It’s been said that blues is one of the few genres where people can listen from sadness to receive joy. There’s just something about somebody else announcing their pains that makes life a little easier to enjoy.
The blues is a foundational genre inherent in today’s music, with a long history of guitarists carrying the torch. All of the following guitarists have had an instrumental role in carrying on with the tradition and building its legacy.
Albert Collins is one of the many guitarists to have made their name using a Fender Telecaster. This Texas blues phenom had nearly 5 decades of contributions throughout his professional career.
As such, Albert Collins is widely considered one of the greatest blues guitarists of all time. Many modern blues players cite Collins as a major influence.
Blues doesn't always have to be slow and filled with pain. Turn on some Buddy Guy and you won’t be able to help yourself from busting out in a dance.
Throughout his career, Buddy Guy has employed exquisite taste, utilizing both speed and expression. His polka-dot Stratocaster is one of the most recognizable versions of the guitar model itself.
Within the lexicon of blues music, Howlin’ Wolf is one of the most important bandleaders in history. His towering vocal delivery was accompanied by a band of top-notch musicians.
From 1955 until Howlin’ Wolf’s death, Hubert Sumlin held the role of the group’s main guitarist. His guitar parts are some of the most iconic and foundational in the history of blues.
There probably isn’t a soul on Earth that doesn’t automatically associate the blues with B.B. King. He is, after all, one of the 3 Kings of the genre itself.
B.B.’s playing wasn’t exactly flashy, rather, he focused more on intentional expression in each note he played. His vibrato technique continues to be one of the most emulated playing styles among guitarists.
Another person considered to be one of the 3 Kings of blues is Freddie King. If you plan to play blues in Texas, you had better know how to play some Freddie King songs.
Much of Freddie’s repertoire is a necessity to be considered a competent working blues guitarist. His playing style was as big and full of expression as his physical demeanor was on the stage.
Son House is a blues guitarist that hails back to the golden period of the delta blues. He began recording around 1930, but none of his records performed well due to the Great Depression.
In the 1960s, blues music saw a new appreciation, and Son House was among those being discovered. Fortunately, his incredible slide guitar work has been preserved for future generations to experience and enjoy.
Eric Clapton is undoubtedly one of the biggest names to be associated with the guitar itself. However, Eric actually made a name for himself as a young man playing the blues in the UK.
His incredible ear for detail ensured that he always had the most groundbreaking blues licks for his time. He’s an important guitarist for ensuring that the blues tradition never dies.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe
Sister Rosetta Tharpe might be one of the earliest instances of a female being an absolute beast on the guitar. During her heyday, seeing a female shred the blues like Sister Rosetta Tharpe was unheard of.
While her guitar work is exceptional, her voice is just as exquisite to listen to. She will forever be one of the best (and most foundational) female guitarists to play the instrument.
Robben Ford is one of the current names within the blues genre, enjoying a career that began in the 1960s. What makes Robben unique is that he is incredibly creative with his approach.
In a way, Robben has managed to reinvent the blues to create his own distinct sound. By infusing a hint of jazz, Robben bends the blues far beyond the traditional boundary lines.
Rory Gallagher is a name that doesn’t get as much recognition and attention as it deserves. This Irish guitarist played the blues with such ferocity that it became part of his claim to fame.
Throughout the 1970s, Rory Gallagher released some of the best music of his career. This catalog is often looked upon fondly among guitarists looking to learn modern blues-rock guitar vocabulary.
Mike Bloomfield is another name that isn’t as well known as it deserves to be. Bloomfield’s career stems from playing with some of the biggest names in the Chicago blues scene of the 1950s.
Eventually, Bloomfield started his own projects, which became responsible for finding the blues a new audience. Mike Bloomfield’s contributions stem far beyond a solo career, offering session work for some extremely famous names.
Albert King is another member of the 3 Kings of blues and is easily identifiable by his guitar. He was one of the few people of his time to use a Gibson Flying-V as his mainstay guitar model.
Many of Albert King’s works have become incredibly influential to guitarists who are drawn to the genre. Born Under A Bad Sign remains one of the staple songs every blues guitarist needs in their repertoire.
John Lee Hooker
John Lee Hooker is an incredibly important blues guitarist, partly because he was so prolific. In an era ruled by record labels, Hooker figured out how to game the industry to his advantage.
He managed to acquire numerous recording contracts, recording songs under a different name. Hooker’s brand of blues music comes straight from the roots of the Mississippi delta.
Stevie Ray Vaughan
By the 1980s, blues music was starting to disappear from public attention of society. That is until Stevie Ray Vaughan emerged onto the scene with a playing style that blew everyone’s mind.
SRV had a way of playing that was incredibly expressive, powerful, and clean. There might never be another guitarist who plays to the same intensity that SRV possessed during his day.
Jimmie Vaughan, Stevie Ray’s older brother, is actually quite an accomplished guitarist in his own right. Unfortunately, he’s often overlooked due to the towering legacy of his brother.
