Of all the unwritten rules to rock and roll, such as the garage rehearsal space or the trashing of a hotel room, perhaps the most essential rule is for the guitars to be tuned down a half-step from the standard tuning key of E to the key of Eb, an effect that distinguishes the darker, heavier sound of Jimi Hendrix and Black Sabbath from the bright, clean jazz tone of Les Paul. The altered tuning was embraced by the grunge-rock era of the early Nineties as the direct influence of Hendrix on the Seattle sound, while the distorted crunch of strings resonated as well with the punk-rock music along the west coast. As a result of the previous decade’s technological advancements towards the individualization of music listening habits, it can be assumed, and thus unwritten, that the de-tuning of the Nineties guitars was necessary so that the musicians were able to play along with those influential recordings.
This method of learning to play through listening was most likely used by Hendrix, as well, when studying the recordings of blues guitarist Robert Johnson. However, because of the undocumented mythology to Johnson’s life and the primitive state of those early recordings, the authenticity of his guitar tuning can be in question due to how the tape speed affects the musical pitch. Suppose that Johnson used a standard tuning but was recorded at a higher speed, thus when the tape is played back at a supposedly normal speed the recording would sound lower in pitch. Perhaps the birth of the blues was the result of faulty technology, which could account for another unwritten rule of rock and roll: destroy all the equipment.
And perhaps there will be a desire to smash things when playing along with this version of “Birth of the Blues,” recorded from a live radio broadcast of Kid Ory’s band. It is unclear to me as to the process in which this was recorded, but because its tonality is based in the unfriendly key of B, a half-step away from the traditional key of Bb, I assume that a varying tape speed is to blame for the raised pitch. Regardless, the most important element of Ory’s band is its rhythm, and without rhythm it’s not the blues.
And if you want an easier method for playing along with this recording, take a note from the guitarists: multiple trombones, each one tuned differently. And then light them on fire.
Here is a YouTube video of Louis Armstrong performing “Birth of the Blues” with Frank Sinatra.
Recommended reading: Creole Trombone: Kid Ory and the Early Years of Jazz by John McCusker. Published by University Press of Mississippi.