Best of 2019: Sure, 'Blues the vote!' doesn’t have quite the same ring as 'Rock the vote!' But that didn’t keep GuitarWorld.com readers from voicing their valuable opinions in one of our most popular electric guitar polls in recent history - best blues guitarist - which ruled the site in June and early July.
In fact, it racked up more than 60,000 votes (60,429, to be exact) from readers around the world. The results are in, and the winner, as you probably know by now, is the one, the only Joe Bonamassa, who bested the rest of the top five - Eric Clapton, Derek Trucks, Buddy Guy and John Mayer - to land at the top of Bluesville.
Below, we’ll shine a light on some of the guitarists who scored handsomely in our Top 30 (yes, we’re listing only the top 30 here), including Bonamassa, Buddy Guy, Samantha Fish and newcomer Christone 'Kingfish' Ingram.
The poll included a whopping 73 choices, and readers also were encouraged to suggest their own candidates (and they pretty much only voted for guitarists who have been dead for several decades - but thanks anyway, gang!).
With that in mind, we encourage you to explore the work of the top vote-getters (Eric Gales, anyone?), including guitarists who didn’t make the top 30, such as Ronnie Earl, Ana Popovic, Chris Duarte, Kirk Fletcher, Sue Foley, Tommy Castro, Duke Robillard and Junior Watson.
So, without further ado, we present the best blues guitarists in the world today, according to you...
1. Joe Bonamassa
The world’s most high-profile blues guitarist has spent 2019 packing out pretty much every large, red-plush seated theater he can find in support of last year’s masterly Redemption. It’s little wonder his chops are always on-point.
But it’s not just his performances that make him so influential; his championing of his fellow blues players elevate the genre, bringing a little more light and heat to the fast-rising blues cats such as Eric Gales (his number one blues-rock player in the world, and your number 12).
Other highlights include jamming with Journey at Caesar’s Palace and returning the favor to Neal Schon, and, as an inveterate gear collector, taking receipt of a see-through Lucite Fender Twin and a pristine 1958 Gibson Flying V, aka “Donnie J.” has to be up there, too.
2. Eric Clapton
For a player who made his bones in the ‘60s with Cream and Blind Faith, back when the color TV was still novel, Slowhand made a respectable attempt at breaking the internet when he played While My Guitar Gently Weeps with Peter Frampton at this year’s Crossroads Guitar Festival. It brought the house down.
It remains to be seen if we will see a follow-up to 2018’s Happy Xmas. But with super-limited custom shop models from Fender, Gibson and Martin minted in his name to coincide with the Crossroads festival, he remains the lodestar for contemporary blues culture.
Pointless trivia: as a child Clapton had an imaginary pet horse nicknamed Bush Branch. Less pointless: GW’s lesson in Clapton’s jaw-dropping off-the-cuff phrasing. He was the master. He is the master.
3. Derek Trucks
Is there a better slide player in the world right now? Trucks is the highest slide specialist in our voters’ list, and perhaps that is because his sensibility is such that he never overpowers the jam, often positioning his Gibson Artist Series Dickey Betts SG somewhere in the uncharted frequencies shared by vocals and guitar, and as an enigmatic counterpoint to his wife Susan Tedeschi’s Strat or Les Paul.
Of course, when absolutely necessary, he can pin the audience to the floor, dialing in more bite on his volume control to hit the front end of his Alessandro custom head harder. The Tedeschi Trucks Band’s latest album, Signs, is poignant, life-affirming, and full of soul. Blues for our times.
4. Buddy Guy
Profiled in the New Yorker as “the last of the bluesmen,” Buddy Guy might be 83 years young but he has more than plenty sap in the tree, and can presently be found, Strat in hand, at venues up and down the length and breadth of the United States.
Whether he’s playing his cover of Willie Dixon’s I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man or Damn Right, I’ve Got the Blues, Buddy’s playing is still off-the-charts, hold-the-bus genius - as his showmanship, gleaned from one of his all-time heroes Guitar Slim (Eddie Jones).
5. John Mayer
That Mayer can still be pocketed in the blues tradition says much for his chameleon style. If ever there was a contemporary player who could shift through genre and feel without causing a ripple, it’s Mayer.
His tone, subject of several terabytes of online discussion and out-of-focus images of his pedalboard and backline from live shows, is just so dynamic. Lush but lithe and spanky, and perfect for his pop sensibility, which never quite seems at odds with the blues. It’s quite the sleight of hand Mayer’s performing with that PRS Silver Sky of his.
6. Kenny Wayne Shepherd
As a disciple of SRV, KWS shares that unpredictable quality to his phrasing, where he will be playing something traditional, say, in-the-pocket Albert King, before flipping the script on it and taking it some place new.
