Top 10 Blues Rock Guitarists of the 1980s

This is the third installment of the top blues rock guitarists of the decade series this time covering 1980s. Ronald Reagan was President and the Eastern Bloc and the Soviet Union were still under Communism. During the early 1980s, at the lowest point of East-West relations, rock music was able “to bridge political and ideological differences at official and unofficial levels.” In 1979, B.B. King became the first blues/rock artist to perform behind the “Iron Curtain” and in the USSR. That opened the floodgates and by the end of the 1980s, East Germany was singing “Born in the USA” and Communism collapsed.

This is a list of the top 10 blues rock guitarits of the 1980s that helped inspire a revolution that continues to transform world culture by communicating the yearning for the joy of “freedom.”

10. Lefty Dizz

Lefty Dizz was born Walter Williams in Osceola, Arkansas in 1937 and earned his nickname because of his musical oddities. First he played guitar left handed and second, in his early days, he imitated the style of Dizzy Gillespie on his guitar playing in an alley. He went into the Air Force as soon as he was old enough to enlist, where he learned to play guitar and settled in Chicago after his discharge in 1956. He played around Chicago with local blues artists including Muddy Waters until he joined Junior Wells’ band touring the world for the next seven years. When he returned to the “Windy City” he played the club circuit where he developed an act that would blow the audience away with its flamboyance by pulling out all the stops and using all the showmanship possible. He caught the attention of the Rolling Stones and was invited to jam with Muddy Waters and the Stones at the Checkerboard Lounge in 1981 where a video was made. During the ’80s he released a few albums with his band Shock Treatment but unfortunately after a bout with cancer, he died in 1993 at the age of only 56.

9. Anson Funderburgh

Anson Funderburgh was born in Plano, Texas in 1954. When he was nine he received a guitar as a surprise gift that included a box of 45 rpm record singles by blues artists like Albert Collins, Freddie King and Jimmy Reed. In 1969, he saw B.B. King perform live which blew his mind since it was a full band with horns in a small club. He began to play professionally soon afterwards at the age of 15 with local bands like the Bees’ Knees and the Sound Cloud Reunion. In 1978, he began working with harmonica player Darrell Nulisch who became the lead singer and front man for the Anson Funderburg and the Rockets when they recorded their early albums on Black Top Records in 1981 until 1986. Sam Myers replaced Nulisch as the front man and he recorded eight albums with Funderburgh beginning with Sins in 1987. The Rockets travelled around the world until Myer’s death in 2006. During that time period, they won ten Blues Music Awards from the Blues Foundation in Memphis, Tennessee. His “extraordinarily concise lead guitar attack” has made him in demand blues guitarist who appears on the albums of other artists ranging from Delbert McClinton to Dweezil Zappa.

8. Tinsley Ellis

Tinsley Ellis was born in 1957 in Atlanta, Georgia although he grew up in southern Florida. Inspired by The Beatles at the age of seven he got his first guitar and was influenced by the early British blues bands like the Rolling Stones and Cream and later American ones like the Allman Brothers but the turning point was when he saw B.B. King. After developing as a proficient musician he moved to Atlanta, Georgia where he joined the Alley Cats. In 1981 he helped put together the “Heartfixers and recorded a few albums on the Landslide and Southland labels. In 1988, Alligator Records released Georgia Blue, Tinsley’s solo album that contained scorching Southern blues-rock that exploded from his axe like an erupting volcano of sound. He built a fan base one album at a time while at the same time touring over 150 days a year. When he wrote songs he developed lyrics that communicate a story interspersed with heavy doses of guitar virtuosity. Over the next three decades, he released a dozen and a half albums including 2020’s Ice Cream In Hell.

