The 25 best blues guitarists of all time

27th Jul 2010 | 09:20

The 25 best blues guitarists of all time
Junior Kimbrough

From Delta trailblazers to electric masters, this is a countdown of the 25 best blues guitarists of all time as chosen by you. So sit back, grab your diddley bow and prepare to be humbled. Kicking off - somewhat justly - in the deep south…

Mississippi singer/guitarist Junior Kimbrough sadly passed away in 1998, but his mid-tempo style based on drones and syncopated counterpoints has been hugely influential, not least with The Black Keys.

In 2005, the Ohio blues-rock duo recorded a whole album of Kimbrough songs in tribute, (hear Keep Your Hands Off Her here), its title Chulahoma a reference to the location of Junior's Place, the Mississippi juke joint that Kimbrough owned and operated.

Listen: Junior Kimbrough - Crawling King Snake (live in 1994)

Your votes:

“Junior Kimbrough.” (Thanks, antipode)

Next: Charley Patton

The 25 best blues guitarists of all time
Charley Patton

Charley, or Charlie Patton died in 1934 aged just 42 in his home state of Mississippi, but his importance to the evolution of Delta blues, and thus 20th Century popular music as a whole, is incalculable.

The most influential blues musician in history? Almost certainly. Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker and Robert Johnson were just a few that he inspired.

Decades before rock ‘n’ roll, Patton would regularly play the guitar behind his head or back during raucous live performances.

Listen: Charley Patton - Rattlesnake Blues

Your votes:

“Robert Johnson was copying too - he directly copied Skip James, Son House, Blind Boy Fuller, Charley Patton - what's original is how he packaged the songs not what he actually played, most of which was other people's music. If you take into account the ‘of all time’ bit of the question, then it has to be Charley Patton for me. He's the motherlode from which everything subsequent springs.” (Thanks, Lewy)

Next: Hubert Sumlin

The 25 best blues guitarists of all time
Hubert Sumlin

A former sideman for Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters, the Mississippi-born and Arkansas-raised Hubert Sumlin would get many an aficionado's nomination for second guitar in an all-star fantasy blues band.

For evidence of his all-round brilliance, check out this clip in which Sumlin, ’55 Goldtop in hand, teaches you how to play the classic Howlin’ Wolf song Smokestack Lightning.

Listen: Howlin' Wolf - Little Red Rooster

Your votes:

“Hubert Sumlin FTW.” (Thanks, spoonking)

Next: Clarence 'Gatemouth' Brown

The 25 best blues guitarists of all time
Clarence 'Gatemouth' Brown

Born in Louisiana but raised in Texas, Gatemouth's professional musical career began as a drummer and he could play a mean violin, but it was the multi-instrumentalist's guitar playing that brought him fame.

Unhappy at being pigeonholed as 'just' a bluesman, Gatemouth absorbed a wide array of influences, stating simply, "I play American and world music, Texas-style."

Listen: Clarence 'Gatemouth' Brown - Pressure Cooker (live)

Your votes:

"Clarence Brown = legend." (Thanks, Owen)

Next: Blind Lemon Jefferson

The 25 best blues guitarists of all time
Blind Lemon Jefferson

Regarded by many as the father of Texas blues, much about Jefferson's life, including his date of birth, cause of death and even the degree of his blindness, is disputed.

However, between 1926 and his death in 1929, Jefferson definitely recorded around 100 tracks for Paramount Records, a few of which were issued under the pseudonym Deacon L J Bates. Notable cover versions of Jefferson's songs include The Beatles' take on Matchbox Blues (via Carl Perkins), and Bob Dylan's See That My Grave Is Kept Clean, which featured on his 1962 debut album.

Listen: Blind Lemon Jefferson - Black Snake Moan

Your votes:

"...and Blind Lemon Jefferson is another." (Thanks, Owen)

Next: Huddie 'Lead Belly' Ledbetter

The 25 best blues guitarists of all time
Huddie 'Lead Belly' Ledbetter

The King Of The 12-string's music, much of which he adapted from traditional folk songs, has provided a rich songbook for innumerable artists since his death in 1949.

