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 best blues guitarists of all time.
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).
“Clapton is God” – or at least that’s what everyone would have you believe back in Clapton’s heyday.
Clapton got his start playing at the popular Crawdaddy Club with the Yardbirds, a club that the Rolling Stones often performed at and frequented.
After the Yardbirds had some success and began to move towards a more commercial sound, Clapton decided to go his own way.
He would soon join the band Cream, where he would perform as a lead guitarist and vocalist. Cream’s success gave Clapton the perfect playground for his distinctive and impressive playing, allowing him to cement himself as a bona fide legend in the British Blues Revival.
When Cream disbanded, Clapton didn’t take long to move on, most notably playing in the successful band Derek and the Dominos before germinating a hit solo career.
His most popular solo hit was “Wonderful Tonight”, but you would have heard Clapton’s playing on iconic songs like “Layla”, “White Room”, “I Feel Free”, “Strange Brew”, and the impossible to ignore “Sunshine Of Your Love”.
Recommended Eric Clapton listening: Fresh Cream
Cream’s debut album “Fresh Cream” is a staple in British blues-rock, and does a great job of showcasing Clapton’s more developed style after his long stints with previous bands. “Fresh Cream” is clearly where Clapton found his feet.
Beck, like Clapton, became prominent in the 60s performing with the Yardbirds, before fronting the Jeff Beck Group. Beck’s playing is a more focused and technical style, blending genres between blues, rock, jazz, and even sometimes electronica.
After his work in the 60s, Beck soon transitioned to a heavily instrumental style, which may be accredited with his lack of sustained commercial success when compared to his contemporaries. Despite this, Beck is still regarded by many as one of the greatest guitarists in history.
Recommended Jeff Beck listening: Blow By Blow
“Blow By Blow” was Beck’s second album under his own name, rather than as “The Jeff Beck Group”. Released in 1975, the album is purely instrumental and showcases Beck’s impressive skills as a guitarist. The album peaked at number four on the American Billboard 200.
“Blow By Blow” was Beck’s first real success as an instrumentalist, and helped to propel his career forwards with confidence, allowing Beck to explore different genres and techniques.
Known for his erratic playstyle, improvisational skills, and as a pioneer of rock and roll, Berry was more than just influential. In fact, Berry has often been called the “Father of Rock and Roll”, and played an integral part in using blues to lay the foundations of the genre.
Berry was known for his heavy use of guitar solos and committed showmanship (which was likely influenced by T-Bone Walker), and his commitment to the craft landed him a job with the Johnnie Johnson Trio.
But Berry’s break came after making the decision to move to Chicago in 1955, where he eventually met fellow blues artist Muddy Waters.
Through Muddy Waters, Berry met Leonard Chess and subsequently signed on with Chess Records. After this life-changing event, and with his guitar skills and showmanship, Berry soon rocketed up the charts and cemented himself as a star of the 1950s.
Recommended Chuck Berry listening: Berry Is On Top
Berry’s third album is the culmination of his growing style, with lyrics that focus on the lifestyle of the youth, and fun, light music that is tremendously easy to listen to whilst also containing some great guitar work by Berry.
Although Berry is known primarily for his breakout tune “Johnny B. Goode”, his adaptation of a country song, “Ida Red”, titled “Maybellene”, which was released under Chess Records, was a massive commercial hit, selling over a million copies.
John Lee Hooker
American blues singer, guitarist and songwriter John Lee Hooker garnered his success with his signature electric-delta style, an adaptation of the birth of blues music, the Delta blues. Hooker was known primarily for talking the blues, as well as having a rhythmic, boogie style.
Hooker’s most notable songs include “Boom Boom”, and “One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer”. In 2015, Rolling Stone ranked Hooker thirty-five in their top one-hundred list of greatest guitarists.
Recommended John Lee Hooker listening: Burnin’
“Burnin’” is perhaps one of Hooker’s more commercial albums, likely due to its lack of complexity and the prominence of saxophones. Despite this, Hooker’s authentic playing is still on show, which makes “Burnin’” one of the more accessible blues albums in his discography.
Although Mayer appeared on the music scene as a pop artist, he originally had his roots in blues music. In fact, many of Mayer’s favourite artists are blues guitarists, and the genre is what inspired him to learn guitar in the first place.
