Blues music, and in particular the blues guitarists who are usually it’s stars, has influenced modern music more than perhaps any other genre in history.
From the early 12-bar blues songs which paved the way for the various styles of jazz, to the early blues guitar legends who inspired future generations of soul, R&B and rock greats like Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles and Eric Clapton, The Blues can be heard everywhere in modern music.
Despite all of this, there has remained a strong line of classic blues guitar players throughout, staying true to the original spirit of the style.
Coming up with a list of blues guitarists that encompasses the rich history and cultural significance that the music possesses is of course no easy task – especially as everyone will have their own opinion on this.
But with that in mind, and in the spirit of discovering as much great music as possible, here’s our pick of the 10 best blues guitarists of all time.
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A hugely important early blues musician, singer and guitarist Son House, born in 1902 is closely associated with the Delta blues style.
One of the earliest-known incarnations of the blues, its origins lie in the Mississippi Delta and often features the use of slide guitar and harmonica.
Son House possessed a highly emotive singing style, channelling the intensity and drive that he learnt during his time as a preacher, and pairing it with a swooping slide guitar technique.
Despite being cited as a key formative influence on such giants as Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters, Son House relocated in the 1940’s and stopped performing altogether.
Rediscovered in the 1960’s Son House had a renaissance towards the end of his life, performing and recording his brand of Delta blues all over the country up until his death in 1988.
Recommended Son House listening: The Complete Library of Congress Sessions
Alan Lomax’s 1941 field recordings of Son House for the Library of Congress are key examples of his unique style. The recordings feature Son House alongside his band, and contain many historically significant examples of the finest Delta blues
Recognised as one of the early masters of the blues, guitar player and singer-songwriter Johnson’s seminal recordings from 1936 and 1937 (his only recorded output) have inspired countless aspiring blues musicians up to this day.
Achieving little commercial success during his lifetime, and with not much known about his personal circumstances, many stories about Johnson have given rise to legend, famously the tale of Johnson making a pact with the devil at a local crossroads in return for musical success.
Whilst primarily recognised as a master of the Delta blues style, Johnson was a versatile musician, and was known to be an accomplished slide guitarist, as well as being adept in country and the Chicago style blues.
Recommended Robert Johnson listening: The Complete Recordings
As previously mentioned, Johnson took part in only two recording sessions during his lifetime, one in 1936 and one in 1937.
The resulting 29 songs (and a handful of alternate takes) have proved hugely influential on such giants as Eric Clapton and Bob Dylan and are well worth seeking out, easily available as a complete box set.
Born in Texas in 1912, much of Lightnin’ Hopkins’ childhood was spent learning the blues from his older cousin and fellow country blues singer Texas Alexander, and performing at informal church gatherings.
His unusual fingerstyle technique (a key feature of the country blues idiom) allowed him to perform without a backing band, playing the bass, rhythm, lead and percussive parts all on his own and at the same time.
His vocal style was loose and imaginative, sometimes speaking the lyrics as if talking and other times singing them in a more conventional style.
Recommended Lightnin’ Hopkins listening: Early Recordings Vol. 2
These recordings, made between 1946-1950 capture Hopkins’ distinctive fingerstyle technique and charismatic vocals.
Much of the material feels improvised on the spot, leading to interesting compositions that break out of the usual 12-bar blues structure and feel instantly fresh to the listener as a result.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe
Nicknamed ‘the Godmother of rock and roll’, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, is perhaps primarily known for her gospel recordings of the 1930’s and 1940’s.
By presenting spiritual music to the mainstream, both through her recorded output, and through her live performances at ‘secular’ venues (nightclubs and concert halls), Sister Tharpe was a key figure in the birth of pop gospel.
Her pioneering use of distorted electric guitar and pulsating and dynamic live performances proved hugely influential on important electric blues guitar players to follow such as Eric Clapton, as well as R&B musicians such as little Richard.
Recommended Sister Rosetta Tharpe listening: Gospel Train
Sister Tharpe’s studio album of 1956 presents itself as somewhat of a departure from her previous work.
Accompanied by leading New York jazz musicians, Tharpe’s vibing and raw blues guitar playing paired with her powerful vocals would go on to influence many of the great musicians of the 1960’s.
Regarded as a pioneer of both the jump blues and electric blues styles, T-Bone Walker (born in 1910) influenced many of the electric blues greats that would follow, such as B.B King who said upon hearing Walker play that he “thought Jesus Himself had returned to Earth playing the electric guitar”.
Credited as being one of the first blues musicians to embrace the use of the electric guitar, Walker’s style, built on fluid phrasing emotive bends and wailing vibrato was a departure from what had come before and was arguably ahead of its time.
Recommended T-bone Walker listening: Good Feelin’
Recorded in Paris in 1968 and released in 1969, Good Feelin’ is credited as the record that lead to renewed public interest in Walker’s music, both in Europe and globally.
All the trademarks of his rich and powerful playing style are present here, backed up by a soulful and horn section and grooving organ.
