. Blues singing, in particular, requires confidence and maturity to get the message across. Blues jams are a popular feature at many nightclubs and bars that feature live music. Participating in blues jams provides an opportunity to perform in front of an audience, to sing with a band and to meet other musicians. The level of musicianship at blues jams often ranges from amateurs and beginners to seasoned professionals.

About the Author

Robert Russell began writing online professionally in 2010. He holds a Ph.D. in philosophy and is currently working on a book project exploring the relationship between art, entertainment and culture. He is the guitar player for the nationally touring cajun/zydeco band Creole Stomp. Russell travels with his laptop and writes many of his articles on the road between gigs.