There have been hundreds upon hundreds of entries lately about everyone’s favorite guitarists. This is great. But, taste IS relative and arguing on ad nauseum about whether one player is better than another or whether some one should or shouldn’t have been listed in some inane magazines Top 100 list gets really old fast.
There are guitarists who have exercised an enormous amount of influence on “Modern” music. This is undeniable. While not all of these men are technically the “best” players of the 20th century (none are slouches, by any means), it is only through their creation and innovation that we’ve arrived where we are today.
I consider all of the following to be musical catalysts. I’ve listed them in a loosely chronological order. I’m hoping to show how their influence and cross-influence helped to shape modern music as we know it. Keep in mind that trying to cover approximately 70 years of music with 10 guitarists is no easy task. Bear with me.
Self admittedly, I know there are some omissions here. I hope to cover this idea with somewhat more aplomb and perhaps, a bit less subjectively, at a later date.
Without further ado, here goes nothin’ chumlies:
1. Robert Johnson – Influenced by Willie Brown, Son House, Scrapper Blackwell, Blind Blake, Kokomo Arnold, Lonnie Johnson, et al. Masterly musician that he was, R.J. was able to soak up influences like a sponge and blend them into something undeniably his own. Johnson was a powerful player often sounding like 2 or 3 guitarists at once. His songwriting was exemplary as well. Johnson had the ability to weave his lyrics with strong thematic unity. Most blues lyrics of the day (esp. Delta Blues) were often nothing more than just random verses strung together in a rather surreal fashion having little or nothing to do with the song or title. He was a huge influence on Post WW2 Bluesmen such as BB King, Elmore James, Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson # 2, Robert Jr. Lockwood & more.
The above mentioned artists in turn served as inspiration and mentors to the Stones, Hendrix, Cream, Johnny Winter, Butterfield Blues Band, CCR and more. Robert’s sound lives on in the contemporary blues of artists: Alvin Youngblood Hart, Corey Harris, Keb Mo and R.L. Burnside. to name only a few.
2. Charlie Christian – Picking up inspiration from jazz pioneers like Eddie Lang, Lonnie Johnson and Western Swing pioneers like Leon McAuliffe, Charlie was just as influential to bluesmen in his own right as Robert Johnson was in his. Charlie helped not only to define the modern electric Jazz guitar with his groundbreaking work with the Benny Goodman Sextet, but also helped to inspire a whole school of Jump Blues cats out of the Southwest. T-Bone Walker, Lowell Fulson, Pee Wee Crayton & Goree Carter are all indebted to him. Les Paul, BB King, LC McKinley, and many others also claim his influence.
3. T Bone Walker – Aaron Thibodeaux Walker. His oft imitated, but never quite duplicated style is mix of Texas country blues (he worked as a sideman and a guide for Blind Lemon Jefferson in his youth) and the high flying swing sounds of Charlie Christian, Freddie Green (of Count Basie’s Band), Les Paul and others.
In the late 40′s / early 50′s on instrumentals such as his “Strollin’ W/ Bones” and ” T-Bone Shuffle” he was laying down those chunka, chunka proto Chuck Berry licks that would be called Rock ‘N’ Roll just a few years later.
This seminal guitarist served as major influence to many. Chuck Berry, BB King, Johnny Guitar Watson and Albert Collins numbering amongst his disciples. His importance in the transformation of Big Band Swing to Rhythm & Blues to it’s bastard stepchild Rock “N” Roll has often been sadly overlooked.
4.Les Paul – Influenced by Charlie Christian, Django Rheinhardt, Freddie Green, Leon McAuliffe & Roy Smeck amongst others. I’ve included Lester here as much for his innovative contributions to the recording process, guitar design and his E-lectronic wizardry as much as I have for his cleaner than clean, fast as lightning, ethereal riffing on tunes such as “How High The Moon” and “Lover”. To digress but for a moment, check out Chuck Berry’s take on “How High The Moon” sometime for an excellent example of the Les Paul influence.
From gentlemanly jazzbos to hellbound hillbillies, from zit faced garage punkers
to over the top P-Funkers and all points in between, the Les Paul influence has been there. Just try to imagine Rock N Roll music without his input.
5. B.B King – Influenced by T Bone Walker, Django Reinhardt and Les Paul just as much as he was influenced by the funky sounds of the Mississippi Delta and post WW2 Memphis. B.B.’s inimitable single string leads and unmistakable vibrato has lovingly incorporated into the styles of guitarists from Nigeria to New Orleans. The “West Side” sound of Chi-Town bluesmen Otis Rush, Magic Sam, Buddy Guy, Jimmy Dawkins, etc. was built largely on BB’s incorporation of burning guitar riffs and swinging horns. His style has changed little since his first big hit “3 O Clock Blues” back in the early 1950′s. Like good liquor, he only gets better with age.
From Rock n Roll to Hip Hop his influence has been felt. Keith Richards, Clapton, Chuck Berry, Hendrix, Mike Bloomfield, John Fogerty, Steve Cropper, The Edge & others number amongst his devotees.
