This is the fourth installment in Blues Rock Review’s series listing the “Top 10 Blues Rock Guitarists” of each decade beginning with the 1960s. This time we will be covering the 1990s. According to Wavy Gravy (AKA Hugh Romney), an emcee at all three Woodstock festivals, the 1990s was just the 1960s standing on your head. After the resurgence of popularity of the blues in the 1980s through artists like Stevie Ray Vaughan, Robert Cray, and Albert Collins, the 1990s took it to another level.
Here a the top 10 blues rock guitarists of the 1990s.
10. Lurrie Bell
Lurrie Bell was born December 13, 1958, in the Chicago, Illinois. His father was Carrie Bell, who was a harmonica player and bass player for others and had his own band that practiced in their home. He became exposed to many Chicago blues legends like Eddie Clearwater, Sunnyland Slim and Muddy Waters among others. When he was seven he moved to live with his grandparents in Mississippi and Alabama. While there he was involved in the church and became involved in the gospel tradition. When he entered high school he returned to Chicago and continued to play in the church but also formed a blues band. After playing with Willie Dixon he became a hired gun and toured with Koko Taylor and even worked with his dad. His solo career took off in the 1990s as he toured around the world playing Chicago style blues. Bell has now appeared on over 50+ recordings either as leader or featured sideman.
9. Sue Foley
Sue Foley was born in Ottawa, Canada March 29, 1968, and began playing the guitar at the age of 13. She was taught by family members and was inspired by the Rolling Stones to expand her knowledge of traditional blues. After high school she moved to Vancouver B.C. where she formed a band and toured Canada. After joining harmonica player Mark Hummel to tour together she signed with Clifford Antone in 1990 and relocated to Austin, Texas. While in Texas she absorbed the blues styles of the area and shared the stage with everyone from Joe Cocker and Tom Petty to John Lee Hooker and Johnny Winter. Since her acclaimed 1992 release of Young Girl Blues on the “Antone’s” label she’s released nine more solo albums and been involved in the recording of a couple of dozen others. She became the first Canadian blues artist ever nominated “as the W.C. Handy contemporary blues female artist of the year.
8. Coco Montoya
Coco Montoya was born into a working class family with the name Henry on October 2, 1951. His first exposure to music came through his parent’s records that included everything from big band jazz to rock and roll. He began playing drums when he was 11 and after seeing the Beatles on Ed Sullivan two years later he got his first guitar. However, drums were his primary instrument as a teenager and he played in a number of rock bands. The turning point for Coco came in 1969 when he saw Albert King perform and was moved to tears as he experienced the blues for the first time. Then in 1970, Albert Collins played at the same club in Southern California that Coco was performing at and borrowed his drum kit for his performance. When Montoya saw Collins perform he was blown away and this led to becoming the drummer for Albert’s band a couple of months later. He was in Collins’ band for five years and became his second guitarist as he learned how to “tap into an inner strength.” John Mayall hired Montoya as Walter Trout’s replacement in the mid 1980s and he was in the Bluesbreakers until the early 1990s when he began a solo career. Since that time he’s released a dozen albums and continues to tour as one of the top blues rock guitarists in the world.
7. Guitar Shorty
David William Kearney’s stage name is Guitar Shorty and he was born in 1939 in Houston, Texas, but was raised by his grandmother in Kissimmee, Florida. He began playing guitar at an early age and soon after formed his first band. He recorded his first single “You Don’t Treat Me Right” in 1957 and was influenced by Willie Dixon. He played with everyone from B. B. King and T-Bone Walker to Sam Cooke and Ray Charles. In the early 1960s, he married Jimi Hendrix’s step sister and met him at a family reunion in Seattle. In an interview Shorty said that Hendrix told him that he saw him perform a number of times and was amazed. The ’70s were a hard period for Kearney and it wasn’t until 1991 that My Way or the Highway was released as his first major studio album. Since that time he’s released over a dozen albums and has performed his stratospherically blistering guitar rock and passionate vocals around the world.
6. Walter Trout
Walter Trout was born in Ocean City, New Jersey in 1951. Some of his early influences were the Butterfield Blues Band with Mike Bloomfield and John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers featuring Eric Clapton along with the songwriting of the Beatles and Bob Dylan. He played in local bands around New Jersey during the late 1960s and early 1970s. He made a make it or break it move to Los Angeles, California in 1973. While in L.A. he played with Blues luminaries like John Lee Hooker and Big Mama Thornton among others. This led to a three year stint with Canned Heat as their lead guitarist. Throughout this period, Trout was a hard partier and was severely involved in substance abuse. However, it didn’t affect his performance ability and he was hired by John Mayall as the lead guitarist for the Bluesbreakers. By the end of his four years with the “Bluesbreaker’s” he got clean of all drugs and alcohol and quit the band to form his own solo act. He launched a successful solo career that catapulted him to international fame and produced a couple dozen albums.
