Soulful lyrics, soft twists and turns, and wildly expressive guitar instrumentation are just some of the characteristics that define blues, a genre of music derived from the music of enslaved Africans and Black Americans that has influenced rock, soul, and jazz over the past century. While its mainstream popularity has seen ups and downs, blues music has remained a source of deep stylistic and technical inspiration for musicians ever since its genesis. Within all modern Western popular genres, there are traces of the language of the blues. And this lexicon has been written by a cast of incredible blues guitarists. 

Famous Blues Guitarists

There are a number of core tenants to the blues tradition. Most songs are in a 12-bar format derived from a diatonic scale with added “blues notes” that include the sharp 11th, sharp 9th, and flat 7th scale degrees. 

Broadly, there’s country blues, the Mississippi Delta style that favors fingerpicking and acoustic guitars, and urban blues, born from Chicago and emphasizing electric guitars and bolder sounds. But what truly unifies all subgenres is the presence of blues’ most iconic instrument: the guitar. 

Let’s take a look at some of the most famous blues guitarists to date, each of whom has honed their own unique style and flavor.

1. Muddy Waters

Muddy Waters performing in 1979.
Source: flickr by kevin dooley is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Muddy Waters performing in 1979.

McKinley Morganfield, professionally known as Muddy Waters and often called the “father of modern Chicago blues,” was a critical player in the canon of blues guitarists. Waters was born in Mississippi in 1913 and raised by his grandmother, Della Grant, who gave him the nickname “Muddy” after his childhood pleasure of playing in the muddy waters of Deer Creek near Stovall Plantation, where he grew up. 

At age 17, Waters began playing guitar and harmonica in the style of local blues legends Son House and Robert Johnson. In 1941, he was recorded in Mississippi by Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress and shortly thereafter moved to Chicago, where he began his career as a professional musician. 

In Chicago, he bought his first electric guitar, honing his signature amplified blues sounds. In 1958, Waters toured England, exposing audiences to slide guitar, then a far cry from the common acoustic folk blues styles. This tour influenced countless musicians, including the Rolling Stones, Cream, and early Fleetwood Mac. 

Known as a pioneer of electric blues, a key figure in the British blues revival of the 1960s, and one of the greatest guitarists of all time, Waters died in 1983.

2. Robert Johnson

robert johnson with guitar
Source: wallpaper safari
Robert Johnson posing for a photograph in 1935.

Despite being an elusive figure with fluctuating historical records, Robert Johnson was undoubtedly one of the most influential and robust talents in the history of blues guitar. What’s more, Johnson’s seminal body of recorded work—a striking display of guitar prowess, vocal skills, and songwriting talent—occurred in a one-year period from 1936 to 1937. That short time frame has served as a wellspring of inspiration for musicians across genres.

A father of the Delta blues style, Johnson was born in Mississippi in 1911 and died there only 27 years later. While living, he remained relatively unknown outside of the Mississippi Delta musical circuit, only being recorded once and otherwise performing on street corners and juke joints. 

His approach of using the guitar to create a driving bass beat has been categorically cited as groundbreaking. This technique is referred to as a “boogie bass pattern,” considered an important riff in many blues standards. 

While details about his life and death have been lost to obscurity and are often disputed due to lack of documentation, Johnson’s legacy holds firm across genres, being cited as a key influence for musicians like Chuck Berry, Bob Dylan, Keith Richards, and Robert Plant.

3. Bonnie Raitt

Bonnie Raitt performing in San Francisco in 2013.
Source: flickr
“Bonnie Raitt” by judy h is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Bonnie Raitt performing in San Francisco in 2013.

Beloved by musicians and listeners alike, Bonnie Raitt is considered one of the greatest slide guitarists of all time. As an accompaniment to her powerful voice, her slide guitar skills infuse her flavor of blues rock with a level of dimension rarely achieved by others. Just as Robert Johnson is known as the father of Mississippi Delta and Muddy Waters that of Chicago’s electric blues scene, Raitt’s talent on slide guitar rests firmly as one of the greatest among blues musicians. 

Raitt grew up in a family of performers, her father a touring Broadway actor and her mother a singer and pianist. Her journey as a musician began between the folk scene in Los Angeles and Cambridge, opening for blues artists like Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker. While it took until 1989 for her to achieve commercial success with the release of her 10th album, Nick Of Time, Raitt’s steady success and prowess as a musician has held up on its own. 

Raitt plays a customized Fender Stratocaster that she runs through a compressor, creating a more precise, sustained sound when amplified. She often plays in an open tuning, known as taro-patch tuning, all the while making incredible use of her slide work. 

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4. Gary Clark Jr.

Gary Clark Jr. performing at Chicago’s North Coast Music Festival in 2013. 
Source: flickr
“Gary Clark Jr” by Alize Tran Photo is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Gary Clark Jr. performing at Chicago’s North Coast Music Festival in 2013. 

Born in Austin, Texas, a city that’s borne many greats in the blues tradition, Gary Clark Jr. is a leader in the new guard. And while Clark Jr.’s skill as a musician has landed him among the ranks of famous blues guitarists, his ability as a guitarist ranges across genres, from rock to soul to hip hop.

When he was just 12 years old, Clark Jr. began learning guitar, playing small gigs around Austin throughout his teens. Recognition for his popularity proliferated, and by the age of 17, the mayor of Austin dubbed May 3, 2001 to be Gary Clark Jr. Day. 

Since his youth, Clark Jr. has proved himself as a prolific live performer, acted in several films, and been nominated for six Grammy Awards. His skill as a guitarist has been likened to that of Jimi Hendrix. Clark Jr. famously plays an Epiphone Casino guitar and is known for his extensive use of fuzz pedals to achieve some of his signature sounds.