He released The Traveler in May, and of course the songwriting is super-tight, but the playing is unimpeachable, always inventive.
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7. Samantha Fish
Fish is taking the blues forward, where it needs to go, and her latest album, Kill or Be Kind, has moments when octave, pitch shifters, fuzz and delay pedals take blues guitar tone into another dimension.
All the while Fish retains the blues’ storytelling power, rooting her sound in the blues tradition while imagining it anew.
8. Gary Clark Jr.
Gary Clark Jr. is another player who incorporates ostensibly alien elements into the mix and yet it’s still the blues.
This Land, his third studio album, is a work of searing passion and righteous indignation, its title track appropriating some of Guthrie’s original composition and transforming it out of sight.
But hip-hop, rock, whatever; when it spills out of Clark it goes all the way back to Johnson, Walker, et al.
9. Tab Benoit
The Louisiana Delta blues maestro is a man of simple pleasures, namely a ’72 Fender Thinline Telecaster that he bought for less than half a grand when cutting his debut in the ‘90s, and Category 5 amps.
And when you find something that works for you like that, well, it becomes an extension of the self, and the sky’s the limit. This year saw Benoit inducted into the Louisiana Folklife Center Hall of Master Folk Artists, and launch his own label, Whiskey Bayou Records.
10. Billy Gibbons
The bearded bastion of boogie’s most intriguing moment of the year came when Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme invited him out to perform on his Desert Sessions Vol.11/12 recording, with Gibbons opening proceedings in half falsetto on Move Together.
But those looking for something to put some Texas heat into their drive time commute would have found this year’s Goin’ 50 compilation a worthy reminder of ZZ Top’s inimitable style.
11. Christone 'Kingfish' Ingram
The Clarksdale, Mississippi, phenom is only 20 years old but already has a sense for feel, phrasing and vibrato that helps him shake the very soul out of his instrument.
This year saw the release of his debut, Kingfish, and having already played in the company of Eric Gales and Buddy Guy, the best is yet to come. This here is the future.
12. Eric Gales
The comparisons to Jimi Hendrix don’t begin and end with Gales’ preference for the right-handed Fender used southpaw, but perhaps there’s some SRV in there, too, especially in that super-juicy tone.
But the Raw Dawg’s cover of Little Wing is proof positive he can stamp his identity on anyone’s material - on the blues itself. Check out Resolution from his latest album, Bookends, for a novel blues-rock application of the DigiTech Whammy pedal.
13. Warren Haynes
Founding member of Gov’t Mule and with a long association with the Allman Brothers, Haynes has a spent much of 2019 on tour, and is currently in the bus with John Medeski, Lukas Nelson and others on The Last Waltz Tour 2019, playing a mammoth set each night in tribute to the Band’s 1976 farewell concert.
He remains one of guitar’s most improvisational mavericks, whose solos are essential material on any blues syllabus.
14. Erja Lyytinen
Finnish singer-songwriter Erja Lyytinen is one of Europe’s leading blues players and her latest album, Another World, features guest spots from Jennifer Batten and Sonny Landreth, in what is another showcase for her awesome voice and ear for progressive, melodic rock.
Not to mention the eminently vocal qualities of her immaculate slide playing.
15. Chris Buck
There are all kinds of floral endorsements we could make to this prodigious south Wales talent, about a melodic sensibility that’s write large through Buck & Evans’ work, and how their latest, Write a Better Day, was recorded live to retain that spontaneous feel that keeps Buck’s on the right side of his instincts.
Or we could co-sign Slash’s thoughts, who, upon jamming on a number of occasions with Buck describes him as “a fucking amazing guitar player.” Right on, Slash!
16. Josh Smith
Smith started playing at six, an age where he, like many others, might have struggled to tie his shoelaces, yet nonetheless he developed a preternatural disposition for the blues.
His 2019 has been spent on the road in support of last year’s Born to Grow, which, well check out the talky guitar that moves around the vocal line in That for You Too for an example of how good Smith’s phrasing is.
17. Dan Patlansky
The South African player will see out the year touring his home country as the run for Perfection Kills comes to an end. Expect some new music next year.
Don’t expect Patlansky to go easy on his gear, though, for he likes to play hard, boost his signal and drive the tubes has hard as possible.
18. Marcus King
This will be the last time you see this name so far down a list like this. King’s tone is so hot that you could cook a 12oz steak just by waving it in front of his speaker cabinet.
King’s played all kinds of stages this year, his set at Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival a particular highlight, and we eagerly await his debut solo album, out February 2020, which was produced by Dan Auerbach.
It’s not just his tone, though. King has a novelist’s sensibility for story in song. He’s got a signature Gibson ES-345 incoming, too.