Jimmie is a self-professed blues purist and he often demanded to play the blues in its most traditional forms. This approach gave him the opportunity to play with the biggest names in blues when they visited Texas.
Muddy Waters is undeniably one of the most iconic characters in blues music history. His music helped to create and personify the sound of the Chicago blues scene during the 1940s and 1950s.
Of course, Muddy went on to have worldwide success, partially aided by the praise of The Rolling Stones. It’s fair to say that, without Muddy, The Rolling Stones wouldn’t have had the sound they did.
Lightnin’ Hopkins is one of the most important Texas bluesmen in history. He had a way of playing that didn’t exactly conform to a strict timing.
Instead, much of Lightnin’ Hopkins’s work can seem a little bit unconventional, which only helps his sound. Any fingerstyle player interested in the blues needs to study Lightnin’ Hopkins.
Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown
Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown had quite an illustrious career spanning 6 decades. He is one of the few people to have started in the 1940s, and win a Grammy in the 1980s.
Brown had an extremely virtuosic way of playing that was inspired partly by T-Bone Walker. Believe it or not, Brown was also quite exceptional at other instruments, such as the fiddle, harmonica, and drums.
Johnny Winter helped to bring the Texas blues sound to the mainstream during the 1970s. His playing was truly electric and helped to spawn a new interest in what was happening down in Texas.
He is perhaps most recognizable by his use of the Gibson Firebird. Unfortunately, Johnny didn’t get the break he deserved as a result of management abusing and taking advantage of him.
Elmore James is one of the most influential blues guitarists of all time. Hailing from the Mississippi delta, James employed a slide guitar technique that continues to be emulated.
Much of his career stems from both before and after World War II. During the 1950s, Elmore started to gain national fame for his signature brand of blues music.
Gary Moore is another Irish guitarist to be featured on this list, and for good reason. Many consider him to be one of the most inventive and expressive guitarists to ever play the blues.
Moore initially made a name for himself in the extremely successful group, Thin Lizzy. He was traditionally known for utilizing a Gibson Les Paul as his guitar of choice.
Blind Lemon Jefferson
Blind Lemon Jefferson is one of the foundational guitarists responsible for the Texas blues sound. His playing was extremely articulate, and it took years for guitarists to shed the fear of emulating his style.
Throughout modern history, many groups have covered Blind Lemon Jefferson, including the Grateful Dead and Bob Dylan. Though his life was cut short, he eventually helped to inspire many blues guitarists of the 1960s.
Robert Johnson is another name that has become synonymous with blues music. Part of this is due to the fact that he’s inspired so many of the greatest blues guitarists.
Another factor is the famous Faustian mythology surrounding his life. Do you think he sold his soul to the devil in exchange for otherworldly guitar skills?
Lead Belly Ledbetter
Being born in the late 1800s, Lead Belly certainly had a lot of experience to draw upon in his music. However, that didn’t stop Lead Belly from writing music that expressed opinions about the politics of the time.
Though he was long gone by the 1990s, his music experienced a resurgence in newfound interest. This was mostly due to the cover that Nirvana performed for their MTV Unplugged album.
Many of the names on this list were directly influenced by the guitar work of T-Bone Walker. Some guitarists made it a life mission to carry on as a disciple of his music and continue the tradition.
T-Bone Walker is partially responsible for pushing the blues into more modern styles of music. The 1940s were, by far, the glory years for T-Bone Walker’s career.
Robert Cray came up with the resurgence and newfound interest in the blues during the 1980s. However, he isn’t exactly a household name among those who aren’t exactly fans of the genre itself.
Cray’s style is incredibly smooth, utilizing the single-coil quack of a Fender Stratocaster. He’s still fairly active today and regularly performs with his own band.
Unless you’re familiar with blues music history, you might not recognize the name, Blind Blake. His history is a bit obscure, with many fuzzy details surrounding his origin.
What does exist is a prolific batch of songs recorded during a short duration of time for Paramount Records. His playing style emulated the sound of a ragtime piano, which continues to be mind-blowing to this day.
The common person might not initially consider Duane Allman to be a blues guitarist. However, any Allman Brothers Band performance from his time in the band proves that he very much was.
Duane Allman’s entire style seems to be directly influenced by the blues. You can especially hear this with his slide guitar style.
If you ask around in Texas who the most important blues guitarists are, W.C. Clark’s name will be mentioned. Many consider him to be the actual figurehead of that region’s brand of blues.
His playing has undoubtedly influenced many of the greatest guitarists to emerge from the Texas blues scene.
Elvin Bishop’s claim to mainstream fame comes from his song, Fooled Around And Fell In Love. However, anyone who doesn’t dig through his catalog is missing out on some supreme blues guitar work.
Bishop has worked with some of the biggest names in history, including Mike Bloomfield, Bo Diddley, and John Lee Hooker.
Dan Auerbach is perhaps one of the most modern guitar players on this list. You might know him as the guitar element in the blues-rock duo, The Black Keys.
