R&B and soul have a distinct sound that has become embedded in the tapestry of music history. Throughout the years, it’s become one of the primary sounds for showcasing vocal prowess.
However, it’s safe to say that soul and R&B wouldn’t have that sound without the musicians on the track. The guitar plays a critical role in this regard, offering musical color and, quite often, a signature lick or two.
If you’re looking to get into playing R&B and soul on guitar, be sure to study the following guitarists.
By the 1980s, R&B and soul had taken a completely different turn in sound from previous decades. The 1980s were noticeably more influenced by pop, stylized in the synthetic sounds of the day.
Who do you think Michael Jackson, Madonna, and Whitney Houston often called upon for guitar work? The answer to that would be David Williams, who was a primary session guitarist throughout the decade.
Aretha Franklin had already had a decorous career by the time the 1970s came around. However, at the turn of the decade, her sound became truly fit for the era, driven by Cornell Dupree’s guitar.
Cornell Dupree lent his hand to a number of Atlantic recording artists including Wilson Pickett, and Donny Hathaway. Needless to say, Cornell Dupree is one of the best of all time.
Are you familiar with the smash hit songs, Soul Man, and (Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay? You might not know it, but Steve Cropper’s collaborations (using a Telecaster) played a part in those song’s iconic sounds.
Cropper held a role in Booker T. & The M.G.’s, which was essentially the studio band for Stax Records. The list of artists that Cropper has worked with is quite vast, and even The Beatles recognized his greatness.
Joe South is a name you might not be very familiar with unless you know your oldies music. While he gained attention in the 1950s as a solo artist, South’s collaborations in the ’60s solidified his status.
Perhaps the biggest soul hit you can hear Joe South on is the song, Chain Of Fools, by Aretha Franklin. His solo career is also fairly dense with hits, including the song, Games People Play.
Some people readily assume that Jimi Hendrix was born out of the womb with a skill that changed the world. What some people fail to realize is that Hendrix paid his dues on the Chitlin’ Circuit during the early 1960s.
By spending time in both the Isley Brothers band, as well as supporting Little Richard, Hendrix perfected his prowess. He essentially applied what he learned about showmanship, allowing him to capture the world’s attention.
Reggie Young might be one of the most influential soul and R&B guitarists to be named on this list. He lent guitar to a massive list of artists via his role in the house band for American Sound Studio.
You’ve undoubtedly heard Young’s guitar work at some point in your life. Some of his most famous guitar contributions include Dobie Gray’s Drift Away and Dusty Springfield’s Son Of A Preacher Man.
Some consider Sam Cooke to be the founding musician responsible for soul music as a genre. The guitarist who played with Sam Cooke until his death was Bobby Womack.
It was actually Cooke who discovered Womack, signing his band, the Valentinos, to his record label. Today, some of Womack’s songs are smash hits, especially the song, It’s All Over Now, covered by The Rolling Stones.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’re probably familiar with the LA studio band, The Wrecking Crew. This group of musicians was often at the top of the list when a recording artist needed a studio band.
While we can’t be exactly certain how many recordings Tedesco appears on, it’s likely in the thousands. This ultimately makes Tedesco one of the most prolific and influential guitarists of all time.
During the 1960s, Muscle Shoals became a mecca for recording artists looking for that signature soul sound. After all, it was the studio band, featuring Jimmy Johnson on guitar, that gave Wilson Pickett his hit sound.
No doubt about it, Jimmy Johnson’s guitar work is incredibly influential in nearly all styles of 60s and 70s music. Some of the artists he worked with include Aretha Franklin, Patti LaBelle, the Rolling Stones, and the Staple Singers.
Paul Jackson Jr.
Most guitarists these days tend to over-focus on playing leads rather than rhythm. Paul Jackson Jr. is somebody that embraced rhythm guitar and made it his signature aspect.
During the 1980s, Paul lent his guitar abilities to the likes of The Temptations, Michael Jackson, and Whitney Houston. He’s been quite active in modern times and even provided some work for Daft Punk in 2013.
Phil Upchurch is another guitarist who has a massive number of works throughout the 1960s and 1970s. You might know Upchurch the best from his work with the soul music icon, Curtis Mayfield.
Upchurch is quite the accomplished guitarist, providing guitar for names like Howlin’ Wolf, Donny Hathaway, and Chaka Khan. He even had a solo record, You Can’t Sit Down, become Gold-certified in 1961.
