zzwu | Communication in blues



In this column: hand signals and keywords for tempo and progressions

Archie Lee Hooker

In my career as a guitarist I have accompanied a lot of blues musicians/artists and there is never room to practice the songs together. Usually we prepare a set list before the concert or the artist calls out the songs while playing. We use keywords and gestures to communicate with each other, with which we can quickly indicate at what tempo a song is, where there are breaks, which progression we follow or how we end the song.

Below is a list of our means of communication.


  • Slow
  • Up Slow
  • 6/8
  • 4/4
  • Shuffle medium (Classic Chicago Blues)
  • Shuffle up
  • Shuffle Up Town (referring to the bass line)
  • Shuffle Down Town (bass line)
  • Humpty dumpty (Shuffle; short and energetic)
  • Lumpty Dumpty (Shuffle; lazy, laid back)
  • Laid Back
  • Boogie
  • Boogaloo
  • Jungle Beat
  • Street Beat / New Orleans / Louisiana
  • Funky
  • Swing
  • Up Swing
  • Up Tempo


  • The chords are indicated by the fingers: 1 finger, 4 or 5
  • A nod of the head, that means "yes" as you are used to do it
  • The musician shouts "watch me", which means that an unusual passage is coming and the others must follow him/her
  • Tapping the top of the head with the flat of your hand means "From The Top)
  • Raising a hand means "watch out, the end of the song or there's a break coming"
  • Moving the flat hand down means "turn the volume down"
  • The artist points to the musician, who is going to solo. That is usually two rounds (24 bars). If the soloist takes an extra round, he will indicate this
  • If the last line is repeated at the end, it is always repeated three times
  • If the song ends on a break, the musicians continue counting and fall back on the one. Never leave the singer hanging there
  • Through experience, the musicians know where the cues in the song are, where you can give a sign for, for example: a break, a bridge, the end, a quick change, to change the chord, repeating the ending

To count down a number

  • 1 - - 2 - -
  • 1 n 2 n 3 n 4
  • 1 2 3 4
  • 1 2 3, 1n 2n 3n
  • 1 - 2 you know what to do
  • The artist starts alone, the band joins in at 4 or after a round


  • Minor / major
  • 1 - 4 - 5 (Standard)
  • 1 - 5 - 4
  • 1 - 5 - #
  • 2 - 5 - 1
  • 1 - 4, 1 - 5
  • Stay in 1
  • Long 1 (referring to a long 8-line verse, usually ending with a break)
  • Turn Around (T.A., intermezzo between verses: 1 - 4 - 1 - 5)
  • Quick Change (1 - 4 - 1, 4 - 1 - 5 - 4 -1, T.A.)
  • Verse, Chorus, Bridge, Break
  • From The Top
  • Vamp (improvise on the theme or first chord)

Referring to well-known classic blues songs

  • Sweet Home Chicago
  • Dust My Broom
  • Going Down Slow
  • Hoochie Coochie Man
  • Woke Uo This Morning
  • Big Boss Man
  • Every Day I Have The Blues / T-Bone Shuffle
  • Stormy Monday (progression)
  • Mojo Working

Sources: Thomas Moon: The Verdict Of Big Joe Williams, weeniecampbell.com, BBC news, Talkin' to myself: Blues lyrics, Michael Taft, digitalcitizen.ca, federalcigarjugband.com, pancocojams.blogspot.nl, americanbluesscene.com, YouTube, Wikipedia, Hudson Motors Compagny, Archive Minneapolis, The Cruel Plains, M.H.Price a.o., truewestmagazine.com, The Austin Chronicle, Cambridge Free English Dictionary, Oxford Dictionary, TheSaurus.com, dragonjazz.com/grablue/blues_travel, Encyclopedia of African American Popular Culture, Blues by Paul Breman, Blues by David Harrison, Quora.com, urbandictionary.com, Blogs.loc.gov, The Ballad Hunter by Alan Lomax, Black Pearls: Blues Queens of the 1920th by Daphne Duval Harrison, jopiepopie.blogspot.nl, redhotjazz.com, The Blues Lyrics Formula by Michael Taft, American Ballads and Folk Songs by Alan Lomax and John Avery Lomax, The Past Is Not Dead: Essays from the  Southern Quarterly by Douglas B. Chambers, EarlyBlues.com, railroad-line.com,  Jason Lee Davis' RailFan Pages , centertruthjustice.org