Most people associate blues music with a guitarist with a harmonica in a dingy bar, singing about being down on his luck.
That’s one example; however, the original country blues branched out into dozens of subcategories with a mix of textures, instrumentation, and lyrical ideas.
Read on to learn about the types of blues music you should be familiar with and the artists that brought them into the world.
In the early days before World War I, pianos in virtually every establishment carried the music that guitarists were traveling the road with when the blues were spreading. Piano blues are those songs focused around a piano player and accented with guitar, harp, and percussion.
Dr. John and Ray Charles are two of the best-known modern piano blues players in North America, and Hugh Laurie strums the ivories across the pond.
West Coast Blues
When Texas blues players moved to California in the 1940s, they brought a robust piano-influenced sound blended with jazzy guitar solos. The style’s influence was jump blues bringing the tempo up and putting energy behind the songs.
Singer Percy Mayfield would lend smooth vocals to west coast blues songs to help further define the style.
Jazz and blues both originate from the same African-American musical beginnings, so that the term can refer to one of two different styles of music.
It can be a jazz player who moves from ornate rhythms and melodies and instead stays with simple harmonies but uses them to strengthen the emotion in the song.
Or, a blues player can create a piece that utilizes advanced harmonies, improvisation, and complex composition to make a more jazz-like song.
Jazz blues can also come closer to something sounding like R&B than either of the above examples.
This is a general term or category for any blues music played on a non-electric or acoustic instrument, whether a guitar, mandolin, piano, jug, or even a homemade instrument.
Acoustic blues was the default category in the early days of blues, and most regional variations have a variety of acoustic blues.
Created by blues musicians in Memphis, Tennessee, and strengthened by African-Americans leaving the Mississippi Delta after the second World War for urban areas, this blues style is categorized by both guitar musicians and jug bands.
Many famous blues musicians like B.B. King, Ike Turner, and Willie Nix recorded for companies like Sun Records within the Memphis blues scene.
A pre-1920s style closely related to jazz music, Boogie-woogie is often played with the piano, like stride piano and ragtime.
When it became one of the most popular blues styles, solo boogie-woogie moved from just piano to duets with a stringed instrument and then big bands.
Another regional variant, Canadian blues, encompasses all the blues and blues-related artists in Canada who often draw from lighter blues styles like the Chicago blues. Often blues artists will also be producers.
Although blues has been played in Canada since the early 1920s or earlier, Canadian blues has only had that label in popular culture since the 1960s, when the British blues revolution began.
Jug Band Blues
The development of the jug band is closely related to the development of other kinds of blues music in the early 1920s and even rock n’ roll. Still, it revolves around the DIY movement that would later help punk to establish itself.
The central instrument of the band is the jug, often made of glass or stoneware, as well as a variety of homemade instruments like a comb covered with wax paper, spoons, or a washboard.
British blues takes its inspiration from American blues and is a regional variation reaching the height of popularity in the 1960s. It also spun off into British rhythm and blues (British R&B).
This type of blues centers around the electric guitar and has become favored by prevalent traditionally rock groups like Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, and Fleetwood Mac.
Zydeco began in southwest Louisiana, created by French Creole and Native American peoples by blending their own music with the blues, R&B, folk, and gospel.
When swamp blues began to fade, zydeco blues was a piece of highly personal music that took its place.
The fade and then the death of disco in the 1980s brought about the birth of contemporary R&B.
African Americans such as Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones took advantage of the people who wanted to dance and modernized traditional rhythm and blues by bringing in other fast-paced genres.
Elements of pop, folk, disco, and rock filled out the layers of sound while making the songs fun.
This tune is a prime example of delta blues, a Mississippi-based sound and one of the earliest types of blues.
Delta blues is noted for its use of slide guitar and primarily features guitar, harmonica, and vocals in a homey country style. The drifting delta atmosphere, reminiscent of a summer afternoon, is one of the slower and more straightforward types of blues.
This is the fundamental or traditional style that many blues styles borrow from as well as heavy metal, rock n’ roll and rhythm, and blues.