Even if you don't think you know Lead Belly's songs, you almost certainly know The House Of The Rising Sun, Midnight Special, Goodnight Irene, Where Did You Sleep Last Night and Black Betty, albeit through intereprations by other musicians.

Much more than just a blues guitarist, Lead Belly is a monolith in the history of American popular music.

Listen: Lead Belly - Take This Hammer

Your votes:

"Good 'ole Lead Belly is a must listen for classic blues." (Thanks, Mick)

Next: Lightnin' Hopkins

The 25 best blues guitarists of all time
Lightnin' Hopkins

Another giant of Texas blues, Sam 'Lightnin'' Hopkins cut his teeth accompanying Blind Lemon Jefferson at informal church gatherings.

A young Jimi Hendrix would develop an interest in the blues through listening to Lightning Hopkins with his father, while Hopkins' distinctive fingerstyle acoustic playing incorporated elements of lead work that foreshadowed the blazing electric blues of the mid-to-late 1960s. Hopkins was also one hell of a storyteller in the talking blues tradition.

Listen: Lightnin' Hopkins - Gin Bottle Blues

Your votes:

"Lightnin' Hopkins epitomises the blues genre - he was so smooth." (Thanks, Rob)

Next: Elmore James

The 25 best blues guitarists of all time
Elmore James

Moonshine, hunting with guns and dogs and driving fast were among the passions of a man whose slide playing is one of the most recognisable sounds in blues music.

Heavily influenced by Robert Johnson, with whom he may have played, in 1951 James took Johnson's version of I Believe I'll Dust My Broom, added volume and searing, violent slide playing and made it his calling card. Almost every electric slide player since acknowledges his influence.

Listen: Elmore James - Dust My Broom

Your votes:

"Last but not least, Elmore James was another blues master." (Thanks, Owen)

Next: Albert Collins

The 25 best blues guitarists of all time
Albert Collins

The Ice Man from Texas is one of the undisputed legends of the Telecaster. Informed by Texas, Chicago and Mississippi blues styles, Collins influenced the likes of Stevie Ray Vaughan and Gary Moore and after toiling in relative obscurity for many years, found fame, and Grammy Awards, in the 1980s.

Collins' stinging fingerstyle and capo'd open F-minor tuning is just part of the story; there's real art in the breathing spaces between those licks.

Listen: Albert Collins - If Trouble Was Money (live)

Your votes:

"Albert Collins really deserves a mention in your list - outstanding player." (Thanks, Graham)

Next: T-Bone Walker

The 25 best blues guitarists of all time
T-Bone Walker

Another protégé of Blind Lemon Jefferson, the young Aaron Thibeaux Walker would act as Jefferson's guide, being taught the basics of blues guitar in return for his services.

One of the first blues musicians to pick up an electric guitar, Walker was a huge influence on the likes of BB King, Chuck Berry and Jimi Hendrix, the latter imitating Walker's habit of playing the guitar with his teeth onstage.

Listen: T-Bone Walker - Call It Stormy Monday (live)

Your votes:

“T Bone Walker is the father of modern electric blues guitar and pretty much everything else stems from him directly (Albert King, BB King, Freddie King, Steve Miller and many more quote him as a major and direct influence) or indirectly (everyone influenced by the Kings and those who followed those - so many, many electric blues guitarist since the mid ‘60's).” (Thanks, erictheweary)

Next: Duane Allman

The 25 best blues guitarists of all time
Duane Allman

Killed in a motorcycle accident in 1971 aged just 24, Duane Allman's wonderful slide playing in the outro of the Derek And The Dominos classic Layla is his best-known work, but that's just a small part of the story.

Allman's performance on Wilson Pickett's Hey Jude not only made Eric Clapton's ears prick up, but also got him the gig as full-time sessioneer at Muscle Shoals and saw him play on songs by the likes of Aretha Franklin, Otis Rush, Percy Sledge and many more. However, his Les Paul playing alongside Dickey Betts in The Allman Brothers Band cemented his place as an American guitar hero.