5. Buddy Guy

Buddy Guy performing in 2008.
Source: flickr
“Buddy Guy” by Jerry Angelica Photography is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Buddy Guy performing in 2008.

Often considered the crucial link between blues and rock, Buddy Guy is an apostle of the Chicago blues style, serving as a major influence for modern legends, from Eric Clapton to John Mayer. Born in Louisiana to parents who were sharecroppers, Guy started playing guitar when he was young, learning on a self-made, two-strip diddley bow, an instrument cited as an initial influence for the blues sound.

Guy’s musicality as a guitarist is marked by his novel versatility, dancing easily between traditional blues rhythms and more unpredictable riffs, avant rock, and free jazz styles. He got his start as a musician playing with bands in Baton Rouge, until he moved to Chicago and became enveloped by the influence of Muddy Waters. Eventually, Guy was signed by Chess Records, who mostly used his talent as a session guitarist because his style didn’t yet fit neatly into any boxes. 

During the blues revival of the 1990s, recognition for Guy’s solo talent experienced a resurgence, and he received mainstream success on his album, Damn Right, I’ve Got the Blues.

6. T-Bone Walker

T-Bone Walker performing at the American Folk Blues Festival in 1972.
Source: flickr
“T-Bone Walker 1503720007” by Heinrich Klaffs is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
T-Bone Walker performing at the American Folk Blues Festival in 1972.

Indisputably, Aaron Thibeaux Walker, known as T-Bone Walker, was among one of the most influential blues guitarists of all time. Born in Texas to musically inclined parents, Walker became known as a chief pioneer in the jump blues and electric blues sounds as one of the first electric guitar soloists. 

In his teens, Walker performed in the Dallas blues scene and eventually settled in California, where he first picked up his instrument of choice: the electric guitar. Throughout the 1940s and ’50s, Walker recorded extensively, developing enduring blues standards. 

Part of Walker’s unique contribution to blues guitar was his single-note line phrasing and sweeping rhythms. Throes of legendary musicians admittedly find inspiration in Walker’s music. Chuck Berry cites Walker as his primary inspiration, B.B. King attributes him as his reason for getting an electric guitar, and notably, Jimi Hendrix’s famed teeth and behind-the-back-styles of playing were imitations of Walker himself. Walker died in California in 1975.

7. Albert Collins

Albert Collins performing at the Long Beach Blues Festival in 1990.
Source: wikimedia
Albert Collins performing at the Long Beach Blues Festival in 1990.

An electric blues guitarist with a distinctive, original style, Albert Collins was known for his creative use of tunings and capo placement and became known as “The Master of the Telecaster” for his close association with the Fender Telecaster guitar. 

Collins was born in Texas in 1932 and grew up taking keyboard lessons. But when he was 18 and started hearing the music of T-Bone Walker and Lightnin’ Hopkins—who happened to be his cousin—he switched to guitar. 

Collins started playing in clubs around Houston and honing his unique technique, which featured the use of a capo and minor tunings, and a percussive, ringing guitar style. Throughout the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, Collins performed live and recorded extensively. He died in 1993 from cancer, but his legacy as an engaging, inventive guitarist lives on among contemporary blues musicians.

8. Memphis Minnie

Memphis Minnie posing for a photo in 1930. 
Source: wikimedia
Memphis Minnie posing for a photo in 1930. 

Often described as one of the most popular blues singers of all time, Memphis Minnie—a stage name she took on—was a guitar force. Born Lizzie Douglas in Mississippi in 1897, Minnie first learned to play the banjo at age 10 and a year later switched to guitar. At age 13, she ran away from home to Memphis, Tennessee, and started playing music on the corners of Beale Street, the site of a vibrant blues scene. 

Minnie’s prolific career took her all over the country, from New York to Chicago, and between multiple labels. Notably, Minnie was among the few female blues singers to write her own songs. Over three decades, Minnie recorded multiple hits that are now well-known blues standards, including “Bumble Bee” and “Nothing But Rambling.” 

Polished and intrepid in her playing and public personality, she died in 1973. Minnie’s body of work in a genre dominated by men has served as a major source of inspiration for blues guitarists who have succeeded her.

9. Deborah Coleman

Deborah Coleman performing in 2007.
Source: wikimedia
“Deborah Coleman” by madamjujujive is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Deborah Coleman performing in 2007.

A true blues virtuoso, Deborah Coleman’s career as a guitarist was short but notable as she died in 2018 at the age of 61. Born in Virginia to a military family with a taste for music, Coleman moved around a lot. To keep up with her father who played piano, brothers who played guitar, and sister who played guitar and keyboard, Coleman picked up the guitar and bass at age eight. By age 15, she was playing bass in bands professionally but switched to the guitar after hearing Jimi Hendrix. 

After playing in a number of bands and trios, Coleman found her big break in 1993 when she won first place at the Charleston Blues Festival National Talent Search, shortly thereafter signing with New Moon Records. Her 2001 album, Livin’ On Love, solidified her spot as a top-tier blues guitarist. Her style had a distinct edge, infusing her love for rock and roll with her blues intuition. 

Endless Inspiration

Whether you’re expanding on your skills as a musician or just getting started, harkening back to the legends who paved the way can serve as a wellspring of inspiration on your journey. 

It’s difficult to imagine the path of electric guitar music without Muddy Waters or T-Bone Walker, slide guitar without Bonnie Raitt, or any groundbreaking blues standards without Robert Johnson and Memphis Minnie. Learning the techniques of the masters can help you tap into new realms of your own skill set that you may never have imagined possible. 

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