BluesGuitarPlayers Have Shaped The World's Culture

A Look At Some Of The World's Most Influential Fingerstyle BluesGuitarPlayers.

Fingerpicking BluesGuitarPlayers have played a large part in shaping American Music.

Blues guitar music has given birth to Rhythm and Blues, Jazz, and Rock and Roll. These musics have found their way into the native music of cultures around the world.

There have been hundreds of great blues guitarists since blues became a recognized style of music. There are too many, in fact, to be covered on a single web page.

Instead, I'd like to look at the historical fingerstyle players who have, I feel, been most influential to current guitarists. In addition, I'd like to introduce you, (or reacquaint you) with some great modern day players.

For starters, let's take a look at where the blues began.

It's thought that what is now known as the Blues came from several different sources. These sources are the spirituals, work songs and field hollers of African-Americans from the American South.

We guitarists think of blues as guitar oriented music but, in reality, it's a vocal based musical style. Words put to music to express the everyday situations of people's lives.

The earliest that a guitar even appeared on a blues recording was October 1923. The guitarist was Sylvester Weaver of Guitar Rag fame. He was accompanying vocalist Sara Martin.

The first recording by someone playing guitar and singing is thought to be Blind Lemon Jefferson in March of 1926.

Jefferson is a very important early guitarist. Jefferson was one of the first to play and sing at the same time on record. Because of this, he was a model that others followed.

Some of Blind Lemon Jefferson's most well known songs are Black Snake Moan, See That My Grave Is Kept Clean, and Matchbox Blues.

Because Jefferson was blind, he would sometimes use a "lead boy". The lead boy was someone who would help guide the blind person. Jefferson's lead boys included two men who became well known bluesmen in their own right: Lightning Hopkins and T-Bone Walker. Hopkins and Walker went on to become widely recorded and very influential BluesGuitarPlayers.

Another prominent figure in the list of BluesGuitarPlayers is Robert Johnson.

Despite the popularity that Robert Johnson has in modern times, he wasn't very well known in his own lifetime. He only released six recordings while he was alive.

Many people think that the reason that he's so well known today is due to his discovery by white British blues players in the 1960's. This is discussed in Elijah Wald's book on Johnson, Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues.

Johnson's tunes like Hellhound On My Trail and Come On In My Kitchen are classics that are still played today.

The bottom line on Johnson, regardless of the reason that he was first brought to light, is that his music strikes an emotional note with people.

You can find a lesson on his song Drunken Hearted Man here.

A player who was very popular in his lifetime was Tampa Red. Tampa Red (real name Hudson Whittaker) was a very sophisticated slide guitar player and vocalist.

Believed to be born in Georgia and raised in Florida, he found success as a musician in Chicago during the 1920's.

He had a very urbane approach to the blues, especially compared to the rawer sound of the Delta bluesmen like Son House and Bukka White. One factor in his smooth sound may have been the instrument that he's known for.

While many bluesmen played less expensive single cone resonator guitars, Whittaker chose to play a tricone.

This instrument has a sweeter, smoother sound than a single con(for a breakdown on types of resonator guitars, check out Bob Brozman's excellent book The History and Artistry of National Resonator Instruments).

Tampa Red wasn't the only one of the BluesGuitarPlayers playing in a more complex, uptown manner.

Players like Blind Blake, Bo Carter, Big Bill Broonzy and Reverend Gary Davis all played very sophisticated solo fingerstyle guitar.

These players' recordings were all specifically aimed toward the black population. With a little digging, though, it's easy to see that white audiences listened to the music as well. Some of the most popular white artists' recordings featured black musicians.

An example of this is white politician and country singer Jimmie Davis' use of black bluesman Oscar "Buddy" Woods on several recordings. Davis is best known for his recording of You Are My Sunshine.


The invention of the guitar pickup in the early 1930s had a huge impact on everybody's playing. Some BluesGuitarPlayers were able to incorporate it into their playing, others had to change their playing style. For the most part, music became louder and playing styles changed.

Players who couldn't, or wouldn't, adapt to the newer musical styles disappeared from the public's view. Country blues gave way to a harder hitting, more urban sound. Players like T-Bone Walker and jazzer Charlie Christian developed styles that highlighted the electric guitar's ability to play horn lines.

These players typically played with a flatpick. The spotlight had seemingly been turned off on the acoustic fingerstyle BluesGuitarPlayers of the early part of the 20th Century.