Listen: The Allman Brothers Band - In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed

Your votes:

“The smoothest, slickest slide guitarist that ever graced a stage, Duane Allman.” (Thanks, eventhelosers)

Next: Freddie King

The 25 best blues guitarists of all time
Freddie King

Freddie is probably the most underrated of the Three Kings of blues guitar alongside BB and Albert. The album cover above is said to have inspired Eric Clapton to buy a Les Paul, and he then went on to cover King's Hideaway on the seminal Bluesbreaker's 'Beano' album.

Another Bluesbreaker, Peter Green, was a King fan, covering The Stumble in '67. Although his influence on the Brit blues boom of the 1960s is unquestionable, it's easy to overlook just how great, melodic and innovative a lead player King was himself.

Listen: Freddie King - The Stumble

Your votes:

“For my listening pleasure I'm rarely a long way from some Freddie King - the invention and energy in every phrase has seldom been equalled.” (Thanks, erictheweary)

“Freddie King, Mississippi Fred McDowell... Robert Johnson, the list goes on for days!” (From Kasey via Facebook, thanks)

Next: Johnny Winter

The 25 best blues guitarists of all time
Johnny Winter

Albino blues guitarist Johnny Winter got his big break in December 1968 when Michael Bloomfield invited him to get up and jam at the Fillmore East in New York. Within a few days, Columbia Records representatives who witnessed his performance of BB King's It's My Own Fault signed him for $600,000 - then the biggest advance in the history of the music business.

1977 saw him fulfil a childhood ambition and collaborate with Muddy Waters on the Hard Again LP, which Winter produced and performed. The partnership would yield two more studio long players and a pair of Grammy Awards.

Listen: Johnny Winter - Dallas

Your votes:

“Johnny Winter. One of the unsung heroes, I don’t know why he is underrated, but one of the best blues sliders.” (Thanks, Highwaystar)

Next: Son House

The 25 best blues guitarists of all time
Son House

Son House is one of the true originators, a man whose music sounds older than time, resonating with an intensity rarely matched in the popular music canon.

An influence on Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson, Son House was rediscovered in the 1960s after nearly two decades of retirement, and it's the recordings from this period that represent the most satisfying listening experience for any student of the blues, whether a cappella, or with that ancient voice underpinned by House's signature slide playing. The greatest Delta bluesman of them all?

Listen: Son House - Death Letter Blues (live 1970)

Your votes:

"Let's hear it for Son House! What a legend he was." (Thanks, Chris)

Next: Albert King

The 25 best blues guitarists of all time
Albert King

The Velvet Bulldozer stood well over six feet - either 6'4" or 6'7" depending on who you believe - and will always be associated with Lucy, the Gibson Flying V that he played left-handed.

A huge influence on Rolling Stone Mick Taylor, Eric Clapton, Joe Walsh, Michael Bloomfield and Derek Trucks, echoes of King's less-is-more phrasinf and expressive bends can be heard in much modern electric blues guitar.

Listen: Albert King - Born Under A Bad Sign (live 1981)

Your votes:

"Anyone for Albert King? I'd say he definitely deserves a place." (Thanks, Mark)

"Albert King." (Thanks, Pete)

Next: John Lee Hooker

The 25 best blues guitarists of all time
John Lee Hooker

The enduring image of John Lee Hooker's rhythmic Delta boogie is of the man sat alone, stomping his foot to create a beat and improvising rhythmic guitar accents that evoke the sound of a whole band arrangement. And then there's that outrageous voice...

Hooker's recording career began in 1948 when Modern Records released Boogie Chillen' as a single. There are few better debut singles in the history of recorded music, and without it, it's hard to imagine the likes of Led Zeppelin, Canned Heat or ZZ Top sounding anywhere near as rump-shaking.

Listen: John Lee Hooker - Boogie Chillen'

Your votes:

“Now John Lee Hooker was a great blues man - so much of his writing and playing is full of voodoo and such an influence on players like Jimi Hendrix. Hear My Train A Comin’ is pure John Lee Hooker. Robben Ford is also an awesome player and exponent of the blues as is Gary Moore.” (Thanks, bbcoz)

Next: Muddy Waters

The 25 best blues guitarists of all time
Muddy Waters

Influenced by Mississippi Delta pioneers Son House and Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters would go on to be described as The Father Of Chicago Blues, the city to which he first moved in 1940, while still in his mid-twenties.

