Robbie Basho’s “Great Depression Blues” – Acoustic Guitar

From the March/April 2021 issue of Acoustic Guitar | By Adam Perlmutter

The new five-CD box set Song of the Avatars: The Lost Master Tapes is a treasure trove of more than 100 tracks spanning Robbie Basho’s recording career and covering the far-flung styles from which the guitar icon (see feature on page 22) borrowed—Indian classical, Persian, and Native American, among others. “Great Depression Blues” is one of the most accessible selections in the set, and a showcase for Basho’s considerable fingerpicking technique. 

The guitarist played “Great Depression Blues” in the key of A minor, with a capo at the third fret transposing it up to the key of C minor. The piece is bookended by free-time (without strict rhythms) improvisations in bars 1–15 and 82–98, centered on basic open chord shapes. For these sections, I’d recommend trying your own solos rather than learning the music exactly as notated. Just be sure to end the second solo on an A major chord—a technique, known as a Picardy third, in which the I major chord is used at the end of a minor-key piece.

The interior section (bars 16–81)—the bulk of the piece—is played with Travis picking, in which the thumb picks bass notes squarely on the downbeats and the other fingers add syncopated melodies above. Heads up on the deviations from straight Travis picking—for instance, the double-picked Es in bars 22, 26, 33, 36, and 53, and other disruptions to the quarter-note bass pulse—like the tied-to open D at the beginning of bar 31. 

Given its racing tempo, learn “Great Depression Blues” systematically, isolating any trouble spots, like perhaps the handful of hammer-ons starting in bar 37, and focus on playing everything with rhythmic crispness and precision. This piece is a good reminder that in order to play something fast, you can benefit from first approaching it slowly.  

Due to copyright restrictions, we are unable to post notation or tablature for this musical work. If you have a digital or physical copy of the March/April 2021 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine, you will find the music on page 56.

For more instruction on Robbie Basho, see “Mood Music” in the May 2017 issue.

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2021 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.

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