What Wolf Taught Us (and What We Forgot)

wolf album

My pal Josh Hecht is making a documentary on Howlin’ Wolf. Josh, a noted engineer and audio instructor who came of age hanging out in Chicago blues clubs in the ’60s and ’70s, has corralled great interviews with the likes of Sam Phillips, Jimmy Page, and the late Hubert Sumlin, Wolf’s longtime guitarist. He also speaks with younger Wolf fanatics such as Dan Auerbach and Kirk Hammett. This work-in-progress will be cool indeed.

(Don’t be surprised that Kirk is a Wolf worshipper. He’s an extremely well-rounded listener, a lifelong guitar student, and an exceptionally cool and smart dude. Long after he became a star, he studied music a San Francisco State University, where Josh was one of his instructors. Josh shot cool footage of Kirk in his practice room, playing “Smokestack Lightning” on a funky old Epiphone — a Coronet, I think.)

Josh dropped me a note yesterday, telling me he was going over to Kirk’s to shoot additional interview footage, and asking whether I had ideas for further questions. Here’s what sprang to mind:

Many of the interviewees point out the things that rock drew from from Wolf: the riff-based composition, the power and aggression, the distortion. But it’s also interesting to consider the ways later players veered from Wolf’s path, and ponder what was left behind.

1. Take groove: Wolf’s rhythms are powerful but rubbery. The beat wobbles and floats like surfboard. The note placement floats relative to the beat, like a skateboard atop the surfboard. Today’s players are more like slot cars speeding along a pre-carved groove. We’re metronomic and predictable in comparison, even when not performing to click. Bands play together in tight lockstep, favoring even note values and motoric rhythms. Where did the looseness go?

2. Or take distortion: We’ve been in an overdrive arms race for decades, using fuzz pedals, heavier amps, aggressive signal processing. But doesn’t the relatively light distortion of Wolf’s guitarists permit tonal nuance, dynamic range, note-per-note color we can’t equal? So many of our tones are always on 10, squeezed to maximum density like toothpaste. What did we surrender to get there?

3. Or phrasing: Consider, say, Sumlin’s solo on “Shake for Me,” full of oddball phrases of uneven length. Today’s players tend to lock into a single type of vibrato. In “Shake,” there aren’t even two notes with identical vibrato. He smears in and out of notes in ways no one seems to do these days. It’s like we’re punching out notes on an assembly line, while Sumlin is carving each one individually from wood.

What happened? How might it have gone differently? Might any of those aesthetics return?

I have no idea whether Josh will use my questions, and if so, what response they may elicit. But what do you think?

Some inspiration:

Sumlin’s solo above isn’t quite as awesome as on the studio version, which may be my fave solo ever. (God knows, I’ve stolen from it often enough.) But still.

23 comments to What Wolf Taught Us (and What We Forgot)

  • Wolf’s music is like the best of the arts: it’s a CONVERSATION,where-in the player’s speak with oneanother as one does in conversation expounded in excitement, resignation, celebration,what-have-you. There are expansions, as well as short comments and assertions.When we lose those abilities,we resort to the formalisation and formulaic style that becomes pervasive in dead-ends. LONG LIVE WOLF.

  • I think we tend to think about Wolf in a backwards manner, as his later, slicker Chess records material is more available (endless reissues) than the rawer Memphis-era Sun material. While the often-Willie Dixon- produced Chicago recordings sound great and hint at the man’s power, they are pretty clean and neat compared to the unbridled, distorted aggression heard in the seminal Memphis recordings. Willie Johnson, the guitarist on most of those recordings, plays a maxed out combo amp spitting out grunge encrusted punk blues licks a good forty years before the term ‘punk blues’ was coined. And this is the music that truly made the Wolf a legend. Moanin’ at Midnight is a good place to start: compare it to Smokestack Lightnin’ recorded later in Chi-town – the Memphis recording is amazingly loose and greasy compared to its relatively buttoned down counterpart.

  • NotSoFast

    That music was honed live while people danced and drank. The performance is entertainment of the moment and is supposed to make people feel good. Jack White gets the mojo of it.

  • I know I tend to go on about the awesomeness of the Stooges a bit much, but I can’t help but think that the original incarnation of that band got closer to the lean, loose-yet-machine-like groove of the Wolf band than any other rock band. Just part of why I love them so dearly…

  • Q: how did the rawness of electric blues become as prissy and mannered as high tea?

