Playing the guitar: Brendon Benson on the blues

For Raconteurs guitarist Brendan Benson, blues has an integrity you just can't fake. Fortunately, it's not too hard to learn the basics ...

Anybody who loves music and who is musical will, at one time (if not for their entire life), be fascinated by blues music. I first started playing guitar, easy stuff like power chords, when I was 14. I liked punk bands such as Black Flag and Fugazi, and that stuff's just two notes, so you can whiz around the fretboard easily.

I got into blues, I think, after I started hearing Rollin' and Tumblin' by Cream on the radio, which then got me into Mississippi bluesman Howlin' Wolf. I thought he was the best. But playing like these guys is tricky because those blues guitarists, they just played like they were Martians.

I was a teenager and most of my friends listened to bad music, Metallica or Slayer, but I loved how these blues guys just played differently. The rock guys played so perfectly and precisely, and I didn't want to do that.

The only thing I had ever known was trying to play like other people, but the blues guys were doing something new, they were inventing. There's a naivety about blues guitar playing that makes it hard to imitate. They'd bend notes but not do it perfectly. When they play, it's so much from the heart not the hands - it's not just about skill.

The thing about the blues is that the third note of the chord, which usually denotes whether the chord is minor or major, is either optional or ambiguous. So it's neither minor nor major. Learning blues guitar taught me the value of that.

I also picked up from blues this other quality that was scuffed, scruffy, flappy. It's hearing a person actually play guitar. Not like rock music, where if someone's performing a scale you can hear they're thinking it, not playing it.

They say that in order to play the blues you have to sell your soul to the devil or be down and out, which is kind of true. It's the hardest thing to maintain, that naivety and that soul. Even the great blues players got worse as they got older, as they got more money. But that's just evolution. When you're young you can't help but play from the heart: you've nothing to lose.

I prefer the blues to be the real, scratchy deal. I don't think I've ever seen proper blues performed - I guess the closest thing I've ever seen live is cajun or bluegrass performances. But I've seen footage of real blues performances - of [harmonica player] Junior Wells playing Hoodoo Man Blues, for instance.

Blues makes such a great rock'n'roll structure, but it really reveals your technique because it's kind of confining, it's a template and from there you can show off your true style. It's apparent when you're playing whether you're just faking it.

Slide guitar, for example, is not so hard to learn, but to be good is hard. I listen to some people - Ron Wood or Ry Cooder - and I think: shit, I can't play this. I can just about fake it.

There's a lot you can learn, though; things like how to mute the strings as you play. Jack [White]'s a good slide player. There are so many different slides - brass, steel, glass. Jack plays with a steel slide which is so heavy. I was going through some slides recently and grabbed his, and I could barely lift the damn thing.

My solo work is not blues-based; my stuff is all chords and melody. I record my stuff then go on tour and I think: I can't play this - it's too hard! Blues is way more fun and exciting to play on stage. It's E-A-G in different formations, pretty much. Add to that some distortion, make it loud, and it's a blast.

Playing with the Raconteurs is so liberating because, when you play the blues with other people, you're all on common ground, you all know the same basics. The Raconteurs do a lot of improvised stuff and the blues is why. I couldn't improvise in one of my solo songs. Well, I could, but it wouldn't be the same.

In fact, I could do with someone telling me how. If you could send me this guitar guide to teach me how to do it, that'd be great ...

The Raconteurs' second album, Consolers of the Lonely, is out now. Brendan Benson's next solo album will be "out some day before too long"

Interview by Laura Barton.


Laura Barton

The GuardianTramp

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