Today it's easy to get music from anywhere in the country with just the click of a mouse, but that wasn't always the case. Before television and the internet made the whole world part of your local music scene, each region had a distinctive sound and a culture all it own.
This is especially true with the blues. The great cities of the United States each developed their own sound as homegrown musicians honed their craft and jammed together. Do you know the difference between Chicago and St. Louis? How about New Orleans vs. Memphis? Learn to tell the blues of one city from another with this handy guide.
When you think of down-and-dirty blues, you might be thinking of the Memphis style. Also known as Delta blues, this is the music played in the poverty-stricken cotton fields of post-Reconstruction Tennessee and Mississippi. Classic Memphis blues deals with the pain and suffering of the Southern underclass and became popular in recordings during the 1920s and 30s.
The sound is based on basic blues progressions with a heavy dose of acoustic guitar and some serious strumming. Delta blues are highly rhythmic, with some serious finger picking and slide guitar. The harmonica is also a major player here.
Musicians to check out: B. B. King, Ike Turner, Memphis Minnie
New Orleans Blues
Take the blues basics from next door in Mississippi, mix in some jazz and Caribbean influences, and you've got an idea of the New Orleans blues sound. The rhythm turned to Latin and Cuban influences (if you read music, there are some great specifics here), while piano or guitars kept time with triplets. Horn sections were also featured, thanks to all the jazz players in the area.
Musicians to check out: Dr. John, Fats Domino, Guitar Slim
St. Louis Blues
St. Louis blues is most notable for its focus on the piano, and virtuosos fly over the keys with syncopated rhythms influenced by ragtime. The drums keep a banging beat that drives the music forward, and this style is usually pretty upbeat — St. Louis blues bands often played in dance halls to keep jitterbugging couple on their toes. When no piano was available, plenty of bands had guitar players step in to play the melody.
Musicians to check out: Chuck Berry, Robert Nighthawk, Henry Townsend
As musicians left the South after World War II in search of better economic opportunity, many went north to Chicago. The Chicago sound is modern, electric and popular: If you've seen the Blues Brothers do "Soul Man," you've heard Chicago-style blues.
In Chicago, guitar players turned in their old acoustic axes for electric ones that took the emphasis off strumming and instead focused on a note-bending solo style that limited great singers. Chicago blues bands also added a bass and full horn section (or at least a saxophone).
Musicians to check out: Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, Bo Diddley
The blues were played all over the country, and just because your city isn't on the list doesn't mean there aren't great blues musicians with a regional flair near you. New York blues is jazzy and sophisticated, West Coast blues is electric — and somewhere in a club near you is a sweet little blues combo with a style all its own. Next time you hit the blues club, you'll know a little bit more about your favorite group's influences and inspiration — and maybe you'll be ready to give some of these classic blues flavors a try for yourself.