The Greatest Guitar Players in History |The 1940's & 50's

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Guitarists in the Limelight

By the turn of the 1940’s, the influence that Charlie Christian had on his fellow guitar players became apparent. Guitarists wanted to be heard – they wanted to break free from the monotony of background rhythm playing, so with Christian leading the way and amplifiers now available, they could be.

His speedy one line playing imitated the Saxophone and influenced other players around him. The sound was just as thought provoking and musical as the Sax itself. Horn sections were rapidly being replaced by this new exciting guitar sound.

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Before his death in 1941, Christian had a short playing partnership with another pioneer at the time – Aaron Thibeus Walker, a.k.a T-Bone Walker. He took inspiration from the Delta Blues players and during the 1930’s, had played Banjo as an attempt to be heard in the string bands he played in.

Following a move to the west coast of America, he purchased his first electric guitar and pioneered a new way of playing which paved the way for a whole host of up and coming blues guitar players.

Guitarists of the time were in awe of Walkers success, particularly after the hugely popular release of T-Bone Blues’ in 1940 with Les Hite’s Cotton Club Orchestra. Many transitioned from acoustic to electric guitar.

Walker had developed his own unique playing style such as bending strings and playing with vibrato. This coupled with his natural showmanship including playing guitar behind his back, he influenced some of the greatest guitarists to follow including Jimi Hendrix, B.B King, Duane Allman and Eric Clapton.

T-Bone Walker - The Ultimate Collection. Click image for audio samples and latest prices

T-Bone made great use of the volume control on his amplifier and with a keen ear, he had the ability to get the best tone from his guitar.

The higher volume helped with the instruments natural ability to sustain and added a warmer harmonic quality to the sound.

The electric guitar is a very versatile instrument and Walker knew how to get the best from it. He could do it all, from long and expressive single note sounds to thick supportive chord playing.

With his success, his music traveled further afield and went on to inspire Rhythm and Blues bands in the U.K. These included the Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds and Fleetwood Mac.

By 1947 with the release of ‘Call it Stormy Monday’ – his biggest hit, Walker preferred playing with a smaller band lineup of six members. 

With six, it bridged the gap between the solo players like Robert Johnson or Charlie Patton and the larger big bands of the 20’s and 30’s. It became popular and adopted by bands that would find success over the next few decades.

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Throughout the 1940’s the electric guitar went from a novelty to popular and respected musicians instrument. 

The Gibson guitar company had helped with this since releasing their ES 150 electric guitar back in 1936.  The ES 150 was seen by the majority of musicians as the first real electric guitar available.

The Gibson ES 150, a popular choice amongst players at the time

Other variations were aimed at a mid priced level and now other companies such as Harmony and Kay were releasing budget models which helped fuel the growing interest and demand.

These lower priced instruments were particularly popular, especially as the hard times struck all with the great depression. During this time, many African Americans in the south were forced to migrate north in search of jobs in larger cities.

Chicago's Biting Blues Sound

Many African Americans ended up in the ‘Windy City’ – Chicago. They brought their skills as entertainers as well as their appreciation and love of music.  

Chicago held a lot of expectation for black communities and was a world away from the country lifestyle of the south they were used to.

The style of blues was influenced by the urban, industrialised surroundings and over the next few years a new way of playing emerged.

Chicago's skyline in the 1940's

Chicago Blues – as it became known, was influenced by the Delta blues style – taking its lead from Robert Johnson songs such as ‘Dust My Broom‘ and ‘Love in Vain’. 

Players used electric guitars, amplifiers and P.A systems to make themselves heard over the crowded noise of the clubs and venues.

With more power and edge than the rural blues, the musicians embraced this fresh, loud and aggressive sound.  Band lineups would also include keyboards and harmonicas. 

The lyrical content reflected new struggles – unemployment, being vastly underpaid when in a job, loneliness, lost love and oppression.

In 1943, one of Chicago’s newest residents Muddy Waters moved to the city from Clarksdale Mississippi.  Waters was a talented guitar player and by the age of 18, was fluent in the bottleneck slide of Delta blues playing.