In 1960, his amazing performance at the Newport Jazz Festival turned on whole new generation to his brand of electrified blues and his influence can be felt from The Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix right through to contemporary hip-hop. A true legend.

Listen: Muddy Waters - Mannish Boy (live 1971)

Your votes:

“Muddy, Muddy, Muddy, Muddy, Muddy, Muddy, Muddy, Muddy, Muddy, Muddy, Muddy, Muddy, Muddy, Muddy, Muddy, Muddy, Muddy, Muddy, Muddy, Muddy, Muddy, Muddy, Muddy, Muddy. That's a vote for Muddy Waters, not a description of my dog.” (Thanks, thebeagle)

“Muddy Waters.” (Thanks, Gallagher)

“The alternative family tree goes back to Muddy Waters, whose roots where in the Delta style and used more slide and alternate tuning techniques. So, for some players they could trace their style back to him.” (Thanks, erictheweary)

“Peter Green, BB King, Muddy Waters .. the list is endless.” (Thanks, Fretwired)

Next: Buddy Guy

The 25 best blues guitarists of all time
Buddy Guy

Buddy Guy grew up playing a diddley bow in Lettsworth, Louisiana, but his rise to fame after moving to Chicago in 1957 was curtailed by a conservative Chess Records who preferred to use him to back the likes of Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and Sonny Boy Williamson, rather than attempt to capture the flamboyance of his live performances.

Luckily he found appreciation amongst the British blues guitarists of the 1960s and his loud, distorted style was key to modernising electric blues. In the words of Eric Clapton: "Buddy Guy was to me what Elvis was for others." Praise indeed.

Listen: Buddy Guy - First Time I Met The Blues (live)

Your votes:

“…followed closely by Buddy Guy and BB King.” (Thanks, samgoldshark)

“Buddy Guy ;).” (Thanks, Rob1466)

“Man, that's a hard question. Because he is a legend and still blowing people's minds touring and playing great music at his age I say Buddy Guy.” (Thanks, guitarnoize)

Next: Peter Green

The 25 best blues guitarists of all time
Peter Green

For some the greatest British blues guitarist of them all, Peter Green's playing first as Eric Clapton's replacement in John Mayall's Bluesbreakers and then in Fleetwood Mac is at times heart-stoppingly beautiful.

Few guitarists can claim to have made an electric guitar sound so sweet, so soulful or so lyrical.

Listen: Fleetwood Mac - Need Your Love So Bad

Your votes:

“Peter Green gets my vote; stunning player when he was at his peak and before he became unwell. BB King said he was the best he had ever heard. Nuff said.” (Thanks, AndrewG)

“Peter Green. Tone, phrasing, passion, melody, some technical abilities (especially amongst contemporaries in the ‘60s) and he was a white blues musician that could sing (no offence Eric). Also made it into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame.” (Thanks, AlexHunter)

“Peter Green. Absolutely amazing and influenced a lot of players.” (Thanks, Lesblues)

“Peter Green, BB King, Muddy Waters .. the list is endless.” (Thanks, Fretwired)

“Despite being a Clapton fan since 1966 (Cream concert that never was in Hanley) - I recently heard Peter Green live and he has to have the vote. During a meander through the back catalogue he did a 90 second solo of Albatross which suddenly wasn't a cheesy pop instrumental but the most soul-tugging blues. The view into the void, the dislocation, the loneliness was tangible. The audience didn't clap itself for recognising it but held breath in awe for full minute and a half.” (Thanks, MoystenGorjus)

“UK - Peter Green. Now there's a guitar player who knows when to shut up. US - erm, erm... SRV?” (Thanks, SimesF)

“There will never be a 'best' Delta bluesman - the list is too extensive and a lot of people wont even have heard of a lot of them. Of the 'white' blues guys Peter Green is head and shoulders above everyone else.” (Thanks, bigdawg)

“Peter Green for me all day!” (From Sean via Facebook, thanks)

“Peter Green!” (From Peter via Facebook, thanks)

Next: Rory Gallagher

The 25 best blues guitarists of all time
Rory Gallagher

Irishman Rory Gallagher's fiery blues was perhaps underappreciated in his lifetime, but as the years go by, the sound of that battered 1961 Stratocaster continues to resonate.

