As you can imagine, at Kore Studios we are passionate about all types of music. However, for many of us blues rock is particularly close to our hearts. We love how ‘fusion genres’ such as blues rock throw together sounds we know and love to create something brand new. But most importantly, the blues rock guitarists in this list achieve something quite magical: a combination of technical virtuosity and raw fervour. For these people, the guitar is not just an instrument but a vessel to express desire, anguish and many more deep-seated emotions.
The history of blues rock is a rich and evocative tapestry, so narrowing down this list to ten axe-wielding legends was no easy feat. However, having looked at what each artist has contributed to this genre throughout their careers, we’re confident that we’re paying tribute to ten of the most influential blues rock guitarists of all time – in no particular order we’d like to add!
1. ROBERT JOHNSON
Weapon of Choice: Photographs of Johnson have shown him wielding a Gibson L-1, and what is believed to be a Kalamazoo KG-14.
Who better to kickstart this list than someone who is commonly regarded as the ‘father’ of blues music? In the decades after his passing in 1938, Johnson’s legacy lives on in the work of many guitarists, cited by several of the people in this list as an inspiration.
A multi-talented singer, songwriter and musician, like many great artists Johnson achieved moderate success during his career but even more so after his death. It took the rising popularity of rock ‘n roll for Johnson to be paid his dues, with Eric Clapton calling him “the most important blues musician that ever lived”.
It’s both frustrating and fitting that much of what we know about Johnson’s life is the stuff of legend. One of the most widely circulated myths is that he sold his soul to the devil (perhaps it was worth it in hindsight given his iconic status today).
2. BB KING
Weapon of Choice: King was well-known for his taste for black Gibson guitars which he took to naming ‘Lucille’ – a name taken from a near-death experience one Arkansas winter in 1949.
Famed for his fluttering vibrato, BB King continues to be a source of inspiration and reverence to blues and rock guitarists. His lead guitar solos have an exceptional conversational tone that is purely his own. King was always able to pace lyrics and sell the story of a song, forging an intimate partnership between himself, his audience and his fellow musicians.
From the legendary BB Box, butterfly vibrato and use of outside notes to his ability to play throwaway notes and conversational call-and-response techniques, King created a unique sound with techniques that have become essential for any blues rock musician looking to cut their teeth.
King was once quoted as saying ‘notes are expensive. Spend them wisely.’ Listen to one of his rapturous solos and you will realise how thoughtful and considered each note is – almost like words on a page where each one tells an important part of a captivating story.
3. JIMI HENDRIX
Weapon of Choice: Hendrix would most often play Fender Stratocasters and had quite the turnover, given how regularly he would smash or burn them to bring shows to a close.
Hendrix is almost without question the greatest guitarist of all time. The self-taught rhythm and blues guitarist became a ground-breaking rockstar in his own right as part of The Jimi Hendrix Experience. And what an experience it was.
He was known for exploiting open strings as well as using double-stops, trills and slides to create unique chord formations, embodying the devil-may-care bombast of 20th Century funk. Hendrix solidified his place in the pantheon of guitar legends with ragged, soaring, and rhythmically-driving notes.
It’s often cliched to describe a guitar as an extension of a musician’s body but with Hendrix it’s an apt statement. He played with the kind of sensuality and power that comes from channelling the deepest vestiges of an artist’s soul. It’s therefore no wonder that during the 1960s counterculture movement, where nothing was as important as liberation and self-expression, Hendrix emerged as a defining figure.
4. BONNIE RAITT
Weapon of Choice: Raitt is known to rock a 1960s Fender Stratocaster that has been used so frequently that the colour and texture are a close match to her trademark red hair.
Blues and rock are two traditionally male-dominated genres, and since the 1970s Raitt has thrived thanks to that time-honoured combination of grit, determination and talent. But at the same time she wields her trademark slide guitar with a playful effortlessness.
Raitt clearly understands every aspect of both her guitar and her vocals, so much so that the two instruments sometimes feel one and the same: smoky, twangy and tough yet emotionally complex. For this reason she’s been acclaimed by none other than B.B King, who was famously left awestruck by her skills in a 2004 set at House of Blues that was a tribute to soul legend Ray Charles.
5. JIMMY PAGE
Weapon of Choice: Page had quite the arsenal, with notable examples including ‘Number One’, a 1959 Les Paul standard and a 1958 Fender Telecaster dubbed the ‘Dragon Tele’. He also famously took to using a double-neck Gibson guitar for live performances of the iconic “Stairway to Heaven”.
Jimmy Page exemplifies the raw and untamed spirit of rock n’ roll whilst taking its sound to new heights. At the same time, he played homage to blues icons such as Muddy Waters, Leadbelly and of course Robert Johnson. With his incredible technique, sophistication and nuance, it’s no wonder that Page is considered one of the greatest guitarists of all time.
As the founder and guitarist of Led Zeppelin, Page infused blues and rock guitar with a confrontational, frenetic spirit that can best be heard in his iconic, blistering riffs. The pace in which Page can stay on the beat, smear notes and complete phrases is astounding to say the very least.