He brought his talents to his new home and played in local clubs and venues and by chance had an encounter with Chess Records – who he later signed a recording deal with and by 1948 released the single ‘I can’t Be Satisfied’. 

Featuring slide guitar and an edgy rhythm, it’s sound was a huge influence on Rock and Roll which exploded a few years later. 

His pioneering take on blues inspired many great bands to follow including The Beatles and especially The Rolling Stones – who named their band after his song ‘Rollin Stone’.

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This harder blues style also appeared in neighbouring city Detroit by another future guitar legend. John Lee Hooker – (also from Clarksdale Mississippi) had settled in Detroit after a string of menial jobs in other cities.

During his childhood, his stepfather (a blues singer and guitarist) had introduced him to blues music and with this style he played in clubs and house parties at night, supplemented by a day job in a hospital.

John Lee Hooker playing later in his career in 1978

With a growing amount of fans, Hooker drew the attention of T-Bone Walker, who famously gave him a new electric guitar as a gesture of encouragement. Hooker grew in confidence with this and from 1948 with the release of ‘Boogie Chillin‘ started his hugely successful and varied recording career.

Another key influence on shaping popular guitar music – Chuck Berry also wound up in Chicago. He performed whatever the audiences wanted to hear, mixing ‘Country and Western’ with blues styles – quickly gaining an enthusiastic following.

The buzz about him grabbed the attention of Muddy Waters, who introduced him to Leonard Chess of Chess Records.

Chess – the number one blues record label in the U.S were impressed with his sound and was signed up, releasing his debut single ‘Maybellene‘ in 1955. It’s descriptive story telling struck a chord with the youngsters and was a commercial success.

Chuck Berry

His distinctive playing and stage presence played a crucial part in the development of Rock and Roll music. Follow up hits included ‘Roll Over Beethoven‘ in 1956, ‘Rock and Roll Music‘ in 1957 and ‘Johnny B. Goode‘ in 1958.

The Three Kings of Blues Guitar

Back down south, in Memphis Tennessee, BB king (Riley B.King) was following in the footsteps of T-Bone Walker with his own take on a sophisticated blues sound. At first, King had struggled to gain commercial success until his cover of Lowell Fulson’s ‘Three O’Clock blues‘ made it into the charts in 1952.

B.B King playing his Gibson 'Lucille'

His mothers cousin Bukka White – a delta bluesman, had sparked his interest and gave him a love of bottleneck slide guitar.

King stuck to playing regular guitar but tried to re-create the feel of the slide by playing in an expressive way, bending strings and using vibrato for sustain.

Playing regular Gibson semi-acoustics, popular at the time and after a brief stint recording with the new Fender guitars, (Stratocaster and Telecasters) he settled on a Gibson 335 semi-acoustic. It’s large body and and tone suited him perfectly.

BB’s style fused the call and response element of gospel with a blues form and a hint of Jazz throw in for good measure.  He’d sing a line, then answer it by playing a phrase on the guitar. 

T-Bone’s influence was apparent in his playing too – the expressive style and long single note sustain played a big part in his sound. B.B King also went on to influence the other two ‘Kings’ of blues – Albert King and Freddie King.

In 1956, Albert King (real name Albert Nelson) had moved to St Louis Missouri and his soulful blues performances were becoming very popular in their own right. 

He changed his surname to King on account of B.B King’s success with “Three O’Clock Blues‘. By 1967, the title track of his album ‘Born Under a Bad Sign‘ became his most popular and influential release.

Albert King with his trademark Gibson 'Flying V'

He was born on a cotton plantation in Indianloa Mississippi and came from a large family of 13 children – his father playing guitar in church with a gospel band. 

Intrigued with the instrument, he made his own make shift guitar from a cigar box and a broom wire until he could afford his first real guitar.

He was to become a key influence on the blues and rock players of later years, such as Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Robert Cray. 

Being left handed, King added to his unique sound and tone by playing regular right-handed guitars upside down but keeping them strung the right-handed way.