When he died in 1995, Eric Clapton described Gallagher as "the man who got me back into the blues", and whether alone or part of power trio Taste, Ireland's first guitar hero was guaranteed to play with passion and vitality. Sadly missed.

Listen: Rory Gallagher - A Million Miles Away (live)

Your votes:

“Rory Gallagher.” (Thanks, Gallagher)

“Rory Gallagher - take a look at his Live In The Cork Opera House DVD. Could that guy play guitar? Could he what?” (Thanks, Rocker)

Next: Robert Johnson

The 25 best blues guitarists of all time
Robert Johnson

The Robert Johnson legend is one of the most evocative in the history of 20th Century music. Dead by poisoning in 1938 aged 27, the shadowy figure claimed to have sold his soul to the devil at a Mississippi crossroads in exchange for otherworldly musical abilities will forever live on through the handful of recordings he made and his staggering influence on Western popular music.

Although Johnson is occasionally dismissed as unremarkable alongside Delta blues contemporaries Charley Patton and Son House, and there has been recent speculation regarding whether the King Of The Delta Blues Singers albums are even at the right pitch and speed, his impact on bluesmen and rock 'n' rollers that followed on both sides of the Atlantic is impossibe to deny.

Listen: Robert Johnson - Cross Road Blues

Your votes:

“Robert Johnson.” (Thanks, Gallagher)

“Robert Johnson. Everything else is just copying.” (Thanks, Guitarmonkey)

“Robert Johnson: Imagine how many songs wouldn’t exist without his influence... artists like Clapton, Keith Richards and Jack White were highly influenced by this Delta blues master.” (Thanks, pleskoch)

“Delta Blues - Robert Johnson. Electric Blues - Eric Clapton” (Thanks, Pendragon)

“Robert Johnson - he influenced everybody else and has never been bettered.” (Thanks, dafuzz)

“Robert Johnson!” (From Adam via Facebook, thanks)

“Robert Johnson is still the king.” (From Ed via Facebook, thanks)

“Freddie King, Mississippi Fred McDowell... Robert Johnson, the list goes on for days!” (From Kasey via Facebook, thanks)

“BB King - but hey Robert Johnson invented it.” (From Jan via Facebook, thanks)

Next: Eric Clapton

The 25 best blues guitarists of all time
Eric Clapton

The Yardbirds, John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers, Cream, The Dirty Mac, Blind Faith, Derek And The Dominos... Throughout his long and varied career, the blues has always been at the heart of Eric Clapton's music.

Though famously labelled 'God' by an Islington graffitti artist in 1967, Clapton cites Robert Johnson's influence as paramount, describing him as "the most important blues musician who ever lived". Clapton's nods to Johnson have been numerous over the years, from reworking Cross Road Blues in Cream to recording a whole album of covers in 2004, including Love In Vain.

In terms of his own impact on electric blues, for many, Clapton's playing and guitar sound on 1966's 'Beano' album with the Bluesbreakers is unsurpassed. Learn how to get close to some of his legendary tones in our video tutorial here.

Listen: Eric Clapton - Cocaine (live)

Your votes:

“Eric Clapton: Like the subway graffiti says, "Clapton Is God". I mean he mastered electric blues, he nails acoustic guitar blues, slide... he deserves that respect.” (Thanks, pleskoch)

“Eric von Clapton followed closely by Buddy Guy and BB King.” (Thanks, samgoldshark)

“Delta Blues - Robert Johnson. Electric Blues - Eric Clapton” (Thanks, Pendragon)

Next: BB King

The 25 best blues guitarists of all time
BB King

BB King will always be one of the first names that rolls off the tongue when one is asked to name great electric blues players. Inspired to get an electric guitar by T-Bone Walker, the biggest of the three Kings of the blues guitar has an unmistakeably smooth, lyrical style in sharp contrast to the raw sound of many of his Mississippi contemporaries.

After an estimated 15,000+ performances across six decades, BB King is still performing live. A true inspiration.