The distortion, volume and reverb that Page often employed had a chaotic nature, but was also an insight into Page’s deep understanding of his instrument. Much like the blues and rock guitarists of decades past, every note had a reason, intent and impact that has rarely been matched since.
6. MUDDY WATERS
Weapon of Choice: Waters played many guitars over the course of his career, but his cherry red 1958 Fender, nicknamed “The Hoss” is among the most recognisable.
Muddy Waters was undoubtedly a pioneer of both blues and rock music, credited with launching Chicago’s raucous electric guitar blues scene in the 40s and 50s. He also coined several iconic techniques that are still revered today, including the Muddy Waters side lick.
Waters’ style has been notably described as ‘raining down Delta beatitude’, something stormy and guttural but almost spiritual in its emotional fervour. And Waters played the guitar like a preacher, with energy and physicality but also a feeling of truth and profundity.
Waters’ legacy as both a guitarist and singer cannot be overstated, having notably influenced The Rolling Stones, Cream, Led Zeppelin and AC/DC. Ultimately his work reminds us that blues rock isn’t just about technical skill but bringing out deep-seated emotions with the utmost conviction.
7. ERIC CLAPTON
Weapon of Choice: Clapton notably used Gibson guitars at the start of his career but had moved to Fender Stratocasters by the early 1970s. In 2004 his most iconic Stratocaster “Blackie” was sold at auction for a whopping $959,500.
As a forefather of the British blues rock movement, Eric Clapton’s influence could be felt not just across genres but continents. Between his time with The Yardbirds and Cream he recorded with John Mayall’s band to produce Bluesbreakers in 1966, which has since been recognised as a seminal blues rock record.
Clapton paid fitting tribute to the American forefathers of blues with his trademark style, playing with an awe-inspiring power and speed (not to mention volume) that only a musician with the utmost control over their instrument could handle.
But one of the most recogniseable features of Clapton’s playing is his ‘floating’ vibrato. Equal parts delicate and intense, a simple online search brings up a multitude of demos, lessons and tutorials on how to replicate this style – just another example of Clapton’s influence as a blues and rock guitar pioneer.
8. BUDDY GUY
Weapon of Choice: Guy has been pretty committed to Fender throughout his career, often combining a Stratocaster with a Tweed Bassman (4 x 10).
Another hallmark of the Chicago scene, when it comes to blues rock Buddy Guy is a living legend. Artists such as Hendrix, Clapton and John Mayer, icons in their own right, have cited Guy as an inspiration.
While he still harks back to the traditional blues rock of his earlier career, Guy has continued to incorporate sounds from jazz, soul and modern rock into his playing. With such a repertoire of influences and taste for dramatics, it’s no wonder that Guy is well-known for his use of dynamics. When performing he could suddenly make a hairpin turn into a whole new style, relishing his ability to captivate the audience.
Guy is also known for his unparalleled showmanship, combining an aggressive pentatonic style with rapid phrasing and firey licks. As a live performer he gives new meaning to the phrase ‘must be seen to be believed.’
9. CARLOS SANTANA
Weapon of Choice: Santana has notably switched up his guitars many times throughout his career, moving between Gibson and Yamaha and even the occasional Fender Stratocaster. In this interview with GuitarPlayer, he highlights some of his most notable instruments.
Carlos Santana may seem like somewhat of an anomaly on this list, as his trademark sound is smoother than his more rough-and-ready contemporaries. But he brings out a different side of blues, a more sensual, smouldering sound with inspirations of Latin, Jazz and psychedelia.
As a child Santana played mariachi music under the tutelage of his father, but began to break away from this more traditional style once he discovered blues music. The works of B.B King and Muddy Waters were particularly formative, and since then he sought to combine Latin music with bluesy rock n’ roll riffs.
Santana’s style is characterised by his use of sustained notes, simple phrases, tremolo picking and well-placed bends. He’s also known for his love of improvisation, which was undoubtedly influenced by jam bands such as The Grateful Dead. Santana has allegedly never played the same guitar solo twice, and his trend towards the unexpected is apt given his fusion of genres.
10. TONY IOMMI
Weapon of Choice: Iommi is primarily known for using Gibson SG guitars, with several models being replicated just for him. One of his best-known guitars is a 1965 Gibson SG Special nicknamed “Monkey”.
For guitar players, deft and agile fingers are essential – but Tony Iommi pulls off the most incredible career even without the tips of his middle and ring fingers on his right hand. It’s all the more impressive how he wields his guitar with such dexterity and finesse, playing commanding single-note solos with lightning speed.
Before he founded heavy metal legends Black Sabbath, Iommi played in several blues rock bands. His back catalogue has countless examples of recontextualising styles and techniques from blues rock, imbuing his now-legendary riffs with a darkness and intensity.
Blues and rock are a vessel for a wide range of emotions, and Iommi was pivotal in introducing a new brand of heaviness, one that has been fundamental for countless sub-genres such as grunge, industrial and thrash. So much of what we know and love about rock music can be traced back to Iommi’s fingers.
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