7. Duke Robillard

Michael John “Duke” Robillard was born in Woonsocket, Rhode Island in 1948. He and his father built his first guitar modeled after James Burton’s Telecaster and he began listening to American rock and roll along with English blues groups. After he discovered American blues artists like Elmore James, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf he formed his first band Roomful of Blues when he was 17. He mastered T-Bone Walker’s guitar style and even acquired a Gibson ES-5 like he used but Jimmie Vaughan later convinced him to switch to a Stratocaster. After 15 years he left the band and started the Pleasure Kings and played with them throughout the 1980s until 1990 when he replaced Jimmie Vaughan as the Fabulous Thunderbirds guitarist for a few years. He was an amazingly energetic workaholic that has produced an amazingly voluminous catalogue of recorded albums. There are albums as a solo artist, a band leader and as a sideman for everyone from Bob Dylan to Pinetop Perkins. He’s been nominated for two Grammy Awards for both Best Contemporary and Best Traditional blues album along with winning the “W. C. Handy Award” for “Best Blues Guitarist” in 2000 and 2001.

6. Lonnie Brooks

Lonnie Brooks was born as Lee Baker Jr. in 1933 in Dubuisson, Louisiana where his grandfather taught him the blues while picking on his banjo. After he moved to Port Arthur, Texas in the early ’50s he began to consider a career in professional music. He played with Clifton Chenier under the name “Guitar Junior” and even did some recordings but by the 1960s went by Lonnie Brooks. He played with Sam Cooke and even lived with Cooke’s mother and brother in Chicago for a while. During the ’60s and ’70s he played in the tough gangster clubs of Chicago. He began releasing albums in 1969 but it wasn’t until 1978 when Alligator Records recorded four of his songs for its Living Chicago Blue Anthology that led to his recording Bayou Lightning the following year. This in turn led to an increased exposure to a new audience of blues enthusiasts made possible by artists like Robert Cray and Stevie Ray Vaughan. He was inducted into the “Blues Hall of Fame” in 2010 and on June 12, 2012, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel declared Lonnie Brooks Day in Chicago where he lived until he passed away in 2017.

5. Frank Son Seals

Frank Son Seals was born in 1942 in Osceola, Arkansas, and died in Chicago, Illinois in 2004. He was exposed to the blues throughout his childhood since his father was a musician and converted their living room into a juke joint where some of the best blues artists of the day would play. He would convince guest musicians like Albert King to give him guitar lessons and formed a band as a teenager. He was multi-talented and played drums for Albert King for a period before he moved to Chicago and played guitar with Hound Dog Taylor. By 1971 he was discovered by Bruce Iglauer from Alligator Records and began recording solo albums. By 1985, Alligator released Bad Axe which won a “W. C. Handy Award” for “Best Contemporary Blues Album” and he had finally arrived at the point of recognition as the “genuine blues artist” that he was. The 1990s reversed his fortune as his wife shot him in the face while he slept. After months of reconstructive surgery, he got back on the road and was diagnosed a diabetic and had his left leg amputated below the knee in 1999. Then his prized guitars were stolen and his motor home burned in a fire as he continued to tour until his death on December 20, 2004, from complications of diabetes.

4. Billy Gibbons

According to Billy Gibbons’ official website he was “born on either March 4 or December 16, 1950” and was raised in Houston, Texas. After he saw Elvis Presley perform he discovered other early rock and roll and blues artists from Little Richard to Jimmy Reed. Gibbons started to play guitar at the age of 13 and formed his first band, the Saints when he was 14. During the 1960s he was in a few different bands and even opened for Jimi Hendrix. By 1970, Billy hooked up with bassist Dusty Hill and drummer Frank Beard to form ZZ Top. They recorded their self-titled debut album that was released in January 1971. During the rest of the 1970s, they released a total of six studio albums which produced tracks like “La Grange” and “Tush.” “ZZ Top” established itself as one of America’s top blues rock bands fronted by Gibbons playing his potently fat guitar tones using John Lee Hooker style boogie blues rock. After they took a three year break, Gibbons and ZZ Top came back mesmerized the new MTV audience in the 1980s with video clips featuring hits from their new albums like “Give Me All Your Loving,” “Sharp Dressed Man,” and “Legs.” This exposure catapulted them to international superstar fame as they toured the world. Over the decades, Gibbons has shared the stage with every great guitar player from B.B. King and Buddy Guy to Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck. ZZ Top was inducted into the “Rock and Roll Hall of Fame” in 2004. La Futura, their last album was released in 2012 and they were still touring until COVID stopped them.

