Originally published in Guitar World, April 2009
Ready to venture off music's beaten path into the wild world of guitar-wielding conjurers and mystics? Guitar World presents 25 guitarists from the past to the present whose supernatural talents have inspired legions of devoted followers.
Behind every famous guitarist is at least one obscure ax wielder that inspired him to achieve greatness. For that matter, the world of guitar music is filled with players that history has treated as mere footnotes but whose contributions have advanced the medium by leaps and bounds. Though rarely given their due, they have built devoted followings of their own—bands of disciples who seek out every album, track, article and performance featuring their idol.
Guitar World decided it was about high time someone gave these cult leaders their due. This month, we celebrate 25 guitarists who have carved out their own special place in the guitar pantheon through their talents, unique style and undeniable influence. Read our choices, listen to the recommended song and album selections, and learn for yourself why these musical messiahs have inspired multitudes of loyal followers.
One of the few surviving photos of Robert Johnson shows a small-boned, dapper man with a self-conscious smile, his long, slender, almost startlingly elegant fingers draped around a guitar. Several generations of guitarists have studied this image and examined the 29 recorded songs that Robert Johnson left behind. But when all the analysis has been done, there’s still something elusive and mysterious about Johnson, one of the most influential and fiercely original bluesmen of all time.
He was born in 1911, out of wedlock, in Hazelhurst, Mississippi, and spent his childhood in a few different places down South. This instilled in him a habit of rootless wandering that possessed him all of his short life. During his formative years, Johnson had the opportunity to learn from some of the greatest Delta blues guitarists and singers, including Son House, Charlie Patton, Willie Brown and a fellow named Ike Zinnerman, who claimed to have learned to play guitar at midnight in a graveyard. Johnson took the ancient, eloquent language of the blues and imparted his own unique accent to it. His guitar work was uncannily fluid and supple, his sense of rhythm playful and easygoing. He’s famous for introducing walking bass lines into the solo acoustic blues idiom. And indeed, when Keith Richards first heard a Robert Johnson recording and was told who it was, Richards said, “Yeah, but who’s the other guy playing with him?”
Of course there was no other guy. It was all Johnson. Traveling from town to town, playing juke joints and parties, he had to be a one-man band. He also had to play all the popular styles of the day—not only blues but also ragtime and popular vaudeville numbers. All of this lends great rhythmic and harmonic richness to his music.
Dark legend also figures in accounts of Johnson’s six-string prowess. He did little to discourage the notion that he’d sold his soul to the devil at the proverbial crossroads to obtain his musical gift. Indeed, Johnson wrote his own myth in songs like “Hellhound on My Trail,” “Me and the Devil Blues” and “Crossroads.” His singing and playing possess a haunted quality, which is especially apparent in his plaintive, knife-edge slide guitar work.
From what we do know of Johnson’s life, he was the prototypical rock musician: almost constantly on the road, fond of getting loaded and extremely partial to the ladies. Although shy and somewhat moody, he was very successful in endearing himself to the feminine gender. But his desire for a good time frequently got the better of his judgment, which ultimately cost him his life.
Down in Greenwood, Mississippi, Johnson got way too friendly with the wife of the proprietor of a roadhouse called Three Forks. The jealous husband had someone slip Johnson some poisoned whiskey. Tales of Johnson down on all fours howling like a dog in his final agonies are probably spurious. Firsthand accounts suggest that the poison didn’t even kill him, only weakened him so that pneumonia could carry him from this life on August 13, 1938.
Robert Johnson had a profound and direct influence on Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Elmore James, Robert Lockwood Jr. and other great bluesmen. And in the rock era, Eric Clapton has taken Johnson as his blues guru, which has helped create a cult following for him among guitarists today. Dare to dig his music and see if you don’t start to play better.
SIGNATURE TRACK “Hellhound on My Trail”
RECOMMENDED ALBUM Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings
RECOMMENDED READING Searching for Robert Johnson by Peter Guralnick