The blues are different to most types of popular music, musicians who look for influence in the genre go back to the pioneers who started it all back in the ’20s and ’30s. That doesn’t mean to say that there are no contemporary artists to admire, it just means that the roots of the blues are the heart and soul of just about every blues artist to ever pick up a guitar and say: “I want to play like that.” This list could be endless but we’ve decided to pick out our list of 10 musicians who we think are some of the most important and influential blues artists of all time
The granddaddy of blues, Robert Johnson was one of the first to achieve fame and notoriety, yes he was a great songwriter, singer, musician, and performer, but it was the legend that was attached to him that took him over the edge. The story goes that Johnson sold his soul to the Devil at the crossroads in order to gain his extraordinary abilities. One of today’s legends Eric Clapton has referred to him as “the most important blues singer that ever lived,” and we totally agree. Rolling Stone ranked him 5th on their list of the greatest guitarists of all time, amazing when you weigh up the equipment Johnson had at his disposal. He died in 1938 at only 27 years of age but left a legacy that will go on forever.
This guy so personifies the blues he has clubs throughout the US named after him, and for many fans of the genre, BB King is the blues. He made #3 on Rolling Stone’s list of “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time, ” and for over 60 years, he performed and recorded with a style that has influenced generations of blues musicians. His sound and technique are instantly recognizable and to this day BB King still reigns supreme on blues radio stations throughout the world.
When you think Chicago blues, you think Buddy Guy. At the grand old age of 82, Guy is probably the greatest proponent of old school Chicago blues still alive today. Starting life as the house guitarist at Chess Records, Guy also played with Muddy Waters as well as partnering up with harmonica legend Junior Wells. You can hear Guy’s influence in many of the musicians in the ’60s and present day, including Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Bringing the house down every night with his showmanship and his musical skill, Guy is still out there bringing his take on the blues in front of audiences to this very day.
Born McKinley Morganfield on July 30th, 1936, Muddy Waters was a pioneer who embraced amplified electric guitars and added real percussion to the blues. Waters made a trip to England in the late ’50s and had a serious impact on many of the musicians who would go on to form bands and become part of the “British Invasion.” Those bands include The Rolling Stones, who actually took their name from a Muddy Waters song. His track “Mannish Boy” has been covered by numerous artists over the years, and the genre of Blues-rock owes a huge debt to the man.
Now Bessie Smith wasn’t the first female blues musicians to gain notoriety, but she is certainly one of the most mentioned in books about the history of the blues and she absolutely opened many doors for other female musicians who followed. Known as “The Empress of the Blues” Bessie was easily the most popular blues singer of the ’20s and ’30s, and her outstanding voice set the standard for jazz and blues singers of her day and is often-acknowledged as a massive influence on Janis Joplin. You can’t say fairer than that.
Born Chester Arthur Burnett, this blues legend will forever be remembered by his stage name, ‘Howlin’ Wolf. Standing at an imposing 6’6′ and weighing in at close to 300 pounds, he was a huge presence on the Chicago blues scene and as a singer, guitarist, and harmonica player, he was a game changer when it came to the blues.
Bonnie Raitt is the queen of modern female blues singers, but it doesn’t end there. Her amazing slide guitar and her songwriting skills have introduced many people to the blues since she came on to the scene in the ’70s. As Raitt began to gain momentum she often insisted that blues performers be booked as her opening act and still maintains that practice to this very day. She has been a tireless advocate for blues music and it’s musicians and set a high standard for younger musicians of both sexes.
Perhaps best known for her version of “At Last,” Etta James helped broken hearts all over the world, and with songs like “I’d Rather Go Blind” she brought blues into the mainstream at a time when it was not well-recognized. She defied genre and was a shining example of how to channel personal challenges and problems into great music. A pioneer, a survivor, and still a huge influence on the blues to this very day.
Clapton for sure popularized the blues for white audiences, and when it comes to the blues in general, his influence cannot be overstated. Adored and copied by multitudes of guitar players, once he discovered his vocal ability, he provided generations of singer/songwriters with a new model of how the blues could be turned into mainstream hits. We think it’s is fair to say that there is probably not a blues guitar player playing today who hasn’t been influenced in some way by Eric Clapton.
Stevie Ray Vaughan
From the moment you hear a blues guitarist and performer today like Stevie Ray Vaughan, you know it has to come from the heart. It’s a testament to the man that young guitar players try to emulate Vaughan’s ability to play both killer lead and rhythm at the same time. Vaughan’s intoxicating mix of Texas blues and rock was loved by his contemporaries, and his style influences musicians almost 30 years after his unfortunate death.
So there you have it, our list of musicians that spans a number of years and styles. But they all share one thing in common, their ability to adapt and fuse different elements that have allowed the blues to continue to grow throughout the years.