The best blues guitarists of all time
1. Stevie Ray Vaughan
In 1988, just two years before his death, the blues master spoke to Guitarist about his music, his brother Jimmie, his love for Hendrix, and the guitar he called “My First Wife”
“I just play a lot. To sit down in my room and play, because that’s what started it, that’s like going back to square one. And it’s fun! It’s fun to sit around, even if it gets frustrating.”
“I learned a lot from Jimmie and he tells me he’s learned a lot from me. He started playing when he was in junior high, when I couldn’t have been more than eight. A friend of my father’s brought over a guitar and handed it to him and said, ‘Hey play this, it won’t hurt you.’ That’s what he said, and Jimmie started playing right away.
“It was amazing to watch him do it. He had three strings on the guitar and I went to school an came home and he’d made up three songs. I’m serious! With that kind of influence as a big brother it’s real easy to get into playing.
“I saw how much fun he was having with it, how dedicated he was to it, and it gave me a lot of inspiration. Eventually he got an electric guitar and I got the one that he’d had. Then he got another electric guitar and I got his hand-me-down, and soon after I was playing gigs.”
“I get asked a lot of times by people, how do I have enough gall to do Voodoo Child, and my answer to that is that it seems to me all this pressure about whether it’s sacrilegious to do Hendrix’s music or not comes from other people, not him. I think he would probably hope that other people would take his music further. He took everything he heard, that excited him, and put it into his own music.”
My First Wife
“My First Wife is a ’59 Stratocaster, although now I have a different neck on it because every time I re-fretted it I’d have to fill in the holes. It’s the neck off another Stratocaster, but it’s the same size neck. I use the big necks, the ‘V’ necks, and I use bass frets, jumbo bass frets. In some ways I have a little bit of a problem with that, because I don’t know why but it seems to cause a bit more of a rattle.
“Of course part of that could be from tuning down to E flat as well – my action is pretty high too. Anyway I used mainly Stratocasters. I like a lot of different kinds of guitar, but for what I do it seems a Strat is the most versatile. I can pretty much get any sound out of it, and I use stock pickups.”
My Other Guitars
“There’s one that I’m carrying with me that is made by Charlie Wirz, the E-flat model, which is basically a Stratocaster with Danelectro lipstick pickups in it. Whether he changed the wires in those pickups I’m not sure, he never told anyone. I love that guitar, it sounds like a Stratocaster but it’s just a little bit different.
“Those pickups seem to work real well in a Stratocaster body – I like it a whole lot. I’ve also got a guitar that Billy Gibbons had made for me, that’s a Hamiltone model. And I’ve got a Gibson 335 that’s a semi-acoustic, but I don’t really do too much acoustic stuff.
“I’ve got a ’28 dobro and I sometimes play some slide, but not very often. I go through phases where I feel comfortable about it.” AMPS “I used to use two Fender Vibroverbs, two Super reverbs and a Dumble [Howard Dumble amps, made in Texas – Ed]. I had used Marshall amps years ago and I had a real clean one. It was a first or second series head – I’m not sure.
“I liked the Dumble a whole lot when I first got it, but the first one I had built, which is the best sounding one, is messed up right now – that’s the one that’s out on stage right now. but every one I’ve had since then have all sounded worse in different ways – I don’t know what it is.
“My favourite rig lately has been an old Marshall Major, the PA top with four inputs. I was looking for one, I found the head, plugged it in, turned it up and it sounded... right. I use that head with the Dumble cabinet with four EV speakers in it. Then I use my older Dumble heads with another cabinet, and run a Leslie cabinet with that, and it sounds strong and clear. If you bear down on the strings and hit hard it will bark at you like it’s supposed to, but it doesn’t break up.
“The problem with taking the amps to a shop is sometimes they come back sounding like another amp. So right now, my favourite thing is to use the old Marshall Major head, and my best Dumble, with two 4x12 cabinets and a Leslie – if I can keep speakers in the Leslie. A Leslie has one 10-inch or 12-inch depending on which model it is, and running it with a 200-watt head, it’s screaming for help!”
The Healing Power of Music
“I figure there is no sense in going out there and not giving it what you’ve got, and I’ve had to do that when literally I did not feel up to par. It’s funny, because sometimes that’s when you can heal yourself – by playing you can make yourself feel better. That has happened many times.”
Sing it and Learn
“I kept listening, kept going to see people, kept sitting in with people, kept listening to records. If I wanted to learn somebody’s stuff, like with Clapton, I learned how to make the sounds with my mouth and then copied that with my guitar. I’d get it to where I could sing it and then do it on the guitar at the same time. It was kind of like scat singing or something. It had to do with confidence levels and the excitement of playing, trying new things and originality.”
2. BB King
Touch and feel, BB-style
BB King is famed for his soulful touch and his ‘butterfly’ vibrato technique. To recreate BB’s sound, aim for a quick wobble of the string, but without too much pitch change. Rest your fretting finger on the side of the fretboard then ‘flutter’ your hand around this pivot point to create the vibrato. It’s easier than using pure finger strength and it’s pure BB.
