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Essential Blues Slide Guitarists

Six Influential Blues Slide Guitarists


Slide guitar is just one of the many powerful tools in the blues toolbox. A lot of blues musicians have played slide (also known as "bottleneck") through the years, but few have the talent to truly achieve the level of technical proficiency, sound, and emotion shown by these six blues slide guitarists. These are the guitarists that set the standard for slide playing, and influence future generations of blues musicians as well as rockers such as Duane Allman and Eric Claption, among many others.

1. Blind Willie Johnson

The Complete Blind Willie Johnson
Photo courtesy Price Grabber
Although not purely a blues artist, guitarist Blind Willie Johnson's unique gospel music skewed so closely to the blues in sound and emotion as to be virtually indistinguishable. Known primarily for his slide guitar playing and powerful vocal style, Johnson would sing gospel-blues and Negro spirituals on street corners in Central Texas towns. Little did the self-taught musician realize that decades later his music would not only be remembered, but that modern artists would attempt to duplicate his potent slide guitar sound.

2. Earl Hooker

Earl Hooker - Simply The Best
Photo courtesy Price Grabber
Respected by his peers, in demand for his talents, blues guitarist Earl Hooker left an indelible mark on the Chicago blues scene during the 1950s and '60s. A phenomenal slide guitarist that could play everything from blues and jazz to R&B and rock music, Hooker was the perfect session player. Although Hooker never experienced much commercial success as a recording artist, his immense talent can be heard on the work of some of blues music's biggest stars.

3. Elmore James

Elmore James - The Sky Is Crying
Photo courtesy Price Grabber
Elmore James remains, perhaps, the most important slide guitarist to break out of the blues. James' distorted, ramshackle, highly-amped sound would not only make believers out of contemporaries like Hound Dog Taylor, Homesick James, and J.B. Hutto, it would also influence a generation of blues-rock guitarists like Eric Clapton and Duane Allman, and even indirectly impact heavy metal music.

4. Muddy Waters

Muddy Waters - His Best
Photo courtesy Geffen Records
For better than three decades, Muddy Waters sat atop the fertile Chicago blues scene as its benevolent ruler, setting the style that others would follow and discovering the musicians that would help create the city's sound. Often overshadowed by his immense legacy is Waters' skill as a slide guitarist. Taking his band from club to club, from Southside to Westside, Waters and crew would climb on stage and cut the heads off competing bands. Waters' slide guitar style has influenced both the contemporary blues and blues-rock worlds.

5. Robert Johnson

Robert Johnson - The Complete Recordings
Photo courtesy Price Grabber
Even casual blues fans know the name of Robert Johnson, and thanks to the re-retelling of the story over the course of decades, many know the tale of Johnson allegedly making a deal with the devil at the crossroads outside of Clarksdale, Mississippi to acquire his incredible talents. The roots of the story lie in Johnson's relative inexperience when he first began performing, and the metamorphosis of his talent after a year's absence spent playing. Although we’ll never know the truth of the matter, one fact remains – Robert Johnson is the cornerstone artist of the blues. His unique slide guitar sound would not only impact contemporaries like Elmore James, Robert Nighthawk, and even Muddy Waters.

6. Tampa Red

Tampa Red - The Guitar Wizard
Photo courtesy Price Grabber
Six-string maestro Tampa Red would become Chicago's first guitar star, and an important bridge between the rural "country blues" of the South and the urban blues style that would evolve in the Windy City during the 1940s. Red's recording career would span 30 years and yield hundreds of songs, including future blues standards such as "Anna Lou Blues" and "It Hurts Me Too." A brilliant single-note lead stylist and slide guitarist, Red's influence is still being heard in blues music today.
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