A key figure of the post-war blues landscape, Muddy Waters is often described as being the father of the modern Chicago blues.
This is a style of blues developed in Chicago heavily influenced by earlier idioms such as Delta blues, that centres around the primal sounds of an amplified electric guitar and wailing harmonica.
Like all the mot famous blues guitarists on this list, his influence on what came after him is immense, and his 1958 tour of England is credited as laying the foundations for the British blues revival of the 1960’s.
Recommended listening: Muddy Waters Sings ‘Big Bill’
Muddy Waters’ tribute to fellow Chicago bluesman Big Bill Broonzy re-interprets Broonzy’s songs into Waters’ contemporary electric Chicago blues style, and features great harmonica playing (another key element of the modern Chicago blues) from James Cotton.
Born in Mississippi in 1923, Albert King, nicknamed ‘The Velvet Bulldozer’ due to his smooth singing style and large frame was another massively influential blues guitarist, inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1983.
A totally unique individual, King, a left-hander, famously played a right-handed instrument upside down with the bass strings unusually facing the floor, and utilised his own string tunings.
He was renowned for his tremendous power, and his extreme note bending as well as hitting notes with his thumb.
A huge inspiration on contemporaries such as Jimi Hendrix (who was allegedly star-struck when King performed on the same bill as him in 1967) as well as those to follow such as Eric Clapton, King’s deep touch and dramatic sound has been imitated by countless guitarists the world over.
Recommended Albert King listening: Born Under a Bad Sign
Regarded as one of the greatest blues albums ever made, and featuring arguably his biggest hit, Born Under a Bad Sign is King’s second compilation album, released in 1967 by Stax Records.
Featuring accompaniment from Booker T. & the M.G’s as well as The Memphis Horns, King fuses the electric blues with sprinklings of soul and funk, his raw and distinctive guitar tone present throughout.
Widely credited as being one of the most influential and famous blues musicians of all time, and known by his nickname ‘The King of the Blues’, B.B King’s place in the pantheon of the greats is hard to overstate.
Renowned for his deep sophisticated touch, and expressive sound that he would achieve through a variety of left hand techniques such as string bending, and vibrato, many aspects of B.B King’s style have been replicated by countless electric blues guitarists since.
Born on a cotton plantation in Mississippi in 1925, B.B King would go on to have a long and hugely successful career, performing relentlessly and inspiring guitarists all over the world until his passing in 2015.
Recommended B.B. King listening: Singin’ the blues
A compilation album featuring songs recorded between 1951-1956, these important early recordings of B.B King showcase classic hits that he would continue to perform throughout his long career, such as ‘Every Day I Have the Blues’ and ‘You Upset Me Baby’.
Stevie Ray Vaughan
Influenced by musicians ranging from such blues greats as ‘the three kings’ (Albert King, B.B King and Freddie King) to those ‘outside’ of blues such as Jimi Hendrix and Django Reinhardt, Texan born virtuoso Stevie Ray Vaughan is perhaps best known as frontman of the iconic 1980’s blues rock band Double Trouble.
The huge tone that he would get from his Fender Stratocaster, coupled with his deep swing feel and phenomenal technique have cemented Vaughan’s place as one of the top blues guitarists of all time.
Recommended Stevie Ray Vaughan listening: Texas Flood
The debut studio album from Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble, released in 1983, Texas Flood features two of Vaughan’s biggest hits ‘Pride and Joy’ and ‘Love Struck Baby’.
Listen out in particular to Vaughan’s impeccable shuffle feel on ‘Pride and Joy’ and deep blues improvisation on ‘Love Struck Baby’.
Receiving one of the best early musical educations a blues guitarist could hope for (growing up in the folds of the legendary Allman Brothers band, his uncle being the groups drummer), prodigious slide-guitar talent Derek Trucks had already performed with the likes of Buddy Guy and Bob Dylan by the age of 20.
Crediting blues greats Duane Allman and Elmore James as two key figures in his development of the slide guitar style (a technique of playing the guitar that involves placing an object against the strings in order to create swooping glissando effects and intense vibratos), Trucks’ playing also draws on more diverse influences and incorporates elements of delta blues and Indian classic music into the mix.
Recommended Derek Trucks listening: Revelator
The debut album by Trucks and his wife Susan Tedeschi’s ambitious 11-piece blues rock group The Tedeschi Trucks band, Revelator won the award for Best Blues Album at the 54th Grammy Awards.
Having a strong reputation as an exceptional live band, Revelator possesses songs that “capture the authentic, emotional fire…that so many modern blues and roots recordings lack” (Allmusic review).
Thanks for stopping by! That’s our pick of the 10 best blues guitarists of all time; hopefully it gave you some inspiration for some great music to (re)discover today.
If you want to learn how to play blues guitar, checking out as many of these legendary recordings is a great place to start!
As we mentioned, The Blues finds its way into many styles of modern music, not least jazz. You can find more about song of the greatest jazz musicians and their albums – with all sorts of Blues connections, via our Jazz Music page.