Listen: BB King - The Thrill Is Gone (live 1993)

Your votes:

“BB King. Why? I need to tell you WHY? Pah!” (Thanks, BlindLemonAde)

“BB King.” (Thanks, Gallagher)

“Peter Green, BB King, Muddy Waters .. the list is endless.” (Thanks, Fretwired)

“BB King: don’t really have to say anything... like Bonamassa said, the guy is a freaking blues monument.” (Thanks, pleskoch)

“I guess if I have to really get down to it I'd have to say the greatest blues guitarist is BB King.” (Thanks, bbcoz)

“…followed closely by Buddy Guy and BB King.” (Thanks, samgoldshark)

“Difficult to choose, but I'm gonna have to go with BB King. If you only ever buy one blues album, make it Live In Cook County Jail.” (From Adam via Facebook, thanks)

“BB King :).” (From Angel via Facebook, thanks)

“BB King - but hey Robert Johnson invented it.” (From Jan via Facebook, thanks)

Next: Jimi Hendrix

The 25 best blues guitarists of all time
Jimi Hendrix

What can you say about the man that many regard as the greatest guitarist who ever lived? Although not strictly blues given his voyages into heavy rock and psychedelia, make no mistake, Jimi played some of the finest and most incendiary blues guitar ever to grace a concert hall or be cut into a slice of vinyl.

Of course, the insanely gifted southpaw could get a killer sound out of a 12-string acoustic too. One of popular music's handful of true genuises.

Listen: The Jimi Hendrix Experience - Red House

Your votes:

“Hendrix for making the blues into raw sex (not to mention the pyromaniac abuse of Stratocasters).” (Thanks, miketrigs93)

“Jimi Hendrix (if he counts).” (Thanks, Gallagher, yes he does)

“Has to be Hendrix. He took the blues and invented fusion, he pioneered the use of major and minor scales in one solo, something that SRV expanded upon. But the genesis of fusion, modern blues, and most hard rock all comes from Hendrix playing his version of the blues.” (Thanks, Shish)

“Jimi Hendrix is the best blues guitar player of all time!” (From Sondre via Facebook, thanks)

Next: Stevie Ray Vaughan

The 25 best blues guitarists of all time
Stevie Ray Vaughan

Ladies and gentlemen, we have a winner. Ask MusicRadar's battle royal of the blues guitar was hard-fought, but in the end you handed the accolade of 'best blues guitarist of all time' to the precociously talented Texan with curious dress sense who could play a Stratocaster like nobody before or since.

The late, great Stevie Ray Vaughan's style was informed by Hendrix, Otis Rush, Lonnie Mack, Buddy Guy, Albert King and many more, but his technique and sound have become the holy grail for hundreds of thousands of guitarists in the years since his passing. We dare say that much of the man's sound resided in his own hands, but this video tutorial at least gives you a fighting chance of getting in the right ballpark.

Now, all that remains is to sit back and listen to the guitarist that you've voted as the greatest blues player of all time...

Listen: Stevie Ray Vaughan - Lenny (live at El Mocambo)

Your votes:

“Stevie Ray Vaughan.” (Thanks, Gallagher)

“SRV: Just because every single time I hear him play, I just want to pick up my guitar and play some great blues. He plays with such a feel he deserves to be in every ‘best blues player’ list.” (Thanks, pleskoch)

“SRV.” (Thanks, guitargeek62)

“SRV is the king.” (Thanks, vivekayer)

“UK - Peter Green. Now there's a guitar player who knows when to shut up. US - erm, erm... SRV?” (Thanks, SimesF)

“Greatest blues guitarist of all time: SRV!” (From Alejandro via Facebook, thanks)

“No such thing, rankings are irrelevant. My favourite of all time is still SRV, but that's because I'm from Texas and he was just hitting it big when I was first getting into the blues.” (From Darren via Facebook, thanks)

“SRV or BB.” (From Lenny via Facebook, thanks)

“SRV has to be.” (From Stuart via Facebook, thanks)

“Yngwie Malmsteen... lol, nah, Stevie Ray definitely.” (From David via Facebook, thanks)

“SRV.” (From Andre, Daniel and Francisco via Facebook, thanks)


Liked this? Now read: A-Z of the blues

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