David T. Walker
David T. Walker’s guitar has been prominent in some of the biggest names of 70’s soul music. You can hear Walker on releases such as Stevie Wonder’s album, Innervisions, and the Etta James Rocks The House album.
Walker also played guitar in many of The Jackson 5’s releases throughout the 1970s. He’s certainly been busy over the years and has released 20 different albums of his own.
Eddie Hinton was another guitarist who made a name for themselves in the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. To be fair, however, his stint in the studio band was relatively short, lasting only 2 years.
Nevertheless, in that time, Hinton’s name has become a household item amongst soul music aficionados. As a session player, Hinton has contributed to the likes of Dusty Springfield, Bobby Womack, and Percy Sledge.
Most of the guitarists mentioned thus far have made their name through session work. Bill Withers, on the other hand, is known for his outstanding success as a solo artist.
Songs like, Ain’t No Sunshine, and, Use Me, have become some of the most famous soul tracks of all time. Withers helped to bring soul music to the forefront during the 1970s, creating iconic songs along the way.
Shuggie Otis may have been destined to become a famous soul and R&B guitarist. His father, Johnny, was responsible for discovering rising talent, including that of Etta James (who was 13 at the time).
You’re probably most familiar with Shuggie through the song, Strawberry Letter 23. Otis wrote this smash hit, which became a chart-topper in 1977 by The Brothers Johnson.
Pete Carr is yet another guitarist who rose up through the ranks of the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section studio band. Prior to this, Carr was actually in a band with both Gregg and Duane Allman, called Hour Glass.
Carr’s career is quite impressive, and his guitar work spans both soul music and rock music. You can hear him prominently on many Bob Seger albums throughout the 1970s and 1980s.
Chalmers “Spanky” Alford
Soul music has always seemed to find itself being reinvented, with a revival taking place in the 1990s and 2000s. Spanky Alford was somebody that was a prime candidate for pushing this revival with his guitar work.
You can hear Alford’s guitar on a vast number of albums including Al Green’s Lay It Down. His last performance was with the John Mayer Trio, of which a recording can be found on the album, Try!
Gordon Banks started his career quite young, playing in a band at just 12 years old. However, it wasn't until he moved to LA in the late 1970s that his career truly took off.
From there, Banks befriended Marvin Gaye and found himself playing guitar until Gaye’s death. You can hear Gordon’s guitar on the smash-hit single, Sexual Healing, which is a sensual soul staple track.
Binky Griptite is another guitarist who helped to facilitate the emergence of neo-soul music throughout the 2000s. If you’re into neo-soul, chances are likely that you’re familiar with Binky through Sharon Jones (a legendary singer).
It was actually Binky who helped put together a backing band for Jones, known as The Dap-Kings. Binky has provided guitar work for other artists including Amy Winehouse, Daniel Merriweather, and Mark Ronson.
Modern soul enthusiasts are likely familiar with the James Brown stylings and powerful performances of Charles Bradley. If you’ve seen any videos of Charles, you’ve likely seen him consistently performing with the same guitarist.
That guitarist would be Thomas Brenneck, who is essentially the leader of the Menahan Street Band. He also founded Daptone Records, which he initially operated out of his bedroom, pushing modern soul to popularity.
Al Green is considered to be one of the most effortless soul singers, utilizing a smoothness with an expansive range. Throughout the years, Al Green had a number of hits that have become staples throughout pop culture.
Many are unaware that the guitarist Teenie Hodges had a vital role in crafting Green’s smooth musicality. He even helped pen some of Green’s biggest hits, including Take Me To The River.
Wah Wah Watson
With a name like Wah Wah Watson, you’d expect to hear an abundance of tasteful wah usage. That’s precisely Watson’s claim to fame, with evidence to be found in the Temptation’s track, Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone.
However, Watson’s career is far more decorous than one hit in the 1970s. He’s featured prominently on many of Herbie Hancock’s funkiest albums from 1975 to 1994.
You can even hear Watson’s work on albums by Michael Jackson, Dizzy Gillespie, Four Tops, and The Beach Boys.
The Commodores were an absolute powerhouse of funk, soul, and R&B during the 1970s and 1980s. Where other longstanding groups failed to find longevity in the 1980s, The Commodores excelled.
Thomas McClary is widely recognized to be the main founder of the group. You can hear his superb lead guitar work in all of the group’s work up until 1984.
After his work with the Commodores, McClary went on to have a moderately successful solo career. Unfortunately, his career wasn’t quite as fruitful beyond contributing a track for the 1986 film, One More Saturday Night.