The 1950's and '60's saw the rediscovery of some of the great fingerstyle BluesGuitarPlayers of the early 20th Century. One of these players was Mississippi John Hurt.

Hurt first recorded in 1928 but this recording wasn't a commercial success. He was re-discovered in 1963 by a young blues music fan, Tom Hoshkins. Hoshkins convinced Hurt to move to Washington, D.C. Hurt was recorded by the Library of Congress the following year. The Dc Blues: Library of Congress Recordings brought wider recognition to Hurt.

Hurt ended up making several more recordings before his death in 1966. His deep, warm voice and deceptively easy sounding guitar playing were easy for young audiences to get. He seemed to be a kindly uncle or grandfather. The fact that he didn't have a rough, hard vocal style and pound on his guitar made him the perfect blues ambassador for the Kingston Trio/ Peter, Paul and Mary crowd.

Another of the BluesGuitarPlayers who strongly influenced young white suburban kids was Elizabeth Cotton. Ms. Cotton's most well known song, Freight Train, has been the starting point for many fingerpickers since it was recorded in the 1960's.

Libba, as she was commonly known, began playing her brother's banjo when she was eight years old. She picked up the guitar shortly after that and began to write her own songs, one of which was Freight Train. A southpaw, she simply flipped over a right handed guitar. This caused her to play the bass strings with her fingers and the melody with her thumb.

She married at a very young age and quit playing the guitar. Work, church activities and raising a family didn't leave any extra time for guitar playing. She didn't begin playing again until she was in her 60's. At that time she worked as a domestic in the Seeger family's home in Washington, D.C.

One of the Seeger's children, Mike, began to record Cotton as she re-learned to play the guitar. This led to her beginning to share billings with Mike at his shows. Elizabeth Cotton went on to have a 20+ year music career. She recorded through her 80's and passed away at the age of 92.

Ms. Cotton had a folksy quality to her music that perfectly fit into the folk music scene of the 1960's. There was a sweetness to her music that made it accessible to young audiences. In a sense, she is the grandmother of all blues influenced fingerpickers.

Reverend Gary Davis is perhaps THE most influential of the re-discovered BluesGuitarPlayers of the 1960s. This is partly because of the work of some his students.

Putting Gary Davis in the same category as other BluesGuitarPlayers is somewhat misleading. His repertoire covered a wide range of music, all delivered in a very individual style. Born in 1896, he came to age in the Jazz Age of the 1920s and the music of the era certainly influenced him.

Davis showed an early attraction to, and ability on, the guitar. In interviews he's said that he taught himself to play the guitar. He was influenced, to a degree, by the playing of Willie Walker.

Walker lived in Greenville, South Carolina, where Davis moved as a young man. Walker and Davis played together in a string band in the Greenville area.

Ernie Hawkins, long time Davis student and a master of the Davis style, states that some of Davis' signature instrumentals were learned from Walker.

In the 1940s Gary Davis moved north to New York. For many years after his move North, Davis mainly played on the street and in church.

His repertoire at this time was primarily gospel. Reverend Davis was an ordained Baptist minister. His singing style and song lyrics often sounded like a sermon with musical accompaniment!

Young Bloods

In the early 1960s Davis was "re-discovered". He was very popular during the folk/blues revival that was occurring at the time. Quite a few young people started making the trek to his Harlem home for one of his $5 guitar lessons.

Among these young students were Roy Book Binder, Ernie Hawkins, Woody Mann and Stefan Grossman. All of these men have become professional musicians and guitar educators.

Ernie Hawkins and Stefan Grossman have been especially influential as educators. Thousands of guitarists have benefited from the instructional methods that they have produced.

Another of the current generation of BluesGuitarPlayers is Scott Ainslie. Ainslie is a powerful singer and guitarist who has been heavily influenced by the Delta Blues. He is a noted authority on Robert Johnson and has written the instructional method on the Johnson guitar style Scott Ainslie: Robert Johnson - Guitar Signature Tricks.

Other prominent contemporary blues influenced guitarists include Bob Brozman, Mike Dowling, Doug McLeod, and Frank Schaap. The current crop of acoustic fingerstyle BluesGuitarPlayers is helping to expand the genre and guarantee that this dynamic style of playing will be with us into the future.

A great resource for those wishing to dig deeper into the blues is the website Weenie Campbell.

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