19. Walter Trout
Trout got the idea for Survivor Blues while driving around and listening to blues on FM radio. Why didn’t he just take on a dozen classic or slept-on tracks and put his own stamp on them?
That’s exactly what he did, heading on down to Los Angeles to track the album at the Doors guitarist’s Robby Krieger’s private studio.
“It’s songs that haven’t been covered much but are worthy of attention and worthy of being heard,” says Trout. Too right. Check out Trout’s take on Mississippi Fred McDowell’s Going Down to the River, featuring Krieger.
20. Robert Cray
One of only a few players to be name-checked by Buddy Guy in his New Yorker article (Trucks, Clark Jr., Kingfish, and Keb’ Mo’ also got props), Robert Cray is a blues institution in his own right.
His 2019 is much like that of any other, heavy schedules, sold out shows, and repeat. The blues don’t quit. Not does his tone, which, via his Strat through a Matchless Clubman 35 and Fender Vibro King has never sounded better.
21. Jared James Nichols
The most muscular style in the blues’ contemporary canon, Nichols excels whenever given a Les Paul and a tube amp pushed to the limit. His signature Epiphone Les Paul is a straight-up rock machine.
Nichols scores highly for blues face, too, which, on the anguish scale, sits somewhere between passing kidney stones and stubbed pinky toe.
22. Robben Ford
Ford can do it all and has played with everyone. George Harrison, Joni Mitchell, Steely Dan... Miles Davis!
This year has been spent touring in support of 2018’s Purple House, an album that sees Robben play infectious blues-rock such as the sour strut of Somebody’s Fool, but also take some chances and roll the dice with acoustic-led compositions such as Break in the Chain and the experimental balladry of Empty Handed.
23. Peter Green
Green hasn’t released any new music but you can be sure he remains on heavy rotation on record decks and phones worldwide.
Mick Fleetwood has just announced a concert in tribute to the Green and the early days of Fleetwood Mac, which will take place in February 2020 at the London Palladium, and see performances from the likes of Billy Gibbons, David Gilmour, Jonny Lang, John Mayall, Christine McVie, Zak Starkey, Steven Tyler and Bill Wyman.
24. Jimmie Vaughan
The Texas blues shuffle remains strong in Jimmie Vaughan, and it will never leave him. Baby, Please Come Home is one of the year’s strongest blues releases and sees Vaughan take on old blues standards, tracks that need only a few bars before rolling the clock back to an era when the internet would be sci-fi and you’d have to get up off your chair every 20-odd minutes to turn the record over.
As with Trout, a blues legend tackling overlooked tracks is always essential listening, and an education.
25. Robin Trower
Trower might have a formidable back catalog but his appetite to create shows no signs of slowing.
At 74, if anything, Trower is accelerating. Coming Closer to The Day is a masterclass of tone and restraint, and sees Trower in a wry, philosophical mood, with tracks such as Lonesome Road coming to terms with ageing and the fact that one day the curtain falls for good.
26. Jonny Lang
Whether he is shouldering his Fender Custom Thinline Tele, complete with Bill Lawrence blade humbuckers, or a Gibson ’58 Les Paul Reissue, Lang’s tone is always heavy on the hot sauce.
We will be hoping a follow-up to 2017’s superlative riff-heavy Signs in 2020, but Lang’s 2019 highlights were earned on stages across the world delivering sets such as his jaw-dropping performance at the Holland International Blues Festival.
27. Anthony Gomes
Gomes is another power player who is at his best when his gear is in the scorched earth between blues and rock. After all, it’s the electric guitar; sometimes tickling it is not enough.
Gomes is still touring on the back of Peace, Love & Loud Guitars - words we can all live by - and shall be right through into 2020. No rest for the wicked.
28. Keb’ Mo’
Oklahoma was another album that confirmed Keb’ Mo’ as a blues player who can trace its lineage all the way back to the Delta and then revitalize it for the ages. As Keb’ Mo’ sees it, the blues is folk, the folk is blues, and he’s using it all to tell his stories about America’s dark history and difficult present.
29. Buddy Whittington
Anyone who caught the Texan six-string Svengali live this year will be able to attest to his undiminished ability to wring the most soulful and improvisational licks from his instrument. And, crucially, he keeps it playful.
Sure, all great players can tell a story within the blues scale, but Whittington tells those stories with no shortage of wit.
30. Matt Schofield
Schofield’s iconoclastic sound sees him loosen up that right hand on command for funk and play with the precision that jazz demands.
You can hear the Robben Ford influence, for sure, but Schofield has a sound of his own design, and a lyrical melodic sensibility that works gangbusters when playing off organist Jonny Henderson.