Reverend Gary Davis – Blues Guitar Master

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Reverend Gary Davis born in South Carolina in 1896 was a blues musician proficient in the style often referred to as Piedmont, which is the main ragtime style.

Although we often use the the all encompassing term ‘ragtime’ guitar, there are other categories within, such as piano style ragtime picking and ragtime blues. This guitar style came into being because guitarists wanted to duplicate the joyous dance sound of the playing way of playing originated by Scott Joplin and others. Guitarists at that time were fascinated by the hypnotic ‘bum-chick’ bass patterns and overall syncopation.

In South Carolina, when Gary Davis was a young man, the acknowledged guitar guru was Blind Willie Walker, who finger picked incredibly precisely and very rapidly, a bit like Blind Blake. Gary was taught several tunes by Walker, including Cincinatti Flow Drag and Make Believe Stunt. This meeting was maybe essential to the growth of Davis’ technique, probably broadening his talents and repertoire. By his own admission, Davis ‘was scared o’ no guitarist’ by his 30th year.

Although a master in the ragtime style, he could really perform in any style and also any key with the same panache. When he became licensed as a minister, Davis refused to perform the old blues pieces, and preferred to play gospel songs that spread the teachings of God. He also sported several party tunes in his song list. Guitarists in those times played outside in parking lots, private gatherings, and any where they could get a few coins, somewhere to sleep or something to eat. It was essential that they varied their playing and provide music that appealed to a wide range of audiences.

The Reverend preferred a jumbo bodied Gibson acoustic guitar, known for its rich, profound bass notes and cutting higher notes – excellent for making his music heard above street noise. Additionally, he used picks on his fingers, which behave as an acoustic amplifier and protect the fingers from harm when performing for a long period, as players did back then. He wore a big plastic thumb pick worn high up, near his hand, and a stainless steel on his fore finger.

Incredibly, he only used a single finger to strike the guitar strings, which hardly seems credible, bearing in mind the complexity of the music he created. His thumb would jump around on the strings, not content to play just the bass strings. The thumb might also jump out of time and double up on the beat, which represents incredible dexterity. An additional trademark movement was his single string run work. He could pick a single string alternately with his thumb and first finger in rapid[quick fire succession at lightning speed, and sing at the same time!

Several great performers played using just a single finger (Doc Watson, Big Bill Broonzy, Blind Boy Fuller) but none so slick and inventive as the Reverend. His songs were truly creative featuring a large variation in chord progressions employed. Most ragtime blues songs employ a standard chord sequence depending on the key, and these chord progressions are significantly more involved than a standard blues chord sequence in E or A, but the Reverend further emebellished the sequences adding a new plateau of musical diversity.

Reverend Gary Davis is a source of encouragement for many guitar players over the decades and the treasure he left will always be with us.

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