Auerbach’s sound is incredibly huge and filled with creamy blues lines that any blues fan can appreciate. He’s also an accomplished music producer.
Ever since childhood, Tommy Castro is a guitarist who was influenced by the blues in all of its forms. It only makes sense that Castro would end up becoming one of the greatest modern blues players today.
In fact, in 2008, Castro actually won an award for being the Entertainer of the Year via the Blues Foundation.
Since the early 1990s, Tab Benoit has been blazing a trail with his unique style of Southern-tinged blues music. He’s also one of the many notable guitarists who have opted to use a Fender Telecaster as their mainstay guitar.
The 2000s have been especially kind to Benoit as he has seen the attention he so rightfully deserves.
Big Bill Broonzy
Many of the guitarists on this list have inspired many of the other guitarists to be featured here. Big Bill Broonzy is perhaps the most influential from the early generation of blues guitarists.
Everyone from Muddy Waters to Eric Clapton has been influenced by Big Bill Broonzy in some fashion. Anyone playing the blues with an electric guitar unknowingly tips their hat to Big Bill.
Ry Cooder is a name that is likely only recognizable to serious musicians who have done their research. Cooder is an absolute master of the slide guitar technique, which can be heard throughout his illustrious career.
He’s also one of the most respected guitarists of all time and has worked on many Hollywood film soundtracks.
If it wasn’t for Eric Clapton, J.J. Cale might not be as well-known as he is today. Of course, we have much to be thankful for as Cale’s music is some of the best of the genre.
He is, after all, the one responsible for writing the hit songs Cocaine, and, After Midnight.
It took an extremely long time for R.L. Burnside to receive the recognition that he deserved. Burnside’s brand of blues is very much influenced by the hard way of life he had to endure.
By the 1990s, Burnside’s music finally started to gain attention, playing for another 15 years until his death.
Gary Clark Jr.
Gary Clark Jr. exploded onto the scene around 2010, infusing the blues with modern styles of pop music. He actually gained his chops working with some of the biggest names in the Texas blues circuit as a child.
You can catch a cameo of Gary in the 2022 film, Elvis, playing the role of Big Boy Crudup.
Many Telecaster players have been mentioned on this list, but Roy Buchanan is one of the most inventive. His playing style was incredibly complex and expressive, often going beyond the blues.
Buchanan is one of those musicians whose work can truly humble you as a guitarist. He will forever be one of the greatest.
T-Bone Walker wasn’t the only blues guitarist known to have infused jazz stylings into their sound. Lowell Fulson was one of the most influential in this regard, with a career spanning over 50 years.
Fulson wrote many songs that have become necessary blues repertoire today, including Reconsider Baby. He was also signed to Chess Records during the Chicago blues heyday of the 1950s.
Eric Gales is one of the foremost modern blues guitarists carrying on the blues tradition today. He initially emerged onto the scene during the 1990s but has only been recently that he's been given due recognition.
Gales is known for playing the guitar in reverse orientation, with the thicker strings toward the bottom of the neck.
While most might not consider Hendrix a blues guitarist, a delicate ear will tell you otherwise. Hendrix employed blues progressions in a way that allowed for his electric prowess to be fully on display.
His playing absolutely changed the world and the way that guitar would be played thereafter.
Billy Gibbons is yet another Texas blues guitarist, best known for his role in the band ZZ Top. As a trio, Gibbons’s guitar work is truly allowed to shine, helping to create a sound larger than life.
Much of Gibbons’s style is influenced by traditional blues technique but infused with modern rock stylings.
Christone “Kingfish” Ingram
Christone “Kingfish” Ingram might be the youngest guitarist to be featured on this list. At the time of this writing, Kingfish is still in his early 20s but possesses a mature vocabulary.
It is guitarists like Kingfish who will ensure that blues music will carry on forever.
Are you familiar with the famous headhunter scene in the film, Cadillac Records? That section of the plot featured the character of Muddy Waters, along with a guitarist named Jimmy Rogers.
Jimmy Rogers helped Muddy Waters to create that signature Chicago blues sound that Waters is known for.
Jimmy Reed is one of the most influential blues guitarists and one who has had crossover success. He’s written some of the biggest blues hits, including Big Boss Man, and, I Ain’t Got You.
His music was extremely influential to the UK’s blues invasion of the 1960s.
If you know your Fleetwood Mac history, you know that the band actually started out as a blues band. This era of the band’s history was hinged upon the blues guitar stylings of Peter Green.
In fact, Green is considered to be one of the finest guitarists to emerge from the 1960s UK blues scene.
Top Blues Guitarists, Final Thoughts
As you can see, there is quite a phenomenal list of guitarists who have made their name playing the blues. What’s mind-boggling is that this is only one small fraction of all the guitarists in the world playing the genre.
Without the contribution of these guitarists, the guitar might not be played the way it is today. None of the genres of today’s music would exist without the common progressions of blues music.
It might be an old genre, but it will likely never go out of style.