What the Blues Can Teach Us About Creativity

Have you ever listened to the blues? I’m talking about B.B. King, Albert Collins, John Lee Hooker, and hundreds of other blues musicians that have played the genre. At first listen, you might think the blues all sounds the same. I know I’ve been guilty of thinking that way. But blues music may actually be one of the most creative musical genres out there.

What Makes the Blues Creative

Blues and jazz grew up side by side. Blues is the slightly older sister. You might think of jazz as a highly creative form of music. But blues is actually just as creative, maybe more. The difference is simple. Blues stays within a specific scale-based structure. At first thought you might argue that makes it less creative. But think about it. Which artist would need to be more creative: the artist with 100 colors on their palette or the artist with only a pencil? Creativity is not always about the final product, but more about the thought, emotion, and process that goes into its creation.

As one who loves music, I’ve listened and played most every popular genre out there. I’ve written hundreds of songs in various styles, including country, rock & roll, pop, folk, Americana, blues, and electronica. I’ve even experimented in minimalist music. And that’s the secret behind the blues. It’s in essence a minimalist form of music. Yet it’s those boundaries that force great blues artists to be more creative than many of their counterparts.

A Smaller Palette Forces Greater Creativity

The well-known record producer Brian Eno understands this concept. He’s been known to purposefully limit his musical palette, song structure, or recording environment in order to promote a higher level of creative thinking. That’s what blues musicians are faced with. They must create something unique within a specific set of limitations.

Great blues players don’t just play the blues. They make it their own. Each great blues guitarist has his or her own signature sound. Whether it’s the tone of their guitar, the order of the notes they play, or the rhythms they create, they get creative within the boundaries in order to make their own unique style. Some blues artists even push the limits and experiment outside of the boundaries, but that leads to arguments on tradition.

Borrowing Is the Name of the Game

Blogger Jeff Goins claims that realĀ artists should steal. Although I prefer to think of it as borrowing, this concept is as true in blues music as it is anywhere else. Great blues players learn by listening to other great blues players. The key to becoming original is not in creating a brand new thing. Instead, borrow bits and pieces from other great artists within the genre. Then use what you’ve learned to make something a little different from what they did. How many blues players have borrowed from the iconic Robert Johnson?

I encourage you to listen to some blues. If you truly spend some time studying the genre you’ll discover that all of the great blues artists have their own twist on the blues. And if you’re afraid that the blues is the devil’s music as the old crossroads story might have you believe, think again.

Blues scholars consider the crossroads story a myth. It was another practice in creativity. But this time it was the record companies that were the creative ones. What better way to create intrigue, and sell records than to claim someone met devil at the crossroads?