    • mwseniff

      Too many players trying to cash in on the blues mania that had very little exposure to the real thing. Blues has become the new “classic rock” for bar patrons. I knew it was going to be bad news when all the white guys with overpriced guitars and amps started playing blues in the local bars. It seemed like back in the 90’s that the blues became more of a hipster craze and a place for pretentious players to show off their chops. I also think that the stuff that passes for blues these days has reduced the opportunity for bands to play original material. Bar owners see blues as a safe form of music that doesn’t offend patrons or require any effort to listen to but also seems to have a cultural cachet (phony) and lends a false credence to the bar. I love old nasty blues with a tempo that breathes and emotion that stirs your heart but that doesn’t sell as well to a bunch of drunks in a bar.

      • Lord knows I spend a lot of my time walking that tightrope: trying to play blues in bars that simultaneously pays tribute to the tradition/masters whilst looking forward, following my own voice AND trying to entertain bar patrons who equate the music with the theme song from ‘Roseanne’. Not easy, but I’ve managed to be one of the busiest players in the very musician-unfriendly city of Vancouver and work with groups and artists who cover the whole spectrum from savage primitives to uptown swingsters to Vaughnabees.
        One of Wolf’s less known guitarists is a real inspiration to me in this regard: Jody Williams wasn’t with the Wolf for long, but played some great gritty guitar on ‘Evil’ among others, as well as working with a wide array of other artists (Bo Diddley, Billy Boy Arnold for two) and releasing a string of great instrumentals that were 100% Jody, as well as some pretty slick vocal numbers. A great blend of uptown refinement and street-level grease, Jody is certainly deserving of more attention. (Disclosure: I’ve led a band behind him in Chicago and hung out in Vancouver, so I’m biased.)
        Despite the awesomeness of the feral intensity of much classic blues, it’s important to remember that blues always came in a slicker, more uptown package as evidenced by Leroy Carr and Scrapper Blackwell, T Bone Walker, the Kansas City bands (Jay Mcshann, Basie, etc.), Ray Charles, Tampa Red and many, many more.
        It seems that most people think of Chicago Blues in it’s corrupted ‘Blues-Brothers-esque’ form when thinking about this music, but blues has as many side-genres and local flavours as any type of music -it’s a shame more people don’t explore them.

        • One more thing on this point: the beginning of the end for the loose-limbed grooves we all are raving about, was the acceptance of the Fender bass as an essential tool in the blues bands of the early sixties. Previously most of the guitar-based blues was performed with two guitars, with one boogying on the bottom and one decorating up top. Upright bass was common in the recorded history, but would have been largely absent in the bar-room.
          But the wide-spread acceptance of the Fender bass changed the groove vocabulary; the interaction with the drums changes radically. Upright bass allows for more independence in the rhythm section, allowing for looser, more open feels. Electric bass requires a drummer to lock in precisely with every bass note, which pretty much irrevocably changes the feel.
          Obviously the advent of the electric bass had many positive effects: soul, afrobeat, funk, rock, etc., but traditional musics (including country and jazz) paid a pretty heavy price for the newfound convenience.
          In blues this now most annoyingly manifests itself in most drummers having no idea how to do a two-handed shuffle, instead relying on the rock shuffle and it’s trite ‘duh, duh-duh’ kick drum pattern whilst an electric bassist pedals on the root. -ugh-

      • joe

        All so true! But yeah, while while the audiences, club owners, and the market in general does incline us to “play to expectations” rather than “play to confound expectations,” the part that interests me is how most of us have internalized the musical qualities I’m bitching about. For better or worse, it’s how most of our ears and hands have evolved over the course of our playing lifetimes.

        • We’re talking about the homogenization of culture in general. We buy it every day at Walmart. Thankfully there are still some of us zen warriors spreading our ridiculousness over the world. I believe that is our purpose these days; to deliver ‘real’ to a starved audience. And that audience wants us to relentlessly be ourselves. We owe it to them.

    • joe

      LOL — leave it to you, bear, to summarize hundreds of words of pontificating into a punchy little sentence. Well done. :)

      • Wasn’t entirely a quip. Any time rawness comes back in, the imitators get on it and end up flogging a plaque commemorating a horse that has long since passed. [Can’t stop quipping, can I?] Even when playing an authentic style, so many of the followers just sound like another version of Blues Hammer in the movie “Ghost World.”

        I think people without much originality figure out that it’s a style where they can muddle along, and unlike classic rock covers, there isn’t a premium on duplicating the arrangement, so easier still. And on the recorded stuff, virtuosity beats nerve tingling impact for a lot of the labels and record buyers, which is pretty messed up. Oh, and the Michael Bolton version of intensity runs the game: louder is more soulful.