In 2005, after his first hit album “Room for Squares” in 2001 and his follow up “Heavier Things” in 2003, Mayer formed the “John Mayer Trio” and began to perform blues and rock. During this time he also collaborated with several blues artists such as Eric Clapton and B.B King.
This culminated with the release of his 2006 album “Continuum”, a combination of his earlier styles and his new blues-influenced approach.
Recommended John Mayer listening: Continuum
“Continuum” is the culmination of Mayer’s skills as both a guitarist and a songwriter, and contains many of his best tunes and guitar solos.
“In Repair”, “Gravity”, and “Slow Dancing in a Burning Room” are just a few examples of his exemplary work.
American singer, songwriter, and blues-rock guitarist Joe Bonamassa began his career much earlier than his contemporaries, at the age of twelve when he performed twenty shows as B.B King’s opening act.
Since then, Bonamassa has been a prolific musician, releasing fifteen solo albums since 2000, and collaborating with many other rock and blues artists.
Bonamassa is primarily known for playing a Gibson Les Paul, a ballad-like, dramatic, overdriven guitar style, and bellowing rock vocals.
Recommended Joe Bonamassa listening:
The 2011 effort “Don’t Explain” is a collaboration between Bonamassa and Beth Hart. The album is actually a series of covers and features renditions of songs by the likes of Billie Holiday, Ray Charles, Tom Waits; Bill Withers, Etta James, and Aretha Franklin.
Despite being a cover album, “Don’t Explain” is a great example of Bonamassa’s style.
Quite literally one of the “Three Kings of the Blues Guitar” (alongside Albert King and B.B. King – none of whom are actually related), Freddie King became prominent towards the end of the 60s and on through the 70s.
His career came to an end with his premature death which was likely caused by exhaustive touring, party-hard lifestyle, and weakness for Bloody Marys, which he once told a journalist he drinks because “they’ve got food in them.”
King was known for his roaring vocals, classic aggressive 70s rock guitar style, and his rhythmic tunes.
Recommended Freddie King listening: Getting Ready… (World)
Containing two of his biggest hits (“Going Down” and “I’m Tore Down”), “Getting Ready… (World)”, released in 1971, catapulted King into the 1970s as one to watch.
Having already established himself as a prominent guitarist, it didn’t take much for this album to cement him as a King of the Blues.
Rush is best known for his excessive use of sustained, bent, vibrato notes. His sound was often considered Chicago blues, specifically from the West Side, and influenced many aspiring blues musicians, most notably Eric Clapton.
Rush played his guitar left-handed, but he strung his guitars with the low E string at the bottom, where he would curl the little finger of his picking hand. Many believe that this unique technique was a large factor in his distinctive sound.
Recommended Otis Rush listening: 1956-1958
This compilation of Rush’s recordings whilst under Cobra Records is a great entrance to his discography, and contains many of Rush’s standout tunes; including the masterpiece “Double Trouble” and “All Your Love”.
Gary Clark Jr.
Hailing from Austin, Texas, Gary Clark Jr. is best known for his unique blend of rock, blues, and soul. He is also been known to include elements of hip hop in his music.
His guitar playing leans toward a rough-and-ready style that is reminiscent of the Black Keys or the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, but with a similar vocal/guitar relationship to Hendrix or Vaughan.
Recommended Gary Clark Jr. listening: The Bright Lights EP
Clark Jr.’s 2011 debut only has four tracks, but they boast a good amount of variety and showcase the artist’s broad capabilities well. “Don’t Owe You a Thang” lovingly harkens back to old blues standards, but with a slightly modern, garage twist to its nature.
Blues guitarist Robert Cray came to prominence in the 1980s. He was inspired to start a band in his 20s, after spending his time watching his heroes (Albert Collins, Freddie King, and Muddy Waters) in concert.
Cray’s style is a modern interpretation of the blues, sporting a smooth and soulful voice, and a guitar style that is crisp and clean. His style often features quick slides, sporadic riffs, and shortened notes. Cray’s style is a highly 80s-infused version of the blues.