He would bend the strings by pulling them down rather than pushing them up and was also a fan of open tunings. By 1958, he used a Gibson ‘Flying V’ style guitar as his main instrument – it’s visually striking look complemented his unique playing style.

Freddie King was just 6 years old when his mother and Uncle introduced him to the guitar. Like many of the African American community, Freddie’s family made the move from the south (Dallas Texas) to the windy city of Chicago.

He was just 15 when arriving in the big city and was in his element – sneaking into clubs and bars to watch some of the greatest guitarists ever to play, including T-Bone Walker, Howlin Wolf and Muddy Waters.

Freddie King

His love of blues music grew and he formed his own band ‘The Every Hour Blues Boys’ in the early 1950’s. 

A decade later after several repeat rejections from the pinnacle of blues record labels ‘Chess Records’ – Freddie King released a cover of B.B Kings ‘Have You Ever Loved A Woman’ on ‘Federal Records’ followed by ‘Hideaway’ and ‘The Stumble‘.

It was these first few recordings that went on to play a key role in influencing the British blues players – especially Eric Clapton and others such as Peter Green of Fleetwood Mac.

The Influence of the Radio DJ

Throughout the 40’s, racial segregation was still in force across America, however within the music community, (both listeners and musicians) race boundaries were beginning to disappear.

African American music (a.k.a ‘Race Music’) was popular with white communities too and with the vast melting pot of musical styles by that point including Folk, Country, Jazz and Delta blues, something exciting started to take shape.

In 1947, Jerry Wexler, a writer for Billboard Magazine described African American music as ‘Rhythm and Blues’ and its appeal was spreading fast and wide helped by the popularity of the radio DJ.

People across the states would tune in to their favourite stations to hear the music they loved. Whether or not the song was performed by black or white musicians became irrelevant.

A record store owner named Leo Mintz explained his observation to his friend, DJ Alan Freed.  Freed had a popular show on WJW in Cleveland Ohio and loved finding and playing new music to his large audience.

Mintz told him of a new trend he saw in his record store where many teenagers from white families were coming in and buying Rhythm and Blues records.

DJ Alan Freed - Introduced Rock and Roll to mainstream audiences

Despite racial laws still in place at the time, the youngsters knew that they were buying African American music and it didn’t stop them.

The shallow radio pop music no longer appealed to them and they found blues music expressed many of the emotions and views.

The kids felt a connection to the music, they felt frustrated and wanted a voice and culture of their own.

Freed saw himself as a cutting edge DJ, so he cautiously persuaded the white radio station bosses to dedicate his show to bringing the listeners (the majority who were also white) the best new sounds from the Rhythm and Blues scene.

He re-named himself ‘Moondog’ and with this switch influenced the kids into buying the latest R&B hits.

The popularity of his show grew and gained and his audience grew into a huge listenership. In 1951 Freed used the phrase ‘Rock and Roll’ to describe ‘Rhythm and Blues’ and changed the name of his show to ‘The Moondog Rock and Roll Party‘.

Down in Memphis, another influential DJ, Dewey Phillips became the first to play African American music to a white audience in 1951.  

The song was ‘Rocket 88‘ by ‘Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats’ – the song itself was pioneering in that it was the first record released to include a distorted guitar sound.

This happy accident occurred when a guitar amplifier fell off the back of a van on the way to a recording session. 

The speaker cone was damaged and produced a distorted tone when they checked it in the studio, but producer Sam Phillips of Sun Studios decided to keep it on the recording.

The legendary Sun Studios in Memphis Tennessee

The Rockabilly and Country Influence

Dewey Phillips also introduced listeners to the debut single by a young man named Elvis Presley – the soon to be ‘King of Rock and Roll’. 

Elvis’ popularity was made greater by his first hit ‘Thats Alright Mama‘ having repeated airplay on Phillips’ show.  The look and the stage performance had mass appeal for white and black kids alike.

Elivs Presley

Elvis was the first white Rock and Roll star and a sex symbol for the angst ridden youngsters. The girls fell in love with him and the guys wanted to be him.  

