Sunday, February 25, 2007

Blues Jam at Underground Bluz

It's been a good week for jamming - I haven't been doing much of that lately. After sitting in with Patty Gates at Reilly's Lantern Pub last week for a sizzling rendition of "Bobby McGee", she mentioned to me another jam going on at Underground Bluz on Saturday night. Not putting two-and-two together (I'd performed there on this night before), I arrived and discovered that it was a blues jam.

Blues on mountain dulcimer isn't impossible, but it can be difficult due to the diatonic nature of the instrument. With the blues revolving around the pentatonic scale, you're hard-pressed to find the melody, let alone accompanying harmonies that will make your music sizzle. However, it can be done with a good load of string-bending and, if you're capoed at the second fret (key of F#), you can actually get the pentatonic scale and lay some smoky sweetness down.

Of course, it also helps to know your blues chord progressions - so even if you're playing in the key of E (capo first fret), you know that the blues is typically a I - IV - V chord progression.

With each key, there is a scale - and with each scale, there are degrees for each note. The degrees are represented by roman numerals:

I = Tonic (or the root note)

II = Supertonic

III = Mediant

IV = Subdominant

V = Dominant

VI = Submediant

VII = Leading Tone

I, IV and V are what's known as primary chords - the only major chords in the major scale, and usually the chords that are used for blues progressions. No matter what key you're in, this holds true.

So, in the key of E (which is the Tonic or I chord), you count up four notes in the scale (including the Tonic) and you've got A as your IV chord. One more to five and there's your B.

And don't forget that the Key of E has four sharps, F#, C#, G# and D# - so you've got to make some careful choices, even if you're barreing the chords, for soloing.

In any case - blues is not a real strongpoint for me, so I resisted the urge to quietly slip out into the night. Especially after enough people had seen me tuning up and wanted to know what the hell I was playing. Angelique has never been known for her huge voice and this was an all-out jam, better suited to Halcyon's solidbody sound, but I found a break in the action between sets and went to do a little demonstration of some swamp blues with "Cluck Old Hen", just to mix things up from the big Chicago sound that had dominated the evening up to that point.

Imagine my dismay when I couldn't get any sound out of her - realizing that I had left her plugged in all day while practicing and drained the already fatigued battery! No worries, for a shallowbody, she's got a pretty decent voice, so I just had them mic her and I went ahead with the jam, which was raucously received.

There were quite a few familiar faces and talents there, like Kristen Hart and Roger Zimish, who had in mind a little experimental free-associative jam with the dulcimer. So, a fresh battery and a jewelers screwdriver was located, Angelique was re-energized and I hopped in with Roger and crew to do some crazy jamming on a spacy tune in D and then a bluesy rocker in the aforementioned key of E. I was plugged into a Kramer 412 that had some seriously nasty power behind it - but I resisted the urge to go nuts and kept it in the pocket, carefully experimenting with my lead licks; I knew that Roger would toss the ball my way at some point, and when he did - I had found a nice little combo to work over the chord changes. After it was all said and done, event promoter Straycat said to me, "now I can say that I've heard Stevie Ray Vaughn played on a mountain dulcimer!" Wild good times. And recorded for posterity somewhere - I'm going to work on getting ahold of that.

There's another blues jam tonight - and I'm looking forward to mixing it up again, though I'm stuck on whether to bring Halcyon or not. One one hand, her humbucker pickup gives her a bold and brassy voice. On the other hand, her fretboard is too shallow for me to use a capo, and that's a serious setback. I think Angelique is up at bat again.

At least I know she's got a fresh battery.

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