The History of Blues Guitar

If there is one thing the music geeks most often agree about, it’s the fact that the unique sonic expression and pure emotion-driven sound of blues guitar is something that will never be duplicated in the history of music. Considering the genre’s history and life stories of some of its most prominent figures, it’s no wonder really.

Before we venture further into the blues history domain, let’s underline a few of the blues guitar main characteristics. So apart from underlying the artist’s basic emotion mentioned beforehand, blues guitar is characterized by the following:

  • Repetitive chord progressions
  • Pentatonic scales
  • Harmonic seventh variations
  • Shuffle rhythm, or groove

The foundations and the early days of blues

The story of blues guitar started way back during the 1920’s and 1930’s with the early works of such iconic guitarists as Robert Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Lonnie Johnson. The blues guitar started off as an expression of the oppressed working class, with players usually compensating their lack of formal music knowledge or quality instruments and advanced technique with passion and genuine emotion. Apart from the distinctive blues scales, the guitar style often involved the use of slide, which remained a tradition even to this day among most of the modern bluesmen. As mentioned beforehand, pentatonic scales and repetitive chord progressions were one of the main blues characteristics from the very start.

40’s and 50’s blues

The blues chugged along throughout the 40’s, and finally made a critical progress leap during the 1950’s, with such iconic Chicago-based axemen as Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and BB King making a critical impact on both the blues scene and global music scene in general. The guitar always played a crucial role in the blues genre, so it’s no wonder that its most prominent figures often wielded a six-string. Standard blues acts usually also included a rhythm section consisting of drums and a bass guitar, as well as the harmonica, or a mouth harp as the second solo instrument.

Another major 50’s blues fraction included the likes of legendary John Lee Hooker and T-Bone Walker who formed yet another major blues style, the so-called California style, which combined the traditional blues with elements of other genre’s such as swing jazz. The rapid blues scene expansion and drastic sonic innovations led to further spreading of the blues staple mark, allowing it to evolve further from the working class music in started out as.

As for the Chicago’s West Side sound, it was led by guitarists Buddy Guy and Otis Rush who all based their groove on sturdy rhythm guitar strumming accompanying the groove built up by drums and the bass guitar, also allowing the solo guitar to enrich the sound with lead fills.

60’ and ‘70s blues

So expectedly, the ‘60s saw a full-on blues explosion throughout the music world. Not only did the blues spread as a genre of its own, but it also influenced the emergence of other musical styles, most notably rock ‘n’ roll, helping shape the modern culture as we know it. The work of blues legend Eric Clapton in Cream, John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers, Peter Green and Fleetwood Mac and the iconic Rolling Stones were just some of the kids hooked up on blues influences that now stand as household names.

What followed is the far more visible merger of blues and rock sound, with the blues vibe pervading in the work of such ultimate music legends as Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton and numerous ‘60s and early ‘70s rock superstars.  Although rock sound significantly changed the rules of the game, it was more than obvious that the blues was one of the key elements in the new genre’s foundation. So not only did the blues prove itself as rock’s underlying genre, but it also formed a mixture with the upcoming new sound and forged what would become known as blues rock, somewhat of an individual genre of its own. Early Peter Green-fronted Fleetwod Mac, the power trio ZZ Top, Canned Heat and numerous other artists easily fall into the blues rock category. Even Chuck Berry, a groundbreaking rock ‘n’ roll artist and rock sound pioneer is often categorized under blues rock.

‘80s and onward

The ‘80s went on in a similar manner, with blues preserving itself as both an underlying genre and an individual music form. The innovations of yet another generation of blues icons kept the sound fresh and spurred the genre to evolve further despite crossing the half-century age mark. Late Stevie Ray Vaughan often crosses one’s mind first when it comes to ‘80s blues; an astonishing guitar player true to the blues sound, yet impeccably recognizable and unique.

Although the blues was revived over and over again throughout its history, many agree that by the given time it has passed its heyday. Therefore, it was up to innovative individuals to reinvent the old vibe and sound through unique approach to standard style. One could say that the each decade from ‘80s had one or several innovators distinctively above the rest, leading the pack in a certain way. Interestingly enough, such individuals were most often guitarists. Apart from Mr. Vaughan mentioned beforehand, Gary Moore, John Mayer and Joe Bonamassa also drastically stand out. More precisely, it’s the blues rock that carries on forward the most as the rock impact is often quite visible among most of the upcoming blues artists, yet the border between the two genres had become increasingly more blurry.

So despite the circumstances, blues music is alive and well to this very day, and if we take the genre’s accessible nature into consideration, alongside subjects most individuals can relate to, it’s likely that the spirit of blues will carry on for quite some time. The innovators are still expected to come, but regardless of their emergence to the music scene, we can still say without a hint of doubt that the blues genre has cemented its spot as one of the 20th century’s greatest cultural achievements long ago.

 

Marko Jovanovic

Marko Jovanovic

Marko is a freelance music journalist from Serbia. As a tech savvy individual and a regular Ultimate-Guitar.com news and feature article writer, he contributes on a wide array of musical topics with at least a pinch of rock 'n' roll always present in his work.

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