This was done on request by my friend Richard. Please keep in mind this is my personal list and it is in no way the definitive blues top ten. If you asked me for the same list a few months ago (or again in a few months) my list would probably differ slightly. Also keep in mind that I am a guitarist so I’m a bit biased to blues guys who can master the 6 string as well as sing.
Last thing before we get started, I’ve always thought of Jimi Hendrix as a blues guitarist, but since he seems to be disassociated with the musical sorting box marked “blues” (do to his psychedelic/hard rock style) I will refrain from including him in the list proper. I would, however, be remiss to not give him the most honorable of mentions and note how high I would personally include him on the list under other circumstances. I recommend his live performance on The Dick Cavett Show (1969) where he performed Izabella and Machine Gun in what I consider to be nothing but amazing blues magic.
Other Honorable mentions include Mississippi John Hurt, T-Bone Walker, Ray Charles, Buddy Guy, Lead Belly, and countless others. NOW! In almost no particular order…
Lightnin’ Hopkins – Trained by the father of Texas blues, Blind Lemon Johnson, Hopkins is not only a fantastic guitar player but a natural poet as well. He did old school Texas blues, Electric blues, country blues and finally folk blues revival in his roughly 40 year career and is said to have released more albums than any other blues man.
John Lee Hooker – His boogie style of the blues is hard to peg as he took an electric delta blues style with folk and country blues elements and played his guitar in a piano blues way. But however you want to categorize it it’s great blues regardless.
Freddie King – One of the “Three Kings” of Blues. He was a major influence on both Texas and Chicago blues men to come do to his awesome hybrid style. His first album Freddy King Sings features great tracks like Tore Down and Have You Ever Loved A Woman that I recommend highly.
B B King – “The Ambassador of The Blues”. I’m sure I’d be hanged to not Include this legend. He is arguably the most well known, accomplished, influential, and accessible blues men to the general public. It is because of B B King (and David Gilmour of Pink Floyd) that my personal solo style incorporates quite a bit of bends and vibrato in lieu of speed shredding. There is not much to be said that hasn’t been said innumerable times before by more eloquent writers.
Albert King – “The Velvet Bulldozer”. His signature guitar is a Gibson Flying V, a somewhat unconventional guitar for the blues made even more unusual by the lefty playing the right handed guitar upside down. A great jumping off for King is the classic Born Under A Bad Sign. He also has collaborated with some great people like The Doors and my man Stevie Ray Vaughan that is a must to check out.
Muddy Waters – “The Father of Chicago Blues”. He is directly responsible for several Rock n Roll figures, be it through inspiration or direct intervention (which was the case for Chuck Barry). I really like Forty Days and Forty Nights, but it’s Muddy Waters, one of the all time greats, so just punch his name into your search engine and enjoy any music you find.
Howlin’ Wolf – This guy is almost scary. He has a booming, dominating voice that just has that grit to it. Here we have another master of the Chicago Blues who has won a plethora of awards, and deservedly so. It is somewhat notable that unlike most blues men he didn’t grow up with an impoverished childhood and maintained his money by avoiding gambling, alcohol, and shady women. But it wasn’t all easy as he was illiterate until he returned to school in his 40s. Definitely a unique fellow even among the blues crowd.
Robert Johnson – “The King of the Mississippi Delta Blues”. His mysterious life and death lead to the legend that Johnson sold his soul to the devil at a crossroads, which has gone on to become a common trope in music. When I think Blues I hear Robert Johnson in my head. I love vocals and his acoustic guitar tone that sounds truly ancient to my my young, modern ears.
Albert Collins – “The Master of the Telecaster” himself. He has a distinctive take on Texas blues that is infectious and fun. One of my earliest memories of the blues was watching Adventures In Babysitting, where in the cast find themselves accidentally on the stage of a blues bar and Albert Collins won’t let them leave until they play the blues. It’s a good example of the mix of ache and fun that he brings to his music.
Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble – Another Texas Blues man. SRV is not only my favorite blues guitarist, he is one of my favorite guitarists ever. He can tell a story and convey emotion through his strings that most vocalists would struggle to express through singing OR lyrics. I recommend listening to Texas Flood from beginning to end, then start it over and listen to it again.
I hope this helped those outside of the blues to discover something new or find a better appreciation and here’s to hoping the blues stays strong for generations to come through the legends in your speakers or the stage of modern blues rock musicians of this generation.
Be safe and stay nerdy,