Beginning in the southeastern United States in the late 19th or earlier 20th century, classic blues gave way to other regional variants like Kansas City and Chicago blues.
Detroit blues resulted from delta blues musicians from Mississippi and Tennessee migrating to Detroit to look for work in industrial factories bringing with them acoustic instruments that then became electric.
Musicians like John Lee Hooker were influenced by the Chicago blues already present there, and he broadened his sound by bringing in bass guitars and piano plus electric instruments.
A type of blues song that mimics the style of field hollers who performed practical songs in the mid-19th century that would become a type of pre-blues musical foundation.
Field hollers were often field slaves in the United States who performed the loud vocal dynamic songs characterized by rising and falling lyrics with a flexible rhythm. The hollers used the songs to pass information and uplift the spirits in the field.
Also called holy blues, gospel blues has been around since the first kinds of blues music began, and fundamentally it’s blues backing to religious or evangelical lyrics. Sometimes clergy used blues musicians to preach, or blues musicians became clergy and drew from their background.
The two most prominent musicians for the style are Reverend Gary Davis and Blind Willie Johnson and many other gospel blues musicians recorded under pseudonyms to great success.
Recorded in a prison in 1933, this is one of the oldest blues audio recordings available and is often synonymous with folk blues or backwoods blues.
The “Black Betty” tune is a prime example of the call-and-response format, where one vocalist offers a line and others respond as part of a predictable repeated pattern. It was famously redone by the 1970s British rock band Ram Jam.
Hard Rock Blues
The British Invasion of the 1960s mixed English singer/songwriters with the American blues styles to create a louder, more rock-focused type of blues. For many people worldwide, this was their first exposure to the blues.
No longer the lazy country-style blues present in the earlier 1900s, the hard rock blues is a raucous reinvention of the genre with the help of a full band and layered vocal harmonies.
Initially, this type of music focused on artists and music coming primarily from West Africa but later expanded to music that makes the journey between Africa and the United States.
Call-and-response plantation field work songs have built the foundation for African Blues, and the entire album African Blues by Ali Farka Toure has set the standard.
Hill Country Blues
This is a regional variation of North Mississippi blues named after the Hill Country in the northern parts of Mississippi that border Tennessee. It developed in areas where slaves from West Africa brought drumming and, therefore, heavy percussion and rhythm influences.
The style has few chord changes and a hypnotic groove that draws it further from the usual Mississippi Delta blues. Musicians well-known for the style are Robert Belfour, Calvin Jackson, and Kenny Brown.
Acoustic and usually a male performer, a blues shouter performs a song without using a microphone but at full volume. Its music for extroverts and the best blues shouter embodies energy and outstanding performance.
The normal dynamics of the song are often ignored for the volume and merely getting the words of the song across.
Often used as another name for country blues, it’s linked with artists like Lightnin’ Hopkins, John Lee Hooker, and Frankie Lee Sims. It differs slightly from country blues and includes blending many different regional variations like delta and New Orlean blues.
Down-home blues is often acoustic and often linked to specific guitar licks more than an overall kind of blues music.
The Hokum blues subgenre is believed to have begun as part of the traveling Minstrel shows or at least because of them. They’re satirical and humorous songs that use analogies and metaphors to make overblown sexual and raunchy innuendos.
Hokum became a trope for blues musicians, although hokum lyrics go back to very early blues recordings in the 1920s and 30s.
Born from boogie-woogie and swing music, but a precursor to rock n’ roll, jump blues is an up-tempo blues style mainly played by horns and owes much of its success to big bands and the swing revival of the 1990s.
It’s the furthest thing from the depressed guitarist in the bar, and it’s a celebration of lyrics and music.
Louis Jordan is perhaps the most significant jump blues player and the best known. His single “Saturday Night Fish Fry” featured a distorted electric guitar, fast rhythms, and playful melodies, a beautiful descriptor of the jump blues sound.
A child of country blues, Louisiana blues was born within Louisiana, and it often has an underlying jazz element that helps differentiate it from the rounder country sound.