3. Albert Collins

Albert Collins was born in Leona, Texas in 1932 and constructed his first guitar and used open tunings of minor chords that his cousin taught him. He absorbed the sounds that he heard from all the blues that emanated from Texas, Mississippi, and Chicago and developed a style of picking with his fingers that helped him became “The Master of the Telecaster.” The artists that influenced him were Gatemouth Brown, John Lee Hooker, and T-Bone Walker. After putting together a band in 1952 he began playing in Houston clubs to packed houses. He played with a variety of different artists and was in groups through the 1950s and recorded some singles on the Kangaroo label in the late ’50s and by 1965 released an album of singles, The Cool Sound of Albert Collins. He replaced Jimi Hendrix in Little Richards touring band but in 1968 when members of Canned Heat produced three albums for him and he began playing to the hippie psychedelic crowd. In 1978, with the Alligator release Ice Pickin’ he won a Grammy nomination and it brought him to a larger international audience than he previously had. He became a formidable force for a renewed interest in the blues during the 1980s along with Stevie Ray Vaughan and Robert Cray. He died in 1993 at the age of 61 and was listed by Rolling Stone magazine as number #56 on its list of the 100 greatest guitarists.

2. Robert Cray

Robert Cray was born in Columbus, Georgia in 1953 and his father was in the military. When his father was transferred to various military posts around the country and even in Germany, Robert was able to experience a variety of American cities and different cultures. His parents eventually settled in Tacoma, Washington in the Pacific Northwest where he learned piano and guitar. He started out playing rock and then he discovered the blues and by 1974 he was leading the Robert Cray Band playing R&B and blues. By the late 1970s, he was in Eugene, Oregon at the time of the filming of the National Lampoon comedy film Animal House. They used Cray as a member of Otis Day and the Knights, an R&B band from the film. He released a half dozen albums in the 1980s with 1986’s Strong Persuader providing his mainstream breakthrough. The album produced two charting singles, “Smoking Gun” and “Right Next Door (Because of Me). He became one of the most important blues artists of the 1980s along with Albert Collins and Stevie Ray Vaughan for creating a blues revival. Over the decades, Cray has won five Grammys and been nominated for 16 along with receiving every blues award including the W. C. Handy and being the youngest member at the time to be inducted into the “Blues Hall of Fame.”

1. Stevie Ray Vaughan

Stevie Ray Vaughan was born in Dallas, Texas in 1954 and began to play the guitar at the age of 7. He was inspired after listening to his older brother Jimmie’s record collection of artists ranging from B.B. and Albert King to Albert Collins and Wes Montgomery. Around 1966 he was in garage bands for a couple of years until he dropped out of high school and began playing full time in a variety of bands until he formed Blackbird in the early 1970s and eventually Triple Threat that evolved into Double Trouble by 1979. In 1981, Double Trouble was a power trio comprised of Chris Layton on drums, Tommy Shannon on bass, and Vaughan on vocals and guitar. Their first album on Epic was Texas Flood and was released just after David Bowie’s then best-selling album Let’s Dance came out that featured Stevie Ray playing lead guitar on three quarters of the album. After that, his career sky rocketed to the top and he became a kind of second coming of Jimi Hendrix to some and wrestled the mantle away from the British guitar gods like Beck, Clapton, and Page. After a few rocky years due to substance abuse Vaughan cleaned up and was back at the top of his game when he was killed in August 1990 after his helicopter crashed following a concert in Wisconsin where he appeared with Eric Clapton, Robert Cray and Buddy Guy.