Throughout the years, it’s become known that Prince demanded only the best musicians for his backing band. This makes sense, as the artist had a reputation for being very particular about certain musical concepts.
Miko Weaver is a guitarist who made the cut and was given Prince’s nod of approval. He held down touring guitar duties for Prince from 1987 to 1990 and has had a solo career ever since.
Rhythm guitarists are entirely underrated when it comes to the amount of recognition and credit they deserve. In Motown, it was Robert White who often played rhythm, serving as a studio band member in the Funk Brothers.
Throughout his career, White contributed some iconic guitar parts, including the lead on the ultra-famous My Girl, by The Temptations. He also provided guitar parts for artists such as The Supremes, Stevie Wonder, and Marvin Gaye.
Speaking of rhythm guitarists, no conversation on the topic would be complete without mentioning Nile Rodgers. He is best known for playing in the band Chic, which had the smash-hit song, Good Times.
Rodgers has proved that you don’t need to be excessively flashy to be considered a great guitarist. He has been a part of more hit records than the average person could dream of.
Joe Messina is a guy that somebody might not initially think was an influential soul and R&B guitarist. He actually made a name for himself by performing on TV in ABC’s studio band.
From there, he was offered a spot in the legendary Motown studio band, The Funk Brothers. Messina had a jazzy side to his playing, which is a clear nod to his jazz roots of the 1940s.
There have been numerous lists ranking the best guitarists throughout the years. Many excellent guitarists get overlooked, and Jimmy Nolen tends to be one of them.
If you’ve ever listened to James Brown from 1965 to 1970, or from 1972 to 1983, you’ve heard Jimmy. It’s Nolen’s iconic guitar style that helped to plant the seeds for the foundations of funk music.
Ernie Isley is one of the most influential soul and R&B guitarists to ever play the style of music. It’s thought that Hendrix learned from and was heavily influenced by Isley.
You can hear Isley’s guitar prowess on full display in songs like That Lady and Summer Breeze. If you’re a self-taught guitarist, take Isley’s example of what dedicated focus can do, as he was self-taught, too.
Prince has already been mentioned throughout this article, but proper credit must be given. Most people associate Prince with a degree of perfectionism that resulted in elaborate songwriting.
However, Prince was also a complete monster on the guitar, often playing the guitar solos himself. It’s a fact that he was willing to prove time and again, despite people possibly thinking otherwise.
There’s a hilarious example of this during 2004’s tribute to George Harrison, playing While My Guitar Gently Weeps. Prince continues to shred the guitar beyond everyone’s belief, tossing his prized Telecaster down after he’s finished.
As far as bands go, none is perhaps more synonymous with R&B than Earth, Wind & Fire. This is one of the most prolific and successful groups within the genre, with a legacy spanning over 50 years.
From 1973 to 1981, it was Al McKay providing the guitar work for the group’s records. These are widely considered to be some of the best in the band’s catalog.
McKay has also spent time as a session guitarist and a record producer. He’s worked alongside names such as Herbie Hancock, The Temptations, and Patrice Rushen.
Pops Staples has quite a story that any guitarist today can find inspiration in. He actually stopped playing music to focus on making enough money to move his family to Chicago.
Eventually, he taught his son and daughters to become world-class musicians in their own right. The Staple Singers features the entire family, with some tasty tremolo guitar played by Pops himself.
His story is quite fascinating, and part of his struggle was finding musicians that had the same drive and dedication. In turn, his family created history by means of music, with Mavis considered one of the greatest soul vocalists ever.
Cornelius Grant is an extremely prolific soul and R&B guitarist, most notable for his time with The Temptations. For 18 years, Grant served as the bandleader, providing his guitar and helping to write songs.
If you think The Temptations is only about singing, think again! Check out an extended cut of the song, Get Ready, to see what the band was truly capable of.
Grant actually began his career at just 15 years old, after The Temptations discovered him with Marvin Gaye. Needless to say, it was Grant’s discovery that helped to shape soul and R&B music for decades to follow.
Best R&B Guitarists And Soul Guitar Players, Final Thoughts
Unfortunately, many of the greatest R&B and soul guitarists do not often get the credit they deserve. Many of them were actually studio musicians, with their names appearing in the album liner notes.
A hefty amount of research is required to really figure out who is playing on what record. You’ll find that many of the absolute classic songs feature a combination of guitarists, each famous in their own right.