His guitar player Scotty Moore accompanied Elvis with a fluid and loose finger picking style which reflected the Rockabilly star Chet Atkins.

Elsewhere, the Country music scene was thriving and had its own stars such as singer songwriter Jimmie Rodgers a.k.a ‘The Father of Country Music’ plus great guitar players like Merle Travis.

Travis adapted the syncopated rhythms of Ragtime Piano music to the guitar – (the term syncopation refers to deliberately playing off the regular beat). 

Travis would pick the strings alternating the bass note on the low E and A strings. This style of finger picking was given the name ‘Travis picking’ and went on to influence Chet Atkins and Scott Moore’s ‘Rockabilly’ sound.

‘Rockabilly’ was used to describe a mix of Rhythm and Blues and Hillbilly music (or as it was later known Country and Western music). 

The term ‘Hillbilly’ was a crude term used previously to describe music from rural towns and mountain ranges of the states, specifically the Appalachians. 

Rockabilly paved the way for Rock and Roll and with Elvis Presley’s influence over the masses, it was this that thrived in the years to come.

Throughout the 1950’s, Elvis’ releases on Sun Records became the blueprint of countless other successes in Rock and Roll.

Elvis’ style broke down racial barriers – his music was influenced by black performers and with Elvis being white –  it became seen as acceptable by the establishment to enjoy this new style of music.

Other white performers included Carl Perkins – who’s most popular hit ‘Blue Suede Shoes‘ became a classic and Bill Hayley, who’s biggest hits ‘Rock Around The Clock‘ and ‘Shake, Rattle and Roll’ sold over a million copies.

Guitar as the Voice of a New Generation

The 40’s and 50’s saw huge changes in musical styles but also in social and economic areas too. By the mid 40’s World War II had been and gone and with a new sense of safety and optimism for the future, couples across America started families.

This gave way to a huge rise in the number of births – known as the baby boom, which aided the economic recovery of the Great Depression during the 30’s.

The rise in births after the second world war

The new generation of ‘boomers’ as they were known, thrived with the growing push on consumerism.  This of course included buying records and with the pin ups of Rock and Roll like Elvis and Chuck Berry – they felt part of a new movement which understood them and related to their struggles, such as growing pains, responsibilities and fitting in with society.

The ‘boomer’ kids wanted their own voice and opinions to be heard, they wanted to be taken seriously – and like the quote from the 1966 film ‘The Wild Angels’ which exaggerated this rebellious angst to the extreme “…We wanna to be free to do what we wanna do…”  

There was a sense of needing to rebel against ‘The Man’ – basically anyone who told them what to do or how to conform to society respectfully.

With the end of prohibition, the popularity of dance halls and live music grew. Impressionable teens and young adults fueled consumerism and good times were had in clubs and venues throughout the states.

The electric guitar was at the heart of popular music for the new generation. Fender released the Telecaster – the first mass produced solid body electric which made it possible for the average Joe to buy a guitar and start a band to express themselves.  With amplifiers and solid body electrics the volume could be cranked and every bit of emotion displayed through the music.

Muddy Waters had a great influence on the British guitarists too with his new solid body Fender Telecaster. Click the image for sample audio and latest prices on this classic album

Not just an instrument but a voice which spoke for freedom, the electric guitar assisted performers in ushering in the Rock and Roll era – which itself evolved to play a pivotal roll in the emergence of the ‘Rock’ music styles that were to follow.

The instrument was seen (and still is) as a powerful symbol and tool of self expression as well as a way to impress the opposite sex. It changed popular music forever during the 50’s, with the volume available, it could now be heard – a sentiment reflected in the meaning of the music itself – Rock and Roll.

Next time…

In the next installment of ‘The Greatest Guitar Players in History” we’ll discover the natural progression of Rock and Roll. The 60’s and 70’s saw a search for even more volume, with amplifiers taller than the players and effects pedals shaping the sound further.

The Brits latched on to the American Rhythm and Blues sound and saw the potential in the younger market, giving the U.S performers a run for their money and starting a musical invasion in the process.

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