Also see: Top 10 Blues Rock Guitarists of the 1970sTop 10 Blues Rock Guitarists of the 1960s

Bob Gersztyn

As a teenager in Detroit, Michigan during the early 1960’s Bob Gersztyn saw many Motown and other R&B artists including Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder. After his discharge from the army in 1968 he attended school on the GI Bill and spent the next 3 years attending concerts and festivals weekly. It was the seminal period in Detroit rock & roll that Bob witnessed spawning the MC5 and Stooges along with shows featuring everyone from Jimi Hendrix and the “Doors” to B. B. King and John Lee Hooker. In 1971 He moved to Los Angeles, California to finish his schooling where he became an inner city pastor promoting and hosting gospel concerts. He moved to Oregon in 1982 and began photographing and reviewing concerts for music publications. Since that time he has published myriads of photographs, articles, interviews, and contributed to 2 encyclopedias and published 6 books on everything from music to the military. https://www.barnesandnoble.com/s/Bob%20Gersztyn His rock & roll photo art is available for sale on Etsy @: https://www.etsy.com/shop/ConcertPhotoImages?ref=seller-platform-mcnav Bob may be contacted personally at bobgersztyn@gmail.com

43 thoughts on “Top 10 Blues Rock Guitarists of the 1980s

  • January 7, 2021 at 11:13 am
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    Blues guitarists of the 80’s pretty much comes down to SRV and all the rest.

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  • January 7, 2021 at 12:46 pm
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    SRV is the only logical choice for number 1 on this list.

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  • January 7, 2021 at 2:33 pm
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    Great selection of blues guitarists!
    Stevie Ray remains#1, eternally!

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  • January 7, 2021 at 2:56 pm
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    N 1 in assoluto per sempre SRV

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  • January 7, 2021 at 3:14 pm
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    Forse state dimenticando un certo Gary Moore.il suo inconfondibile stile e le sue scale sono state..sono..e saranno sempre il meglio del blues rock.steve ray , per me subito dopo

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  • January 7, 2021 at 4:54 pm
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    I’m very surprised Rory Gallagher isn’t on the list.

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  • January 7, 2021 at 6:03 pm
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    The Great Otis Rush is missing

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  • January 7, 2021 at 8:01 pm
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    Yes,SRV deserves the #1 spot.I also agree with Gary Moore and Rory Gallagher as others have posted. Roy Buchanan belonged on this list as well. Had the good fortune of seeing both SRV and Roy in concert. RIP to all these artists. Your music will live on forever.♥️

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  • January 7, 2021 at 8:07 pm
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    no mention of Jeff Beck?
    we can ignore whatever you write cause you just aint serious.

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  • January 7, 2021 at 9:19 pm
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    You cannot say the best of anything if you have not heard them all. What is your measuring stick?

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  • January 7, 2021 at 9:48 pm
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    With all due respect, Ronnie Earl cannot be outside the the top ten.

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  • January 7, 2021 at 10:21 pm
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    The very best is Alvin Lee,hands down

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  • January 7, 2021 at 10:22 pm
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    Has anyone ever heard of Johnny Dawson Winter the third ?

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  • January 7, 2021 at 10:25 pm
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    I like this list. But remember.

    Rory Gallagher was still alive.
    Robin Trower was still making records.
    Jon Butcher was making great records
    JEFF HEALEY… how he doesnt make your list…

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  • January 7, 2021 at 11:21 pm
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    SRV for sure still blows me away even though he has been gone for more than 3 decades! I still get chills from his tune Rivera Paradise and the dedication this one goes out to anyone still suffering in anyway! Which fits where I think most of us are at right now! God bless you all!

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  • January 8, 2021 at 12:19 am
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    Stevie Ray Vaughan regardless of decade

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  • January 8, 2021 at 12:30 am
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    I’m shocked that no one thinks of Jeff Healey anymore, that man could play with the best of them and did so many times. In fact B.B. King and SRV told him his execution was unlike anything they had ever seen. And to stick with it and he would be bigger than they were. Now it seems so sad he’s been gone from us for a while now and no one even mentions his name in these greatest of all time countdowns

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    • April 11, 2021 at 3:21 pm
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      he is first on ‘best of the 90’s’ list

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  • January 8, 2021 at 1:23 am
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    Edward u idiots. Gary Richrath bozos

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    • January 8, 2021 at 10:21 pm
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      John Mayall – the father of white blues

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  • January 8, 2021 at 1:59 am
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    I agree with others about Moore, Healey, Trower, Beck, Gallager and Richrath. Vaughn was very good and stood out among many but Beck was and still is the most innovative and unique although not particularly a blues rock guitarist.

