Workshop - Can You Do The Boogaloo?

This workshop was originally published in the Spring 2017 issue of the Fingerstyle Guitar Journal. To receive fingerstyle guitar interviews, workshops, reviews, and more automatically each quarter subscribe to the Fingerstyle Guitar Journal

The Dancing Guitar: Can You Do The Boogaloo?

For those of you who are new to my columns, I welcome you! If you like this series feel free to let me know. If you are previously unfamiliar with me you can find more of my musical offerings and commentary in previous issues of Fingerstyle Guitar Journal. Also, I was a regular contributor in over 20 back issues of the now defunct Fingerstyle Guitar Magazine with my Fingerstyle Basics series. I invite you to visit for PDF downloads of most of my compositions and arrangements. Many of these are performed on YouTube by myself and others. For readers who are familiar with me, I welcome you back and appreciate your continuing interest, encouragement, and suggestions!


What’s in a Name?

My featured original composition for this Dancing Guitar column is entitled “Memphis Mambo.” Like many of my dance-inspired pieces, “Memphis Mambo” is not intended to be a pure example of any particular dance form. Although I don’t claim to be an expert on the history of dances, I have noticed that there can be intense debate as to the authenticity of a particular dance. I don’t really like to veer into that traffic. In fact, I am rather skeptical of notions of artistic purity and usually find anything beyond observations of historical musical trends to pretty useless for an artist. The establishment of “artistic territory” I find to be mostly an annoyance, yet the use of descriptive labels is unavoidable. My approach is instead as a composer. What that approach means to me is artistic freedom. So, I use dance forms as an inspiration and directive for compositional planning. If I like the basic “feel” of a specific dance rhythm I am not creatively hindered from departing from it somewhere in the composition if I so desire. This is actually how new dance forms evolve. As you will see, “Memphis Mambo” is really a fusion of musical elements. If I were to label it a dance, it is probably closer to a boogaloo than anything else. That’ll be my story and I’m sticking to it!

About the Boogaloo

…or bugalú? The “latin boogaloo” seems to have emerged in the 1960’s out of the Puerto Rican barrios of New York City. These young Puerto Rican-Americans were represented in the classic musical and film West Side Story. If you remember, there is a scene where the Puerto Rican and New York kids are all together at a high school dance and they all break into a latin dance (composed by Leonard Bernstein) and they all yell “mambo!” So these young people are all listening to latin rhythms, rhythm and blues and the early rock ‘n’ roll of the day. The boogaloo was apparently born out of this cultural atmosphere. The boogaloo has the syncopation of the Cuban mambo, son, and other Afro-Caribbean rhythms but is often fused with the dominant 7th chord comping and blues-derived licks of the mainland. It is a potent musical mixture. Some of the musical figures associated with the boogaloo are Joe Cuba, Johnny Colón, Ricardo Ray and others. It was a pretty popular but rather short-lived trend in the late 60’s. You can hear some boogaloo in James Brown’s music and echoes of it in Jimi Hendrix’s cover of the Earl King tune, Come On (part 1). This mixture of latin rhythms and blues influences are also central to bands such as Santana and War. Interestingly, the terms “mambo” and “bugaloo” are often freely misrepresented in today’s popular music vernacular. So at the risk of misrepresenting the mambo, I titled my tune “Memphis Mambo”! Nonetheless, as I will explain, there are truly aspects of a mambo in my composition. There is no “mamba” however. That’s a very poisonous African snake and has no place in my compositions – or does it?...hmm.

About Memphis Mambo

At the heart of Memphis Mambo is the mambo bass line: two dotted quarter notes followed by a quarter note on beat four. So I used this bass pattern as my rhythmic anchor. I wrote this back in 2009 but I remember well that the compositional process for Memphis Mambo was all completely premeditated. I remember thinking this through that I would have a mambo bass part with the right hand thumb but not write a particularly “latin” sounding tune. So for the melodic material I used the tried and true blues scale along with some mixolydian and bebop dominant phrases. I also intentionally used the interval of a tritone as a basis for the opening melody from measures 8-13 (D to G#, C#to G, G#to D). The D to G# is the 7th and 3rd of an E7 chord. C# to G is the 3rd and 7th of an A7 chord. The melody and R&B style dominant 7th chord rhythms are where the “Memphis” reference comes from. In retrospect, it interesting to me that I was so deliberate in planning this composition. Often my process is not so intentional in the early stages. More often than not, I noodle around on the guitar until I stumble upon a musical snippet I particularly like and then I develop the snippet into a full-blown composition. The danger in doing the noodling-until-inspiration- comes system all the time is one runs the risk of artistic redundancy. Having some imposed restrictions can actually increase the clarity of ideas. If something like a preset dance rhythm is used as a template then the creative process can be more focused and productive. So, for about a hot minute I thought maybe I’d invented a new thing with this “Memphis Mambo.” Combining the mambo rhythm with dominant 7th chords and blues licks was uncharted territory right? I was feeling like a musical Christopher Columbus! Well like Columbus I may have personally “discovered” something but I certainly did not invent it. After a little research I realized that what I thought I had invented was essentially a boogaloo. I was only about 50 years late. Thankfully, when I made the Memphis Mambo-boogaloo connection I did not discard it (as I may have in my younger years) and start to despair because I had not changed the course of music. I eventually decided that “Memphis Mambo” was a keeper if for no reasons other than it is simply fun to play and people seem to enjoy it. That’s good enough for me. I originally composed “Memphis Mambo” to be in Fingerstyle Guitar magazine back in ’09 as a “one pager” because the printed magazine had limited space. Well as it turns out “Memphis Mambo” was never used in that magazine but is in this most excellent one! Consequently, I expanded the piece with a 13 measure variation “improv” section that can be expanded further in a live setting.

Performance Tips for Memphis Mambo

If I had one thing to say as an imperative for successfully playing this tune it would be – keep the groove! The notation is really just an approximation of what happens rhythmically. It is best to follow the video performance closely and then do it your way later. Tunes such as this are sort of like learning how to speak a foreign language. It helps to listen and imitate. I think also this tune could sound good on pretty much any guitar: classical, steel string, electric, etc. Also after learning it you may want to try to add your own improvisation or variation to it as it really could be expanded even more to add your personal touch. If you can play “in the pocket,” performing with a good percussionist is really fun with Memphis Mambo. In future issues of Fingerstyle Guitar Journal I will be exploring other dance forms that will really get your guitar grooving!

WorkshopsRoger Hudson