The History of Blues Guitar

Blues Guitarists

Blues Guitarists

Blues Guitar: History

The Blues is a genre of music originated by African Americans in the Deep South of the United States, including Mississippi, around the end of the 19th century. It developed from roots in slave songs and incorporated spirituals, work songs, field hollers, shouts, chants and ballads.

In the early 1920’s and 1930’s, guitarists like Blind Lemon Jefferson, Son House, Robert Johnson, and Lonnie Johnson ruled the roost as the most influential performers. They used slides to play their music. These slides were usually made from knife blade or the broken or sawed off neck of any bottle were christened as bottle necked guitar.

Rooted in African tradition, this became a fascinating aspect of the Blues guitar music that seemed mostly unaccompanied and improvised. The slide guitar, with its characteristic finger picking style, became a popular form of music. This was also because it could produce effects that couldn’t be replicated by other musical forms.

But a phase of the 1940’s changed the musical scene totally. The much talked about jump blues style was characterized by big band music and the era of the blues guitar was so strong and powerful that it propelled other  musical genres like rock and roll, and rhythm and blues to established themselves as strong forms of music in the United States.

After the World War II, the blues guitar underwent further change and turned into a more electrified and amplified form of music. With its roots in Chicago, the new electric blues displayed the sounds of players from Mississippi such as Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, and Jimmy Reed.

But of course, these fine players who had grown up in Mississippi migrated to Chicago.  As well as their collection of an electric guitar, harmonica and a rhythm section of bass and drums, Chicago Blues also included a brass section.

The finest players of this time were B.B. King and Freddie King who were creating ripples across the industry with their unique styles. What made these two singers stand out was the fact that they chose not to use the slide to play the guitar, which had been the main music trend of those times.  B.B. King, who said he couldn’t use a slide, became known as one of the best blues guitar players for all times while the counter part, Freddie King earned the distinction of being labeled as the King of the Boogie Woogie guitar.

Chicago was far ahead in creating its own signature sounds during the period of the 1950’s. But California wasn’t too far behind, not with artists such as T-Bone Walker and John Lee Hooker who were responsible in pioneering the style that came to be known as the California Blues style. But these players weren’t from California. In fact, T-Bone Walker was from Dallas, and Hooker came from Mississippi. But together, the players created the distinct, much acclaimed California Blues Style. This was considered by some, but not me, to be style that was far better than the Chicago Blues style.

From 1960’s onward, a new group entered the musical scene, namely Caucasian audiences showed immense interest to blues guitar. Bands such as the Rolling Stone, Fleetwood Mac, Cream, and the Bluesbreakers, set the trends in music spiraling high in the most challenging ways by experimenting with classic blues tunes and improvisations or new innovations to pre existing tunes that were the originals of one time.

The West Side style of Chicago Blues was established by players such as Albert King (a left handed guitar player), Buddy Guy, and Luther Allison whose bands mostly used the amplified electric blues guitar which was a trend that influenced countless other players of the times. Some of these inspired players include later artists of great caliber and potential like Stevie Ray Vaughan, Johnny Lang, and Kenny Wayne Shepherd, and even left handed guitarist Jimi Hendrix.

No doubt, ever since the early 1980’s, there has been a tremendous resurgence of blues in the United States.

Thanks to the Texas Rock-Blues Style of Stevie Ray Vaughan and the Fabulous Thunderbirds, the blues was played on American rock radio stations.

Eric Clapton, Robert Cray, Joe Bonamassa and others continue to play the blues and bring it to a wider and younger audience. Although, Clapton recently revealed he had peripheral neuropathy a condition which could spell the end of his musical career.

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  1. Pingback: Blues Guitar: Getting Started | Lefties Guitars

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