Whether you know it or not, every time you riff over a 12-bar progression, you’re paying homage to the pioneers and timeless masters of blues guitar.
The lives and licks of the best blues guitarists could fill pages—as evidenced by the many great blues history books—but I’ve picked a handful of my personal blues guitar heroes to introduce you to today.
As you learn blues guitar, you’ll visit and revisit the techniques of these great guitarists countless times. Here’s your chance to get a little more acquainted with the players behind the most iconic blues tunes and techniques.
- “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” Video Tab
- “Roberta” Video Tab
- “In New Orleans (The Sun Rising Blues)” Video Tab
Lead Belly, born Huddie William Ledbetter in 1888 Louisiana, was a player whose life shows just how dark the blues can be.
The start of his music career had Lead Belly playing in rowdy bars and brothels. More than once he ran into trouble with the law on various counts of violence.
In 1918, Lead Belly was charged with the murder of one of his relatives after a fight over a woman.
After serving the first of his 7 years of his minimum 7-25 year sentence, he wrote a song to the State Governor seeking a pardon – and, believe it or not, he was released!
Lead Belly spent the rest of his days performing, writing, and recording many blues and folk songs. He made regular appearances on radio shows and even had time to go to prison twice more for stabbing two other people before his death in 1949.
Kurt Cobain, Bob Dylan, and more have credited Lead Belly as a main source of inspiration.
His powerful voice might have been the first thing to draw listeners in, but his 12-string guitar technique is what has kept us hooked.
Lead Belly is renowned for his development of a fingerstyle technique that makes the guitar almost sound more like a piano than a steel-string. Hear it for yourself in songs like “Goodnight, Irene”.
- “Papa Ain’t Salty” Video Tab
- “Call It Stormy Monday (But Tuesday Is Just as Bad)” Video Tab
- “T-Bone Shuffle” Video Tab
A blues legend among blues legends, Aaron Thibeaux “T-Bone” Walker was seemingly born to play.
Born in Texas in 1910, both his parents were musicians and friends of famed blues guitarist Blind Lemon Jefferson. T-Bone started playing in childhood and was gigging professionally by the age of 15.
From the age of 19 on, he recorded numerous hit blues songs with many different record labels.
An early adopter of the electric guitar, T-Bone made his living laying down tracks, playing clubs, and writing iconic blues standards that formed the foundation of electric blues.
T-Bone Walker is maybe the father of “far-out” playing styles. He’s been credited by Jimi Hendrix as his inspiration for tricks like playing behind the back and playing with the teeth.
Walker’s extensive discography, spanning nearly 50 years, contains countless blues gems that are required learning for students of Texas, jump, West Coast, or electric blues styles.
Dive into the soulful solo of this “Papa Ain’t Salty” tab to wrap your hands around what makes T-Bone a hero of blues heroes.
Our top recommendations for blues electric guitars are here if you need to upgrade your axe.
[Image Credit: Hooks Bros., Memphis, circa 1935, ©1989 Delta Haze Corporation]
- “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom” Video Tab
- “Hellhound on My Trail” Video Tab
- “Me and the Devil Blues” Video Tab
Few musicians are as shrouded in mystery as Robert Johnson.
This famous bluesman, born in Mississippi in 1911, played harmonica around his hometown in his younger years and was not known as a particularly good guitarist.
That is until around 1929 when he went to study guitar under his mentor, Ike Zimmerman. The two would sit in graveyards, playing and writing the Delta blues.
When Johnson returned from this short time of study, he had suddenly become one of the most talented blues guitarists the world had yet seen.
Thus arose the legend of the longing guitarist selling his soul at the crossroads to the Devil himself.
Whether it was Satanism or the merits of raw practice, Robert Johnson was imbued with skill in all musical manners.
The founding member of the fated “27 Club”, Johnson toured the U.S. and into Canada singing his deep South blues before dying young of unknown causes.
The blues, many will argue, is all about the emotion you put into it.
