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Keith Wyatt's Essential Blues Guitarists


essential blues guitarists

As a teacher, I am frequently asked "Which blues guitar players should I listen to?" To be an educated player it is essential to be aware of primary influences (in this case, focusing on the electric blues tradition) - so I’ll give you some opinions, but it’s crucial to keep in mind that there are many more than I mention who have also made important contributions to the style.

My own education in blues guitar began in the most typical way - I was inspired by the then-new generation of blues-rock icons such as Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page and became curious about how they developed their sound, which led me back in time to the beginning of the electric blues era in the early 1940s and ultimately to the dawn of recorded blues in the early 1920s. The farther back I went, the stranger the music sounded compared to the “modern” players I was familiar with, but I also began to hear the threads that connected them all and to develop a sense of how every player along the line drew on common elements and added their personal twist, creating an ever-expanding vocabulary of phrasing, technique, sound, and style.

Here are a few guitarists, in more-or-less chronological order (including two acoustic predecessors), who had a significant role in developing modern electric blues and blues-rock styles.

Lonnie Johnson

Born before the turn of the 20th century, Lonnie Johnson grew up in New Orleans just as blues and jazz were becoming distinct styles. His first recordings in 1925 revealed a virtuosic, self-contained style that combined fluid single-note phrasing (including string-bending and vibrato) with driving rhythm behind his own romantic vocals, quickly making him a top recording artist in his own right as well as a prolific accompanist for artists ranging from down-home blues to uptown jazz.

He went through a number of phases during his career (eventually taking up the electric guitar) and kept performing almost until his death in 1970, but his most influential recordings as a guitarist were made between 1925-30. The first wave of electric guitarists almost universally cited Johnson as a direct influence, and you can hear his phrases echoing in players as diverse as B.B. King and Chuck Berry.

Start with: “Away Down in the Alley Blues”

If you like Lonnie, check out Tampa Red, best known for evocative acoustic slide.

Robert Johnson

Robert (no relation to Lonnie) had little commercial success during his lifetime and never recorded a single-note solo, but his influence on his musical peers in the Delta had a profound impact on the sound of electric blues. His rhythm patterns and repertoire inspired the sounds of electric stylists like Elmore James, Jimmy Reed, and Muddy Waters, and the range and polish of his recordings represented the pinnacle of self-contained blues guitar performance at the dawn of the electric era.

Start with “Sweet Home Chicago”

If you like Robert, check out Son House (his mentor), Big Bill Broonzy (a contemporary) and Robert Lockwood (his stepson) as well as the above-mentioned performers.

T-Bone Walker

Aaron Thibeaux Walker of Dallas, Texas was born in 1910 and established a career as a singer, dancer, banjoist and all-around entertainer well before his first electric guitar recordings in 1942, with which he essentially wrote the first several chapters of the electric blues guitar book. Walker understood that amplification didn’t just make the guitar louder, but allowed a guitarist to exploit dynamics as effectively as a singer or saxophonist in order to add new layers of expressive depth. His phrases, ranging from subtle and flowing on ballads to rhythmically intense and dissonant on fast jump blues (the popular dance style of the 1940s), provided a phrasing template for an entire generation of players from uptown blues to rock and roll.

Start with “Mean Old World” (1942) for a slower blues and “Strollin’ with Bone” (1950) for jump blues.

If you like T-Bone, check out Gatemouth Brown, Guitar Slim, and Johnny Guitar Watson, all of whom built harder-edged styles on T-Bone’s foundation.

Lightning Hopkins

Sam Hopkins of Houston, Texas (born 1912) was a contemporary of T-Bone but took a different stylistic path into raw, fiery, down-home blues. Hopkins’ gifts for spontaneous composition and edge-of-the-seat performance were inspired by Texas legend Blind Lemon Jefferson, whose recordings before his death in 1930 were extremely popular but whose idiosyncratic guitar style was very difficult to emulate. Hopkins, who began recording in 1946, refined Jefferson’s influence into a fountain of inspiration (and a virtual textbook on the keys of E and A) for hard-edged players such as Freddie King, Johnny Winter and Stevie Ray Vaughan, who all combined Hopkins-style high-string fireworks with driving Robert Johnson-style shuffles.

Start with “Short Haired Woman” for a slow blues and “Hopkins Sky Hop” for fast.

If you like Lightning: check out Frankie Lee Sims.

The Three Kings

B.B. King, Freddie King and Albert King are unrelated by blood, but individually and collectively they are the biggest direct influences on contemporary electric blues and blues-rock guitar. They shared some common influences - Lonnie Johnson and T-Bone Walker in particular - but each developed a distinctive style that inspired countless disciples. B.B.’s wide emotional range and smooth phrasing contributed to his exceptional commercial success, but Albert’s sparse, direct phrasing and masterful string-bending are near-universal traits of modern blues guitar and Freddie’s driving intensity provided a template for blues-rock stylists.

B.B. King: start with Live at the Regal, one of the best live albums ever recorded.

If you like B.B., you’ll hear his influence on almost every blues guitarist from the mid-50s on.

Albert King: start with “Personal Manager” or “The Sky is Crying” for slow blues and “Crosscut Saw” for his trademark blend of blues phrasing over non-traditional rhythm.

If you like Albert, check out Otis Rush.

Freddie King: start with “The Stumble” or “Side Tracked” for instrumental virtuosity and “Have You Ever Loved a Woman” for slow blues.

If you like Freddie, check out Lonnie Mack.

Buddy Guy

Part of the first generation of guitarists to come of age during the electric era, Buddy was strongly influenced by B.B. King (as were most of his contemporaries), but his wilder, edgier personal streak captured the imagination of the early-60s generation of rising blues-rockers. Although now an icon, it took many years for wider recognition to catch up to his reputation among players.

Start with his early Chess recordings “Let Me Love You Baby” for a driving shuffle and “Stone Crazy” for a slow blues.

If you like Buddy, check out his Chicago contemporaries Magic Sam and Luther Allison.

Albert Collins

Albert grew up under the influence of fellow Texans like Lightning Hopkins, T-Bone Walker, and Gatemouth Brown, but in the early ‘60s he emerged as the “Master of the Telecaster,” a distinctive stylist with a ferocious, bare-fingered attack and unique capo/open-tuned vocabulary. Collins’ power and intensity, especially when experienced live, humbled legions of more fleet-fingered guitar players.

Start with “The Freeze,” “Collins Shuffle,” and “Frosty” from his early years and “Black Cat Bone” from the later Alligator Records album Showdown.

If you like Albert, check out Robert Cray, a direct disciple with his own unique style (also featured on Showdown).

If you're really ready to step up your blues guitar playing, sure to check out Keith Wyatt's free sample lessons at ArtistWorks!

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