Recommended Robert Cray listening: Strong Persuader
Cray’s fifth studio album was released in 1986, and was his biggest commercial breakthrough at that point, going on to sell over two million copies by 1995. Rolling Stone later ranked the album number forty-two on their list of the one-hundred greatest albums of the 80s.
Also known as “the Ice Man”, American electric-blues guitarist Albert Collins was best known for using altered tunings and a capo when he played and was often associated with the Fender Telecaster.
Although he began his career in the late 60s, Collins came to prominence in the late 70s and on throughout the 80s until his death in 1993.
Recommended Albert Collins listening: Cold Snap
Despite the 1986 album being coined an “obvious attempt by Alligator [Records] to win for Collins a Grammy”, “Cold Snap” is full of Collins’ powerful and edgy style, if somewhat bogged down by his vocal attempt to be more commercial. The solos on show are certainly worth staying for.
After learning how to play guitar from his sister, Clara, and being influenced by the three Kings, McCray began playing on the local club circuit in Michigan with his brothers. His first release was his 1991 debut album “Ambition” which was released under Point Blank Records.
McCray went on to tour with Albert Collins, who was also on the label at the time, and his sophomore album was produced by Mike Vernon.
Recommended Larry McCray listening:
Produced by Joe Bonamassa, “Blues Without You” (2022) is McCray’s first album in seven years. McCray describes the album as “reflective of my broad taste in music styles”. The album gives McCray a chance to show he isn’t just a sideman and is in fact as Guitar World describes him: “a stalwart of the blues circuit for over thirty years”.
Known for his work with the band Taste during the late 60s, and later on for his solo work throughout the 70s and 80s, Irish blues-rock guitarist Rory Gallagher’s albums have sold over thirty million copies worldwide.
Gallagher’s playing is best described as dry, precise, and erratic. His playing tends to lean more towards technique than pure feel, though he lacks neither.
Unfortunately due to complications following surgery, Gallagher died prematurely in 1995 at the age of forty-seven.
Recommended Rory Gallagher listening: On The Boards
The second album by Gallagher’s band Taste, the 1970 album was the band’s final studio album, which is likely due to the fact that it brought Gallagher to the forefront, reaching number eighteen on the UK Albums Chart.
The album is most notable for its variety and precision, as well as the hints of jazz in Gallagher’s playing, as well the lack of effects used.
One half of the Black Keys, a band that helped commercialise blues once again after a hiatus from the charts, Auerbach’s skills as a guitarist are best heard on the Black Keys’ earlier works. Most notably, “Thickfreakness” and “Rubber Factory”.
Although Auerbach lacks the technical abilities of his inspirations, he makes up for this with a distinctive tone, coupled with a unique style of phrasing.
His style is rough around the edges, improvisational, and full of dirt, capturing a garage-blues feel. Despite this, Auerbach’s music is full of bluesy spirit.
Recommended Dan Auerbach listening: Thickfreakness
The second studio album by the Black Keys, though the term ‘studio’ is loose. The majority of the album was actually recorded during a 14-hour session in [drummer] Patrick Carney’s basement using an old Tascam. The reason for this was that the duo had in fact spent their advance payment on rent.
The album shares the rough and raw blues-infused garage rock energy that their debut had, but with more refinement and discipline. The album also features a popular cover of “Have Love Will Travel”.
One of Dan Auerbach’s main influences, Burnside was a performing musician for most of his life, despite barely garnering any success or recognition before the 90s. In the late 90s, Burnside recorded and toured with Jon Spencer, which introduced punk and garage rock audiences to his music. T
his is likely how artists like Auerbach came to know Burnside’s music.
Burnside is notable for his fingerstyle, slide playing, and drone style. His vocals notably only grew richer as he grew older.
Recommended R.L. Burnside listening: First Recordings
Made by George Mitchel in 1967, Burnside’s first recordings were made at his own home whilst he was sharecropping. This brings an authentic and soulful feel to the album which is worth listening to. It’s also worth noting that without Mitchell’s visit to Burnside’s house (on advice from Othar Turner), Burnside may have never been discovered.
Thanks for stopping by!
That’s our pick of the 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.
Guitarist Will Arnold-Forster began playing at the age of five and after ten years of classical training, caught the jazz bug when he was 17. He was awarded a Yamaha Scholarship as he graduated from the Jazz course at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, where he continues to perform regularly.