5. Jonny Lang
Jonny Lang was born in Fargo, North Dakota on January 29, 1981. He was influenced by electric guitar blues artists like Albert Collins, B.B. King and Stevie Ray Vaughan as well as gospel and soul music for his voice. He released Smokin, his first album in 1995 when he was only 14 years old which became a regional hit and led to a recording contract with “A&M Records” in 1996. With an amazing soulfully coarse and weathered sounding voice accompanied by stellar guitar licks he became a new sensation. After recording his second album and first major label release, Lie To Me became a commercial success and resulted in his opening for the Rolling Stones during their Bridges To Babylon tour. He became a Christian in 2000 and his songs in some cases reflected his faith after this. As an example “My Love Remains” was a collaboration with CCM gospel artist Steve Curtis Chapman. He’s been nominated for a Grammy Award three times and won it in 1999 for Turn Around as “Best Rock or Rap Gospel Album.”
4. Eric Johnson
Eric Johnson was born in Austin, Texas August 17, 1954 and inherited his passion for music from his parents. By the time he was five he was playing the piano and began writing songs a few years later. He was first exposed to the guitar when his brother began playing with a band and a year later he acquired his own axe and began to play in local rock groups. A couple of his main musical influences were Jimi Hendrix and John McLaughlin. In 1976 he began a solo career and he signed a six year recording contract that turned out to go nowhere and stalled his career. After his contract terminated in 1984 he began performing as part of the regular lineup on “Austin City Limits.” Tones his first album released in 1986 wasn’t properly promoted and only sold fifty-thousand copies. He ended up on Capitol Record’s label and after meticulously working on his second album Ah Via Musicom, it was released in 1990. It was well received, went Gold, sold eight-hundred-thousand copies and he won a Grammy in 1992 for “Cliffs of Dover.” Guitar Player Magazine’s Readers poll from 1990 to 1994 named Eric as “Best Overall Guitarist.”
3. Warren Haynes
Warren Haynes was born in Asheville, North Carolina in 1960 and didn’t begin playing guitar until he was 12. Prior to that he was fascinated with singing and loved the R&B that Motown and Memphis were producing at the time. Eric Clapton was his primary inspiration for guitar along with B. B. King and Jimi Hendrix to name some. As a teenager, he began playing in a band and when he was 20, country artist David Allen Coe hired him for his group and during this period he connected with Dickey Betts and Greg Allman. One thing led to another and in 1989 he joined the Allman Brothers Band for a reunion tour. He played with them until 1997 when he formed Gov’t Mule and released a couple of dozen albums. In 2004, he hooked up with the Dead after the former members of the Grateful Dead decided to tour together again after a nine-year hiatus. In his spare time, he also played with Dave Matthews and Derek Trucks’ bands and many others over the past three decades.
2. Kenny Wayne Shepherd
Kenny Wayne Shepherd was born in Shreveport, Louisiana June 12, 1977. He was musically inclined from an early age and graduated from toy guitars to a real one by the age of seven. The turning point was after he met Stevie Ray Vaughan and sat on stage during his performance. This was made possible because Kenny’s father was a local radio show host and occasional concert promoter. He performed on stage for the first time at the age of 13 and a video was made of it. After seeing the video, Irving Azoff signed Shepherd to a multiple record deal with Giant Records. Ledbetter Heights his first release was recorded when he was still seventeen and after its release in 1995 he opened up for the “Eagles” “Hell Freezes Over” tour in Austin, Texas. Shepherd’s song “Blue on Black” was one of the biggest hits of the 90s. Over the next quarter of a century he’s shared the stage with nearly every top blues and rock artist in the world along being nominated for six Grammy Awards.
1. Jeff Healey
Jeff Healey was born in Toronto, Canada on March 25, 1966 and just before his first birthday and soon after he was adopted he became blind from retinoblastoma (a rare form of eye cancer.) He received his first guitar when he was only three years old and by the time that he was a teenager he became amazingly adept at playing it sitting down as if it were a lap steel guitar. He was also a proficient trumpet player and recorded traditional American jazz albums as well as blues rock. His breakthrough took place in 1989 after he was featured in the film Roadhouse starring Patrick Swayze and was featured on four cuts on the film sound track album. Throughout the 1990s he extensively toured all over North America and Europe as well as releasing three hit albums. He shared the stage and recorded with some of the best musicians in the world like Eric Clapton, B. B. King, The Rolling Stones, and Stevie Ray Vaughan to name some. During his career he was an inspiration to disabled people everywhere but unfortunately after suffering with sarcoma cancer for three years he died at the age of 41 on March 2, 2008.