3. Buddy Guy
Take your pentatonic licks beyond the basics
Legendary bluesman Buddy Guy’s playing style will have you thinking about how to expand your lead licks. Typically he uses fast flurries of notes, often straight from the minor pentatonic scale. That means the shape feels familiar but you’ll be delivering more ‘angular’ phrased licks beyond mere basics.
4. Albert King
Authentic blues bends, King-style
Using a right-handed guitar flipped over to play left handed meant King was basically playing upside down. Right away in our tab example, you can hear most of the notes are pushed (or pulled, in Albert’s case!) slightly sharp – not an unusual occurrence in blues, but Albert did it more than most. Note the sliding double stop at the end of the tab, which was one of Albert’s favourite ways to finish a lick.
5. Joe Bonamassa
JoBo’s lead guitar phrasing trick
Few guitarists have revved up the blues more than Joe in recent years, and this lick is pure Bonamassa gold. The notes are pentatonic scale-based, but it’s all about the rhythm. Switching between swung eighth notes and 16ths is the trick, giving a sense of accelerating then pulling back. Try it with any pentatonic scale.
6. Robert Johnson
Following the classic ‘V-IV-I’ 12-bar blues ending, this example showcases some of Johnson’s favourite chord voicings, with the major 3rd in the bass of the B7 and A7 chords. The open-string notes in bars 2 and 3 give you a brief moment to shift from the A7/C# chord to the closing phrase.
7. Rory Gallagher
The prodigious Irish bluesman knew his way around a slide – and the best gear to use one on
Speaking in 1987, Gallagher said: “A lot of the time I use slide tuning for rhythm parts. I play a lot of slide in regular tuning as well as open tunings. I’m still mad about slide, there are so many ways of progressing on it. Every now and then you buy a record by some country bluesman from the 30s who just wipes the floor with you and you have to start again!
“In my opinion, the P-90 is the best pickup for slide – it has the right overtones. The best slide guitar, unless you’re playing the Muddy Waters-style, is the old ’52 Goldtop Les Paul. You can play slide on any guitar, but to be serious about it you have a tough set of strings, otherwise you don’t get the full attack – you can’t dig in.”
8. Muddy Waters
Easy Delta style grooves, Muddy Waters style
His playing was gutsy, intense and captivatingly expressive, and, if you listen to Muddy’s playing, especially on the earlier recordings, it’s easy to hear the more angular Delta style. In standard tuning and without the use of a slide, his early classic track Rollin’ Stone is a great example.
Just downpick an E5 powerchord on every beat and try adding in a pentatonic lick at the end of every other bar. These two fret boxes should get you started.
9. Johnny Winter
The late blues great on how he dialled in his tone
Speaking in 2014, Winter said: “I bought my first Gibson Firebird in the 1970s from a guy from St Louis, who was going around selling old guitars to musicians. I liked the way it looked at first, and then I played it and it sounded good and it felt good.
“I still play that same guitar now and I use Music Man amplifiers, which sound great because they’re very loud. I have the volume on 10, the treble on 10 and bass and middle off completely.
“I also use a Boss chorus pedal. I own about 25 or 30 guitars and they’re mostly Gibsons and Nationals. I’ve got about nine or 10 Firebirds.”
10. Freddie King
Massively influential and still popular today
There is little doubt that had Freddie should really be far more famous today. Highly influential, like many blues greats, his singing gave his guitar licks their lyrical phrasing. A huge number of what are now blues clichés started in his hands as vital new sounds – and they still sound that way on his original recordings.
If you took all the Freddie-isms off the Beano album, the young Clapton would have been noticeably quieter, as would Jeff Beck, the Stones, and SRV. His approach to combining major and minor pentatonics is now essential blues knowledge.
With her four-string cigar box guitar, Fish evokes the rawness of early bottleneck recordings, plus punk levels of aggression.
No other British blues boomer matched Greeny’s subtlety or his precise bends. His dynamic control evoked an aching longing.
By pioneering electric slide guitar and loud, dirty amplifiers, James gave us Dust My Broom, and the blues-rock blueprint.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe
Long overlooked, it’s now recognised Tharpe turned Gospel into rock ’n’ roll. Her electrifying performances inspired Chuck Berry and co.
With guitar flat on his lap, the blind Healey found new levels of control over bends, slides, and vibrato.
Proving that blues can still sell, Mayer puts Hendrix and SRV vibes into memorable pop songs, breaking the 12-bar rut.
His mastery of microtonality – the pitches in between the frets – plus glorious phrasing makes Trucks’ slide playing uniquely compelling.
Gary Clark Jr.
Wisely chosen to pay tribute to BB King at the 2016 Grammy awards, Clark is authentic without just rehashing the all old stuff.