What is Blues?

There are many different musical and historical terms we use while trying to talk about Blues dancing and Blues music. These are some simple definitions to give you an idea of what to expect -as a dancer, a DJ and as a teacher. – Greg Avakian


Vintage really should refer to a time, not a style. If it’s vintage,it should be old. How old? The biggest changes in Blues took place in the 1950s-1960s as Jump Blues/R&B transformed into rock and roll and established itself as the dominant popular music. Vintage Blues could be considered anything from before the early 1950s. Many artists span the vintage-modern time line: John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters and B.B. King are probably 3 of the most prolific artists to record authentic Blues throughout their careers.


Traditional refers to a past style or even an era, but is not classified by a date in and of itself. Traditional Blues can be vintage Blues, but there are many young “Traditional artists” that record today (thus they are not “vintage”). Think of the adjective “traditional blues” as being true to the original style –like traditional Chicago or Texas Blues might be acoustic for instance, even though they later became electric Blues idioms.

Many people use “Traditional” to generally refer to an early form or style of Blues like Delta Blues, Piedmont (finger picking) Blues or early Country Blues –but this should not reflect the date of the recording itself.

“Non-traditional Blues” might refer to Blues fusions with other styles of music; for instance, rock-blues or jazz-blues. A situational example might be a jam band playing blues at a concert -which is unlikely to be “traditional blues”, although it might be Blues based or Blues intended.

Examples of “modern traditional” Blues musicians are keb’Mo’, Eric Bibb, Taj Mahal (although he is also an innovator/world music fusionist). Lou Rawls would be a contemporary “non-traditional” Blues-Pop artist. A cross-over traditional Blues-Jazz band might be “The Blue Rhythm Kings”.


Delta Blues is a style and an historical term that describes music that describes country blues music that came from the Mississippi River delta. It is recognizable by loose rhythm, “jangly” strumming and often a vocal line that does not necessarily follow the melody or rhythm of the instruments. Delta blues is commonly played on the acoustic guitar with vocals and or harmonica. Vocal Delta Blues is an evolution of field calls and almost always tells a story. Later day artists like Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker have long careers starting with Delta Blues, but other well-known artists are Bluesmen like Bukka White, Robert Johnson and Son House.


Piedmont is a region of the Southeastern United States. Musically, Piedmont Blues are similar to Delta Blues in sound but with clearer melody lines and a finger-picking style. The feeling is down-home and relaxed or good-time party music. Often referred to as “Country Blues”, this style is a grand-daddy of country music and crosses over into folk music. Vintage Piedmont artists are Blind Willie McTell and Leadbelly. Eric Bibb is a modern Piedmont guitar player.

New Orleans

New Orleans was its own cultural crossroads, and thus the music –both Jazz and Blues- includes elements of Latino/Caribbean, African and purely American rhythms and textures. New Orleans music was heard everywhere: in the streets, whorehouses, bars, parades, funerals, baseball games(!) … so the emotional qualities are more varied than most styles of Blues. Some of the music often sounds if it could be counted “in two’s” rather than in sets of 4 or 8 beats (i.e. 2/4 time signature). This gives it an upbeat “strutting” feel –and in faster N.O. Jazz music, that often makes it feel like music for Charleston. New Orleans Blues features driving piano and horns, rollicking drum rhythms that tumble over each other, and intense vocals. Musicians with long careers include Champion Jack Dupree, Katie Webster, Fats Domino.

Cajun and Zydeco music are heavily Blues-influenced.

Kansas City Blues

Kansas City was a meeting place for Jazz and Blues. Much of the “big band meets Blues band” developments happened here. Artists like Jay McShann and Count Basie are often playing “Swing” in a Blues format. Whether this is Jazz or Blues is a delicious debate. A “Blues shouter” like Big Joe Turner (who recorded with Count Basie) is an example of a Jump Blues singer who was largely influenced by the Blues music of Kansas City. At faster tempos, this may feel more like Lindy Hop or East Coast Swing music than Blues Dancing music -depending on the music, this choice may be informed by the rhythm, personal dance style, or both.

Chicago Blues

Bigger bands and electricity/amplification (which wasn’t always available in the rural south) impacted Delta Blues when it arrived in the northern cities. The use of bigger bands and more musicians (particularly bass, piano and horns) gave Blues a more structured rhythm and solidified the roles of rhythm section and soloist. While the rhythm structure remained Blues, the band structure became more like a jazz band. The participation of Jazz musicians gave Chicago Blues more Swing and a more urban sound. While this flavor often defines “Chicago” Blues it’s probably more accurate to say that the Chicago scene influenced a lot of other scenes. As boats went up and down the Mississippi river, musicians spread the musical flavors that they heard along each stop.

Chicago blues is considered the first “Urban Blues”.

Innovators include Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker and later James Cotton –each of whom had long careers with time spent recording Delta and Chicago Blues. They influenced the later Chicago-style Blues musicians like Buddy Guy, Otis Rush, Koko Taylor, Freddie King and Son Seals (also another vintage/modern Chicago musician).


“Shuffle” refers to a syncopated rhythm –also known as a swung 8th note. When you hear music that has a “rolling” count (& a1, & a2, & a3, & a4), that is a shuffle.

This is the influence of Jazz music on Blues . Shuffle rhythm can be strong or subtle and is so common that pointing to almost any artist that recorded after the mid-1940s will yield results. Early West Coast Swing music (which was almost exclusively Blues music) was almost all shuffles.

Jump Blues

Jump Blues evolved from the prominent horn-led rhythms of Kansas City and to a lessor degree New Orleans Blues. Jump Blues bridges the gap between Blues, Swing, Boogie-woogie, and (later on) rock and roll. Honking saxophone, strong back beat, swinging rhythm and (generally) upbeat tempos and lyrics are definitive elements. This is a post-Swing era style of dance music that is often suitable for Lindy Hop and East Coast Swing as well as Blues Dancing. Artists include: Chuck Willis, Wynonie Harris and Louis Jordon.

Rhythm and Blues

An evolution of Jump Blues, R&B started out as dance music and was marketed to young people both black and white. Based on Chicago-style Blues and shuffle rhythm, R&B develops into a softer, more swinging version of Jump Blues. Fatter rhythms, electric bass and the influence of gospel (and later, pop) differentiate R&B from Jump Blues. Eventually, R&B gives birth to soul music. Artists include Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Lou Rawls, and Ruth Brown.

Urban Blues

Early Urban blues includes boogie-woogie and the first migrations of Blues musicians arriving in Chicago.

Whereas “Chicago” and “Urban” Blues could have at one time meant practically the same thing, Urban Blues as a genre has continued to expand to include Blues that has gone beyond the innovations that Chicago Blues helped to form.

Now, the term “Urban Blues” generally refers to Chicago-style Blues with more modern influences such as electric piano and processed/smooth-sounding production. It can be a crossover between blues and pop music. Examples are Robert Cray, Albert King, Junior Wells, B.B. King, Jimmy Witherspoon, Luther Allison, even Ray Charles (who is also a cross-over pop/gospel artist).

Here are a few pages that also give some short descriptions of blues music terminology as well as some terminology to shape your understanding of the blues and its history: