Have you ever wondered about where today’s guitarists have gotten much of their influence? Typically, each decade’s music becomes a part of the common nomenclature of the current decade.
While much music is derivative, black musicians have played an incredibly important role in the pioneering of music genres. The following guitarists are some of the most influential to have ever played the instrument.
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Over the decades, gallons of ink have been used in writing about Jimi Hendrix and his guitar prowess. He was one of the first black guitarists to have a massive appeal, influencing nearly every guitarist since.
His embodiment of pure soul was a sort of spiritual musicianship that wasn’t before seen in rock music. Chances are, no matter where you are on your guitar journey, you’ll have spent some time learning some Hendrix licks.
Hendrix really did revolutionize how people would be playing guitar forever. His influence will likely always be a presence amongst guitarists for generations to come.
The Faustian myth of somebody selling their soul to the devil for inhuman skills is rooted deep in musical culture. Robert Johnson, the blues guitarist, is perhaps the most famous and modern instance of this myth.
Whether or not he actually signed that fateful contract will always remain in debate. However, what is undebatable is the influence his recordings have had on guitarists of all generations.
Many of today’s revered guitarists found a mystique in Johnson’s songwriting and guitar skills. Despite having a fairly murky past, Johnson’s legend lives on today and is common lore in pop culture.
If you’ve ever listened to the classic blues stylings of Howlin’ Wolf, you’ve heard Hubert Sumlin play guitar. His guitar leads have become cemented as the sound of the Chicago blues music of the 1950s.
Many people consider Howlin’ Wolf’s self-titled album to be one of the best blues albums ever recorded. Most people know this album as the one with a rocking chair on the album art.
This album would spawn iconic hits like, Spoonful, The Red Rooster, Wang Dang Doodle, and Back Door Man. All of those songs have been staple standard songs amongst guitarists of every generation since.
Most of the guitarists we revere today are noted for their lead guitar abilities. Nile Rodgers is one of the rare guitarists known for his rhythm guitar skills.
If you don’t know of Rodgers, it’s a guarantee you’ve heard his guitar playing at some point in your life. Songs like, I’m Coming Out, Everybody Dance, and, Good Times, are some of his most famous contributions.
In fact, many of Nile Rodgers’s guitar parts have found their way into other genres of music. His parts have been frequently sampled in rap music, some of which have been the genre’s biggest hits.
Prince is undeniably one of the most important musicians of the 20th and 21st centuries. Few musicians have had his sheer talent for song crafting, let alone his skill across many instruments.
Over the course of his career, Prince was truly prolific, creating more music than one could ever dream of. Perhaps the most boggling aspect of this was just how potent each release truly was.
On the guitar, specifically, Prince was definitely capable of extreme prowess. Check out his contribution to the performance of, While My Guitar Gently Weeps, for a true mic drop guitar solo.
Chuck Berry has been credited with single-handedly inventing rock and roll. With an accolade like that, Berry is one of the most important guitarists of all time.
Berry’s emergence came at a time when the U.S. was in the throes of full-on racial segregation. However, when people heard Chuck Berry’s music on the radio, the world was changed.
This prompted teenagers of all races to appreciate the music for what it was, often aware of Berry’s skin color. Even Elvis and The Beach Boys wrote music inspired by Chuck’s rock and roll sound.
When it comes to the modern era of blues music, B.B. King is the undisputed king. His playing has been emulated time and again by guitarists looking to add an expressive element to their sound.
B.B.’s vibrato technique is undeniably one of his most recognizable musical attributes. The way he shakes those strings has about as much emotion as vocal singing, with just as much potency.
King helped to bring blues music back into the mainstream in the 1960s. The 1970s saw King really embody the identity of the true masterful authority of blues music.
Many guitarists are easily identified by a certain signature guitar that they tend to use throughout their careers. For Albert King, that guitar is the Flying V, which is a bit of an unusual choice for blues music.
