The Uptown Up

Jan 22, 2021

In his book The Ode Less Traveled, British actor Stephen Fry makes the case for learning all those words like "trochee," "spondee" and "anapest" on the grounds that every craft, from agonistics to zenology, has its own lingo, and part of understanding a craft is learning the words involved and what they mean. To me, his argument is all the more persuasive given the range of profoundly silly work Fry has done: he's the omniscient narrator of the surreal kids' show Pocoyo, and his iteration of Jeeves to Hugh Laurie's Bertie Wooster has come as close to replacing the literary Wodehouse character in my mind as any TV adaptation is ever likely to replace anything. So if someone who can take a joke to those levels suggests there is power in the exacting language of a specific pursuit, I'll pay attention.

Which is why it pains me not to be able to relate the following information with 100% certainty, but it's so worth mentioning, I'm going to take a chance on inaccuracy regardless. I've already mentioned Rod Carey, avatar of low-end cool and long-time bassist with Ronnie Earl and the Broadcasters. While serving as resident groove authority at the National Guitar Workshop, Rod deigned to join my ever-so-much-greener but enthusiastic colleagues and myself for a few rhythm section master classes. These sessions were really just an excuse I cooked up to hang out and play with some blues with Rod, along with my dear departed pal Tricia Woods and drummer Yuichi Hirakawa, knowing we would learn as much as our students did.

Rod was, as the kids like to say, old school. A generation older than me and my friends, he had learned by playing countless gigs with musicians a generation older than himself, and as such was a repository of otherwise inaccessible knowledge. So as he went through the taxonomy of essential blues grooves, I paid rapt attention. There's a name for what Buddy Guy plays on "Mary Had A Little Lamb" and "Jam On A Monday Morning"? It's a called a tramp. Why "tramp?" Rod wasn't sure – probably from the Carla Thomas tune of the same name. But it sure is a lot quicker to look over your shoulder and holler "gimme a tramp, in C" – and a whole lot cooler, if you think you can actually pull it off. I'm pretty sure I couldn't.

What really got me was the names for those classic shuffle grooves – ones I also associate with Buddy Guy, or more specifically, the Buddy Guy/Junior Wells recordings where the rhythm guitar is doubling the bass part. There are two ways to do it: start on the root, leap up an octave and then come down via the b7 and the 5th, or start on the root and climb up, through the 5th to the b7 and then to the octave. According to Rod, these are referred to in more knowledgeable circles as an "uptown up" and an "uptown down," respectively. At least, I think so. I have never been able to remember exactly which was which: does the "up" in "uptown up" refer to the fact that you jump up to the octave right away, or to the fact that you're climbing up through the intervals of the chord?

In my mind, I've settled on the former, though as I'm writing this, the rugged logic of the latter is kind of making more sense to me after all this time. Internet or no, I can't seem to find confirmation of this language elsewhere, so it's also possible this was just something local to New England blues cats, Rhode Island sidemen or the world of Rod Carey. But I don't think so.

The grooves themselves are unquestionably bedrock blues material. I have a hazy recollection of Louisiana bluesman Kenny Neal talking in another National Guitar Workshop class about his father, guitarist Raful Neal, who was pals with pre-Chicago Buddy Guy. Neal thought these riffs arose from from musicians like his father and Guy having to back each other up in the absence of a bass player. That explains a lot, for sure. All I know is that when I when I first learned these moves, I took the purist's insufferable delight in having discovered an infinitely hipper way to play a shuffle. Lean and lithe, possessed of forward motion and breathing room, they let you interlock with with the rest of the band without weighing things down.

Here's the thing: whether Uptown Up or Uptown Down, this is not the most obvious groove to try and recreate via solo fingerstyle guitar. I've made halfway attempts to do so over the years, but it's only lately, prompted by my Charlie Hunter jag (and desperately seeking ideas for a recent songwriters' meeting) that I've managed to wrestle a more thorough version of this idea to the mat. I hate to waste any part of the buffalo, and besides, why should I be the only one tying my fingers in knots over this? So I've made a lesson out of it. 

If you want to take a crack at the uptown up (or uptown down – the jury's still out), mosey on over to my Youtube channel and check it out:

Fingerstyle Blues Licks Over A Chicago Shuffle

And if you want to get your hands on the tab without re-entering your email, just click below to go straight to a download page with the PDFs for all the Fingerstyle Grooves lessons:

Download the tab