It owes its influences to the larger New Orleans blues trend but blends it with the slower swamp blues from Baton Rouge.
As the blues tradition migrated north from Mississippi and the Appalachians, it gained a harder edge and faster grooves. Chicago blues is sometimes called electric blues for its upgrade to amplified equipment.
The plugged-in blues combo, presented with a slick, well-dressed aesthetic, is most associated with early-stage greats like Chuck Berry.
Like the name suggests, harmonica blues focuses on the harmonica as the central force of the song regardless of the overall style. While acoustic blues songs may have one or more harmonicas playing, other styles often add a microphone to the harmonica.
The more electric blues styles like Chicago are known for a distinct electrically-amplified harmonica sound. It became popular in the 1950s thanks to artists like Big Walter Horton and Junior Wells.
New Orleans Blues
Colorful and eclectic, this is one of the more divergent blues styles.
The instrumentation evolved from a simple guitar-harmonica duo to include a keyboard, saxophone, and various percussion effects. The flamboyant piano playing is indicative of New Orleans blues, as is the thick texture of multiple instruments.
Influenced by Caribbean flavor, many organic subcategories arose from this wild blues type, and it’s popularized by artists like James Brown and Earth, Wind, and Fire.
This blues style utilizes a fingerpicking technique similar to a banjo, coupled with a lively rhythm evocative of ragtime.
Piedmont blues, which gained popularity in the early 1900s, encompasses a southern Appalachian mountain range region. Though often more energetic than delta blues, it shares a similar uncomplicated aura of down-home songwriting.
Bringing together inspiration from acoustic and electric blues, contemporary blues focuses on the structure of blues but brings in influences from rock, folk, R&B, and other genres to smooth it out.
Contemporary blues music tends to be polished, especially the more modern songs in contrast to the grittiness of early Chicago or Kansas-style blues.
Soul blues leaves behind jaunty rhythms in favor of a smooth lilt, perfect for slow dancing on a quiet evening.
While Etta James may be the most recognizable name from this subgenre, it remains alive and well today with musicians who bridge the divide of folk, blues, and rock for a quintessential American flavor.
This style draws on garage rock from the 1960s and 70s but pushes it further to fuse punk rock and the blues to create bands like the White Stripes. It’s no surprise how well the two subgenres blend, given how similar the two genres are on closer examination.
Punk blues take on the common characteristics of both: emotion, rawness, and simplicity to create a faster, more intense blues song.
One of the aspects of Louisiana blues that began in the 1950s, swamp blues, is a slower tempo genre focused on rhythm and opposite of styles like West Coast blues.
The style’s influences are simple guitar styles and Cajun blues styles. In the 1970s, the style began to fade in popularity, and zydeco began to take its place.
Classic Female Blues
Many scholars will blend classic blues and classic female blues styles; however, the role of the female artist in the blues genre shouldn’t be overshadowed.
Some of the classic blues standard songs were initially written and performed by women and later covered by more popular male blues artists, such as the linked song by Bessie Smith.
This fusion style brings rock and roll and electric blues together, covering traditional blues songs from artists like Jimmy Reed and Muddy Waters but heavier with a faster tempo.
Blues-rock typically follows the structure of a Chicago-style blues song but heavily features bluesy improvisation and lengthy guitar solos borrowed from rock n’ roll.
Most Popular Kinds Of Blues Music
All types of blues music come down to the main kinds of blues music, which are also the most popular:
- Delta blues – this is primarily acoustic involving a guitar
- Chicago blues – which is predominantly electric and involves multiple instruments
- R&B – For contemporary and modern music
The most popular types of blues music will vary depending on where you are in the world, with regional variants often speaking to locals more than other kinds of blues music.
Best Types Of Blues Music, Conclusion
In just a short century and a half, the blues has gone from simple folk tunes to sold-out auditoriums, proving it as one of America’s best-loved sounds that won’t be dying out anytime soon.
The only tricky part is figuring out which type of blues music to start with first.