Robert Johnson was truly a master of filling his songs with pure soul, quoted by Eric Clapton as having “the most powerful cry that I think you can find in the human voice.”
Of course, technical skill is important too, and Johnson had no lack in this realm.
When Keith Richards first heard Johnson’s recordings, he couldn’t believe it was just one guitar playing each part at the same time.
Johnson’s innovative basslines, like those in “Dust My Broom” [tab] paired with his unrivaled fingerstyle slide technique, have earned him the well-deserved title of one of the greatest guitarists of all time.
If you’re ready to kick off your own acoustic blues journey, check out our review of the best blues acoustic guitars.
No piece on the best blues guitarists can be complete without mentioning “the King of Blues” himself, Mr. B.B. King.
King, like so many great blues guitarists before him, was born in Mississippi in the earlier part of the 20th century.
After his formative years performing in the local church choir, King went on to play guitar for the Famous St. John’s Gospel Singers before studying guitar under Bukka White.
Following his childhood dream of being a radio musician, B.B. King began to appear on broadcasts starting in the late 40s.
He then progressed to forming his own band, touring and recording extensively over the following years.
When I say extensively, boy do I mean it. On average, King played more than 200 shows per year for most of his life!
King’s colorful, soul-driven virtuosic solos are what propelled him into the spotlight where he stayed for more than 70 years.
In addition to his many philanthropic missions, he regularly charted in the top hits over his lifetime, leaving an inarguable mark on musical history.
Few other guitarists have made the guitar sing in such a way as B.B. King. Though, if you want to try your hand at it, you might give the smooth “Paying the Cost to Be the Boss” [Tab] a go.
Clapton’s life may not have the same tinge of circumstantial struggle that has beset many blues greats, but that hasn’t stopped him from being one of the most spirited songwriters of all time.
Dedicated to the art of perfecting his tone since the age of 15, Clapton would tirelessly listen to recordings of his earliest practice sessions in seeking to overcome his mistakes.
This ultimately paid off, as you probably know. Following stints in several highly successful rock bands, Clapton carried his career through countless recordings and performances.
His many successful projects and tireless drive for musical success cemented his place in the annals of blue’s greatest guitarists.
The only 3-time inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Clapton’s place is firmly established through his intricate phrasing, masterful ear for melody, and intuitive sense of musical flow.
His blues rock riffs have served as part of the bedrock upon which the whole future of rock was based.
To learn the key to expressing your spirit through your guitar alone, take a swing at some of Clapton’s most gut-wrenching works like “Tears in Heaven” [Tab].
More Great Blues Guitarists to Check Out
The Top 5 can do no justice to the many amazing blues musicians the world has seen over the years.
To find out more about these and many other best guitarists of all time, check out Guitar World’s tribute to 100 top guitar gods.
Otherwise, here’s a quick look at my other blues idols and my favorite songs of theirs. Be sure to check out these tabs and videos to learn all you can about mastering the art of blues guitar.
- Chuck Berry – “Johnny B. Goode” Video Tab
- Elmore James – “Standing at the Crossroads” Video Tab
- John Mayer – “Slow Dancing in a Burning Room” Video Tab
- Son House – “Death Letter Blues” Video Tab
- Taj Mahal – “Cakewalk into Town” Video Tab
- Stevie Ray Vaughan – “Pride and Joy” Video Tab
- Muddy Waters – “I Feel Like Going Home” Video Tab
- Albert King – “Blues Power” Video Tab
- Howling Wolf – “Little Red Rooster” Video Tab
- Lightnin’ Hopkins – “Baby Please Don’t Go” Video Tab
For even more great blues tunes to learn, check out our list of the Top 80 Easy Blues Guitar Songs for Beginners.
This genre is born out of hard times and challenging lives. The best blues guitarists are those that persevere through the struggle while making music along the way.
They transform their pain into art, managing life’s difficulties the best way they can – through six strings and a steady beat.
Their contributions to the blues are the reason this style itself has endured the rigors of time to this day.
So, the next time you take out your axe to jam some blues, take a moment to remember these legendary players.