There’s no question about it — the blues established the basic framework for virtually all pop music. Think about the slew of British bands during the time of their “invasion,” and the degree to which they emulated classic American blues acts. Or just look at any of the immensely popular contemporary bands who play vintage-style, blues derivative rock music — acts like The White Stripes, Gary Clark Jr., or even The Black Keys. One thing that is fundamentally good about these contemporary acts, along with other mass media influences such as the now obsolete Guitar Hero craze and television programs like DirectTV’s Guitar Center Sessions, is that they have all, undoubtedly, helped to renew the younger generation’s interest in classic blues music.
Here is a look at the five most influential blues guitarists who permanently changed, not merely blues, but popular music as we know it today.
5. John Lee Hooker
Hailing from Mississippi, Hooker’s style incorporated elements of Delta Blues and boogie-woogie. His style was so loose and fluid that his songs rarely conform to any conventional time signature, much to the chagrin of uptight backing musicians who couldn’t keep up. Hooker did manage to sync up nicely with some high profile acts though, including Van Morrison and the band Canned Heat, with whom Hooker recorded the full length album in 1970, Hooker N’ Heat. Hooker also made an appearance in the hit film The Blues Brothers, delivering a performance that was recorded live on Chicago’s historic Maxwell Street.
4. Robert Johnson
So good, that he earned his own urban folklore. Legend has it that he sold his soul at a crossroads to the devil in exchange for his masterful guitar playing technique. In 1938, he died at the age of 27 (sound eerily familiar?), and never got to taste commercial or critical success as a musician. Today, he’s heralded as a true master of delta blues, and one of the most significant blues guitarists of all-time. Not much is known about Johnson, as he used several pseudonyms while traveling on the road. Among the recordings he produced during his short life were “Cross Road Blues” and “Terraplane Blues.” His distinctive boogie bass lines that he strums, such as the one heard in the song “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom,” helped to set the foundation for rock music as we know it today.
3. B.B. King
His distinctly slow string bends and deep vibrato influenced some of the most popular guitarists of all-time, including George Harrison, Eric Clapton, and Jimmy Page. Among his several hits were the songs “Please Love Me,” and “Woke Up This Morning.” In his heyday, he would perform most nights of the year. It’s been said that in 1956, he performed 342 shows. Even now, the 88-year-old King performs up to 100 shows a year. King once said that one of the best performances he ever delivered was at the Sing Sing prison.
2. Chuck Berry
Berry popularized certain techniques that would be adopted by countless other blues and rock guitarists, such as the unison bend and his rapid fire pentatonic scale soloing. Berry was also notable for introducing a new brand of showmanship to rock performances, and was a popular staple on television in the 1950s and 1960s, thanks to his signature duck walk and uptempo numbers. He recorded such staples as “Johnny B. Goode,” “Maybellene,” and “Roll Over Beethoven.” While he’s had his scuffles with the law, Berry owns, and still frequently performs at the restaurant Blueberry Hill, located in his hometown of St. Louis.
1. Jimi Hendrix
No one else has been emulated so closely by modern rock and blues guitarists. So many things informed Jimi Hendrix’s sound: it was partially his love of blues greats like John Lee Hooker and T-Bone Walker, and partially the complexity of the emotions he channeled — presumably all the more volatile and passionate because of his struggles with manic depression. And yes, it was probably partially his LSD-soaked headband as well. Even though strictly speaking, he had only one commercial hit throughout his career with his rendition of the Bob Dylan-penned “All Along the Watchtower,” without Hendrix, popular music as we know it today simply would not exist. Even his contemporaries borrowed liberally from his influence, whether we’re talking about Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, or Tony Iommi. Hendrix introduced elements of jazz-influenced dissonance to rock, with chords like his signature dominant seventh sharp ninth chord, heard prominently in the verse to “Purple Haze.”
– Brandon Engel