Two weeks ago, I wrote about exploring London’s music scene through a series of blues jams at the Ain’t Nothin’ But Blues bar in Soho. I’ve continued to visit this bar, and I’ve thought about how to stand out in the city’s blues scene. The roots of this article lie within a conversation I had two weeks ago at a jam. Monday nights are the most crowded night at Ain’t Nothin’: there’s a huge queue of people waiting to get in outside. You’ll probably wait five minutes to order a drink, and you’ll probably be uncomfortably close to a bunch of random people. I saw a friend I had met the day before: a bassist and vocalist named Adam. With him came a harmonica player.
I struck up a conversation with the harmonica player, Sam. He mentioned that he and Adam play in a blues band together. He asked me if I play an instrument, and I told him that I play trumpet and guitar. “Trumpet! Man, you can use that. It helps in this blues scene to have a gimmick. I’m a great guitar player, if you ask me, and you probably are too. But the audience won’t give a f***. That’s why you need a gimmick. I play guitar and they don’t care at all, but they go wild for a halfway decent harmonica solo!”
I’ve been thinking about that conversation ever since. There is a guitarist who goes to just about every blues jam in London. He’s famous there. He’s become such a local legend that when he arrives, the person running the jam will hurriedly put him on next and ask who he wants to play in his band for that night. He’s so notorious that the jam master runs forward to make sure he’s happy with the jam that night. I’ve seen him play three times—each time he plays the same songs. And the crowd goes wild! What does he do that is so different? What is his gimmick that makes him stand out from the other hundreds of guitar players that are probably just as good?
I think I figured it out. The songs that he plays are instrumentals; they don’t subscribe to the classic blues shuffle or slow blues or funk blues, which are the only three types of blues tunes that people call at Ain’t Nothin’. Instead, he plays slow instrumentals that aren’t blues songs at all, maybe just blues instrumentals. He has a stage presence. He milks the endings to these songs. He makes guitar faces, grimacing to match his face to the wail of his guitar. He doesn’t play crazy fast, but he has a sound that is recognizable. Volume is something else I noticed that makes someone like Johnny stand out. His guitar is cranked to a high volume every time, and he looks out at the audience. If a guitar player performs something halfway decent at a high volume, it shows confidence; the crowd enjoys it.