        • smgear

          I’m with you with lots of love for the ‘rawness’ of the early recordings and the later Memphis scene, but…. I can’t forget that what I love about a great many of those hidden gems is that the ‘style’ is basically “when I was a kid my uncle gave me an out of tune guitar and showed me how to plunk the bass on these two strings and then hold the chord over regardless of whether it fits the melody or not”. Technically, many of the most authentic guys kinda sucked. That dissonant rawness is precisely why few of us love them and also why their style got ‘polished’ by later players. So it was actually some guys with originality and musicality that cleaned up the blues. Of course then they got copied relentlessly because fitting the popular aesthetic was the only way to get gigs outside of the bayou.

          So, Wolf may have gotten polished, but at that point I just switch over to RL Burnside, Junior Kimbrough and that scene when I need my down and dirty fix. I give N Mississippi Allstars and the Black Keys credit for paying good homage to those roots, but they both quickly learned that you have to balance those homage tunes/albums with more mainstream styles in order to keep the tour alive and the albums selling.

          But the blues is better without money or an arena, so I play dirty blues for myself and my friends when I’m in the mood. When I gig, I’ll play whatever the audience and the house wants. I don’t complain either way…. or at least I turn the gripe into a great blues tune… )

  • NicPic

    Really love the second vid…Love the throaty clangy,syrupy guitar tonre…It’s what I always identofied Kohnny Winter with…Its that spirotual vibe I really dig…great post.,joe..It’s great that you give such an eclectic diet of different styles per topics you present here…Keep it commin’ Bro!!

  • NicPic

    And lol…we need an edit tab for Typosexuals Like Me :P LOL

    • joe

      Oh, man, I know, and I am SOOO sorry! I wish I’d chosen a chat plugin with user-editable text for this wordpress site, but I do know how to switch to another without losing all the comments (the best stuff on the site, in other words).

      Any wordpress mavens out there who can offer advice?

  • mngiza

    I danced with my first girlfriend directly in front of Albert King as he played a Midwestern bar on a summer night in 1973. He was using a huge Acoustic brand transistor amp with a 2×15-plus-horn bottom laid on its side. Louder than Krakatoa. No amp mike; that was not done, in those days. I realized then that equipment fetishism is not the way of the true bluesman. This freed me to use transistor amps (loud! clean! cheap! low-maintenance!) such as the early Peavey Special 130, the old Roland Cube 60, etc. If it worked for Albert, it works for me. (Last time I saw King, he played a Roland JC-120.)

    I had to laugh when I briefly viewed Robert Plant on TV in the current day, with a sideman playing the de rigeur Kay guitar – or maybe it was a Danelectro or a Harmony or a Teisco. Man, those things are terrible! But it’s necessary to play a wretched antique cheapo axe to do the “Americana” thing, in the 2010s. The original blues masters played ‘em ’cause they were cheap!

    It would take a truly heavy attitude to play “Americana” or “Caucasian Blues” on a fluorescent red 1980 Charvel with a Floyd Rose. Irony or post-irony?

    (Sorry to go partly OT. Wolf was the greatest.)

    • NicPic

      You know…I got to stand and play at the same spot on stage I saw Albert King play on here in Cleveland at the old “Peabody’s Down Under”. (1986)I didnt realize it then till many years later. there were other greats like Allan Holdsworth,Michael Schenker and a whole bunch more that graced that stage…I played there a number of times…I have a funny story I’ll share sometime about the “alternative” club that was next door to the place.I was really sad when they closed Peabody’s cuz My band at the time won battle of the bands. Was always a huge Albert King fan,Rest his lumbering soul.This forum is grreat and rekindles great memories for Me. And no problem Joe..I know it goes …

    • I play ‘em ’cause their cheap, too. They also sound awesome. Not so terrible at all.
      Honestly, I wouldn’t want to play slide on a PRS; it wouldn’t sound right, and the set-up job would be too good.

  • waysel

    Excellent observations, Joe. I blame Zepplin. And The Eagles:)

  • Wade

    Well heck I gotta go sell my prs now and buy a beat up geetar… But wait, Bugs Henderson showed us another way to play the blues didn’t he? If you haven’t checked him out he’s great!

    It can be done lots of ways. Authenticity and passion are the key and I agree you need to feel the music and rhythm and let it come to you.

    I am a frustrated hobbyist pianist– my dang teacher keeps wanting me to practice w a metronome and I just bought great Phil Capone jazz book for guitar and he wants me to as well. I was gonna give in but then saw this blog.

    But I just want to play and feel the music and not worry about it– I have enough to worry about w my day job.

    Am I wrong to keep trying my way?

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