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  • January 8, 2021 at 2:28 am
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    Frank Marino…”I’m a king bee”.

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  • January 8, 2021 at 5:38 am
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    I guess They never heard of Johnny winter sad

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  • January 8, 2021 at 6:46 am
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    Amazing that Johnny Winter was not on the list. Should have been #1. Although Stevie was incredible, he was jealous of Johnny. Johnny rejuvenated the Blues scene by bringing Muddy Waters back into the public eye.

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  • January 8, 2021 at 7:45 am
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    Jeeez!! It’s someone’s opinion of who’s the best in the 80’s. You don’t agree with it? Well, make your own list!! And I can assure you, many will disagree with it. Look up the word ‘subjective’.

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  • January 8, 2021 at 8:35 am
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    These 10 best lists Can never encompass all the great guitarists ….if anything it just gets one to think and recall all the greats,

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  • January 8, 2021 at 8:38 am
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    These 10 best lists Can never encompass all the great guitarists ….if anything it just gets one to think and recall all the greats,

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  • January 8, 2021 at 9:23 am
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    Guess they don’t know about Billy “Cyote” Davis from Detroit.

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  • January 8, 2021 at 9:28 am
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    I agree with others reJohnny Winter. How about Coco Montoya, Walter Trout. Both great blues players and with John Mayall at the same time!

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  • January 8, 2021 at 11:49 am
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    Should look up north in Canada cause forgot Jeff healey

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  • January 8, 2021 at 12:44 pm
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    80s and 90s was when Guitar Shorty made some of his best albums. But he been around since late 50s, early 60s. Hands down best guitarist I ever saw live….Word is Hendrix stole some of his live stage show from Shorty…Not sure he’s around anymore….What an original!

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  • January 8, 2021 at 12:49 pm
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    80s and 90s was when Guitar Shorty made some of his best albums. But he been around since late 50s, early 60s. Hands down best guitarist I ever saw live….Word is Hendrix stole some of his live stage show from Shorty…Not sure he’s around anymore….What an original!

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  • January 8, 2021 at 1:35 pm
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    This is a list of 80s blues guitarists who either reached their peak or launched their careers during that decade. Many mentioned as glaring omissions to this list (Beck, Winter, etc.) Were all well established prior to the 80’s. Billy Gibbons and Zz Top’s proud success in 70’s should preclude him from this list. Would also agree that Jeff Healey belongs on this list.

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  • January 8, 2021 at 1:40 pm
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    Also, for the above mentioned reasons, I would also exclude Albert Collins. Now if this were a list of the best blues rock guitarists of all time he would certainly be on the list!

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  • January 8, 2021 at 2:39 pm
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    Michael Bloomfield! Often overlooked.

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  • January 8, 2021 at 3:26 pm
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    I was fortunate enough to have attended SRV last performance at alpine valley concert venue he was on fire that evening with Clapton,Guy,Cray, and his brother it was truly a magical evening one I will never forget.

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  • January 8, 2021 at 5:47 pm
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    What about Eric Clapton and Walter Trout???

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  • January 8, 2021 at 7:32 pm
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    Yeah there’s a whole shit load of great guitarists not mentioned here.. Coco Montoya for one, Tommy Castro and a whole lot of others.

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  • January 8, 2021 at 7:39 pm
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    I think the person who made this list probably googled “blues guitarists” and picked randomly.. At least they got the #1 guy right!

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  • January 9, 2021 at 7:46 am
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    I saw guitar shorty a few years back at the dust till dawn blues festival in rentisville ok. He put on a hell of a show.

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  • January 9, 2021 at 10:47 am
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    99% of you have never played BLUES/ROCK guitar, so your opinions are crap. Gary Moore was better than SRV and it isn’t even close. Angus Young was also a legendary Blues Rock guitarist, and your dumb ass snubbed him. David Gilmore made his living playing straight out of the penatonic blues scale, but you wouldn’t know that because you clearly have no idea what it is.
    Non guitarists should be banned from making these Retarded rankings.

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  • January 9, 2021 at 5:16 pm
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    Stevie Ray Vaughan was very good.
    None of the others have anything to do on this list.

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