However, Albert King certainly didn’t need to rely on any gimmicks to be considered one of the greats. His influence, alone, speaks volumes, having played a vital role in Stevie Ray Vaughan’s musical background.
The song, Born Under A Bad Sign, has become a standard song amongst gigging musicians. Countless versions have been recorded by artists over the years, including Cream, which featured Eric Clapton.
If you have aspirations to play blues music in the state of Texas, you better know some Freddie King numbers. Much of this Texan’s musical catalog has become staple repertoire amongst blues guitarists.
The early 1960s and 70s saw Freddie King at his height, releasing a number of songs that topped the charts. His hit song, Hideaway, is perhaps his most influential, which is a song every blues guitarist needs to know.
If you’re serious about playing blues guitar, you really should spend some time with the album, Texas Cannonball.
Often seen with a Telecaster and a capo, Albert Collins was a true master at playing expressive blues guitar. Even today, guitarists are stunned by the vocal qualities embedded within his guitar leads.
Spend a little time with Albert Collins, and you’re sure to hear a guitar that sounds as if it’s talking. However, the lore of this Texas blues legend doesn’t end here by any means.
In fact, Collins is one of the few who have left a concert hall during a performance (while still performing). Somehow, he was able to buy candy and order a pizza without a pause in his playing.
If you want blues music served up with blistering leads, Buddy Guy is your man. Buddy was one of the first to inject a sense of fiery lead playing, pushing the boundaries of blues leads.
This blues legend is usually recognizable with his signature smile and his Stratocaster. Quite often, he’ll either be wearing polka dots, or they will be featured on his guitar.
Buddy Guy might have been influenced by others on this list, but his influence on others is just as great. Hendrix, Clapton, and Page have all been disciples of Buddy Guy’s blistering guitar techniques.
Are you familiar with the smoky warmth of a jazz guitar that prominently features octaves? That iconic sound really got its start with the guitarist, Wes Montgomery.
What’s still boggling to many guitarists today is the fact that Montgomery primarily played with only his thumb for picking. On the surface, this might not seem like a big feat, that is, until you listen to the music yourself.
Black musicians were no strangers to jazz music as it could be said that they had actually invented the genre. Each instrument has its icons, and Montgomery is a true jazz guitar legend.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe
Let’s face it, women often do not get the attention and respect they deserve when it comes to musical contributions. In an industry dominated by male presence, it’s always a powerful moment when a woman can break through.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe was one of the first females to show that women are certainly able to play the guitar. In fact, her playing was a direct influence on Chuck Berry, for whom we can thank for rock and roll.
Tharpe can easily be recognized by her use of a Gibson SG equipped with 3 humbuckers.
Have you ever wondered who might have influenced guitar greats like B.B. King? You can be sure that Elmore James would certainly hold a place on that list.
James was incredibly influential with his slide guitar playing techniques. The early 1950s saw him enjoying mainstream success with a recording of the song, Dust My Broom.
While the song’s origin is a bit debatable, that classic blues song is Elmore’s signature song. It, too, has become a staple amongst blues guitarists of every generation since.
Christone “Kingfish” Ingram
Kingfish might be the youngest and most modern guitarist to be featured on this list. However, he possesses a gift for playing the guitar that deserves him the title of one of the best.
With a career short of a decade (at the time of this writing), Kingfish shows that the blues isn’t dead. Kingfish has given many examples of how there is still an opportunity to provide fresh guitar stylings in the genre.
For any fan of blues music, you shouldn’t sleep on this young guitarist. He truly is carrying the torch, blending modernity with tradition.
Eddie Hazel might be a bit more of an obscure guitarist compared to others on this list. However, any fan of funk music can tell you that Eddie Hazel was one of the best.
His best-known contribution can be found on the classic Funkadelic album, Maggot Brain. The title track from this album has an extended guitar solo that many hail as one of the best ever recorded.