6.Muddy Waters – While influenced substantially by Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters always claimed Son House as his main inspiration. Upon his arrival in Chicago in mid 40′s his guitar playing was helped along by the enigmatic & hugely talented Claude “Blue Smitty” Smith. Smith taught Muddy the rudiments of playing guitar in standard tuning as opposed to the open tunings of A, E & G favored by the Delta heavy hitters. Muddys early 1950′s band featuring 2nd guitarist Jimmy Rogers & Little Walter helped to define the twin guitar sound that has become the standard for R n R bands the world over. Not only did he help define the twin axe standard but also established the concept of a band as a cohesive unit, as opposed to the usual star / back-up group. Muddy and his crew played agressively & very, very, very loudly finding 11 on their amps long before Nigel and his droogies did.
“Look like everythaaang gon’ be alright this moaning,” Da dum dum da dum…
7. Bo Diddley – Inspired in part by Muddy Waters as well as the bad assed boogie of John Lee Hooker, Big Bo forged a sound wholly his own. As it’s been said, he is often imitated but never duplicated. While there have been a few cats who’ve come to terms with the Diddley sound, you just can’t improve upon perfection.
I’m migh-tee hard pressed to come up with anyone with such a unique sound and original style. His brand of raw assed, hi-octane, jungle funk has reverberated to the core of music as we know it today.
Next time you’re digging the Velvets doing “Sister Ray” listen closely as there are Bo Diddley riffs percolating just below the surface driving it all along. If I had to name one other cat whose influence has been just as huge, it would be:
8.Chuck Berry – Oh jeez, where to start ??? This mofo is godhead. Chuck Berry is an amalgamation of most everyone on this list up to this point. Like it or don’t, even the staunchest Chuck Berry haters have most likely played one of his riffs (knowingly or not) that was somehow interpolated into something he or she does like to play. Besides bringing electric guitar to the forefront of the burgeoning R’N'R movement, Chuck also gave teens a voice of their own, by addressing the problems, frustrations and anxieties of growing up in 1950′s America. Endearing himself along the way, by doing so in a way that wasn’t condescending. The fact that Chuck was pushing 30, black and an ex-convict made not a bit of difference to his credibility as THE spokesman for teenagers all over the world.
His guitar playing was a solid mix of Western Swing, Boogie Woogie & equal parts of Jazz, Blues and Pop. Not a day goes by that his influence cannot be heard or felt. Whether it’s him or one of the many artists he helped to inspire such as: (you fill in the blanks) his influence is all encompassing.
9. Link Wray – The man who added the “power chord” to the Rock vocabulary. Influenced by blues cats such as Muddy and The Wolf, Chuck Berry and a good sized helpin’ of hillbilly music, just how he came up with demoniacal rockers such as: “Jack The Ripper, Rumble, Ace Of Spades, Slinky and Rawhide” is beyond me but thank god for them all the same. He looked as cool (black leather, boots and and shades) as he sounded. Links music was drenched with feedback, distortion, tremolo and played really f***ing loud. No one would come close to this all-out sonic attack until the Stooges made the scene some 10 years later. His ouevre has become staples of many punk and garage bands and he enjoyed a major revival in the 1990′s (thanks to Billy Miller and Miriam Linna at Norton Records).
Even as he pushes towards octogenerian status, Link can still kick the ass of kids a quarter of his age.
As we approach the end of the trail little buckaroos I can already hear the moans and groans in the distance. Oh fuck me, here it comes he’s going to name Jimi next. Yep, you’re right pardners. If ya don’t dig it write your own post. That said:
10. Jimi Hendrix – Jimi was influenced by almost everyone on the list up to this point. Starting out playing at a young age in assorted garage bands, by the time he was in his early 20′s Jimi had learned just about everything he possibly could on the guitar. He then tossed all this knowledge out the window, let it land where it may and began to mold all these fragments of Soul, R&B, Blues, Folk, Jazz, Surf, Rock and Funk riffs into something undeniably his own. Guitar slingers such as Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page and Mike Bloomfield had already been using feedback, fuzz, sheer volume & eastern drones to great effect but Hendrix took it all to new and otherworldly levels. By his combination of all these sounds with his natural showmanship, pure charisma and raw talent the influence that he exerted upon on music from Funk to Punk and well beyond is unarguable.
Wielding his Fender Strat as a houngan would his Asson, Jimi became a man possessed when he was onstage. Not so much calling up riffs as he was channeling them, Jimi H. created something at once both primordial and futuristic. His influence on guitarists since the release of “Are You Experienced ?” in 1967 is beyond question. The fact that he made his mark in a 3 year time period is even all that much more amazing.
I truly hope that I’ve shown with some degree of clarity and conviction, just how the common threads of influence weave together all of these men. This list is not meant to be any sort of a definitive statement. Nor will it cure pattern baldness, increase the size of your penis, get rid of unsightly blemishes or teach you how to profit from financial recession.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, there are many obvious omissions. Tampa Red, Lonnie Johnson, Eddie Lang, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Paul Burlison and John Lee Hooker all come readily to mind. Hopefully in the near future, I will be able to present an addendum to this list, expanding & expounding upon all these folks & many others. Until then, I’d like to thank you all for reading this. I’d really like to but….