However, his skill is really on display with his album, Games, Dames, And Guitar Thangs. This album is pure funk, with an excellent version of The Beatles’ I Want You (She’s So Heavy).
When it comes to carrying the torch of Hendrix's influence, Eric Gales is one of today’s best. He began playing the guitar at 4 years old, eventually earning the title of a child prodigy on the instrument.
The 1990s saw Gales storm onto the scene equipped with a blues prowess that was unlike anything at the time. His playing seemed to follow in line with the sound of Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
Gales may not have the outright fame as others on this list, but his skill cannot be denied. He is one of the most expressive guitar players that can be found playing music today.
The tremolo guitar effect is one of the most iconic sounds in the history of the electric guitar. This effect has a quality that oozes a vintage aesthetic, and Magic Sam was a proponent of this sound.
Magic Sam was another staple name in the Chicago blues scene of the 1950s. Much of his guitar playing from that period continues to baffle guitarists today.
Unfortunately, Magic Sam didn’t have a very long career, as he died right around the time he gained notoriety. Nevertheless, he remains one of the most important guitarists of the 50s and 60s.
Today’s guitar virtuosos are continually pushing the envelope of musical possibilities. If you’re familiar with djent, you’re likely familiar with the guitarist, Tosin Abasi.
Abasi utilizes a number of different techniques in his playing that come off effortless, yet sounds incredibly complex. He's also typically seen with a guitar that has 8 strings, which is something most guitarists would be afraid of.
If you haven’t listened to Abasi play guitar, be sure to check out his band, Animals As Leaders.
In the early 1950s, blues music was starting to crossover into pop and rock and roll. At the forefront of this crossover was Bo Diddley, who had a unique sound of his own.
In mixing African rhythms (specifically with a 5-beat accent) with rock and roll, Bo Diddley’s sound became instantly recognizable. His influence can be heard in many of the popular artists of his time, including Elvis and Buddy Holly.
Muddy Waters is, by far, one of the biggest names to emerge from the Chicago blues scene of the 1950s. While he’s typically known as a bandleader, his guitar prowess cannot be denied.
If it wasn’t for the music of Muddy, much of the most popular music from the 60s wouldn’t exist. The Rolling Stones, in particular, were very much influenced by the charm that Muddy possessed as a frontman.
In fact, The Rolling Stones eventually traveled to the U.S. to specifically play with Muddy Waters. This was a groundbreaking event, as this sort of racial integration was unfortunately not the norm for its time period.
Many of Muddy’s songs have become standards that any blues guitarist should have in their repertoire. Hoochie Coochie Man, Champagne And Reefer, and Rollin’ Stone are some of his most well-known hits.
Robert Cray is a fabulous blues guitarist who emerged into the mainstream during the 1980s. With his smooth and soulful voice, along with his velvety guitar licks, Cray was unlike anyone of the time.
Sure, Cray has never had the mainstream success as, say, Stevie Ray Vaughan. However, Robert Cray is, undoubtedly, one of the most respected names in modern blues music.
Cray had a real penchant for mixing traditional blues elements with elements of pop and rock and roll. The song, Smoking Gun, remains one of his biggest hits to date.
John Lee Hooker
One of the most recognizable names in the blues genre is John Lee Hooker. Out of the many blues guitarists in history, Hooker was one of the most prolific.
He would often change his name to record with different record labels, which significantly increased his output and album sales. His music often features an interesting use of rhythms, which are not exactly traditional or consistent.
With a professional career spanning over 50 years, it was impossible for Hooker not to leave a mark. It seems as if nearly every decade of his career was filled with success to some degree.
Top Black Guitarists, Final Thoughts
The simple fact of the matter is that race really doesn’t determine whether someone can play the guitar. If you were to listen to music without any visual accompaniment, you wouldn’t know what color somebody’s skin might be.
Regardless, black musicians have been incredibly instrumental in creating some of the best music of all time. Their musical contributions over the last century still echo out, influencing the music (and musicians) of today.