Last week I declared that it’s Black History Month until I say it’s not, then explained how white people stole rock and roll from Black people. I got quite a bit of feedback, mostly surprise—not that it happened but how flagrant and thorough it was.
Beyond that, people were surprised that the guitar, generally thought of these days as a white people instrument, was pioneered by Black people. Well it goes deeper than that! It turns out some of the best guitarists of all time were Black.
We covered Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Chuck Berry last week. It’s increasingly common knowledge how amazing Prince was, and if you don’t know all about Jimi Hendrix yet I don’t even know where to begin, so it’s time to highlight five more of the greatest guitar players of all time.
Robert Johnson — “Cross Road Blues”
Yes, he played the acoustic guitar. But you wouldn’t know it from listening to him play. This song especially has all the hallmarks of the electric guitar now. Also, Johnson gets a pass because it was only invented about four years before this was recorded.
As the story goes, Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil to be able to play guitar this well. And it’s honestly hard to argue the point. He was so good in the mid-1930s that he pretty much set the template for how to play the guitar up to today. If he sounds good by today’s standards, imagine how incredible he had to be with basically no influences to speak of.
Albert King — “Born Under a Bad Sign”
I had to put one of the Kings of the Blues on the list, and it was tough to pick which one. BB King is the most famous so he’s out; I’m trying to expose you to new musicians here. And of Albert King and Freddie King, I had to go with Albert because of this song.
In case you didn’t notice “Kings of the Blues” is only half-referring to their royalty.
After Sister Rosetta and Chuck Berry owned the ’40s and ’50s, Black guitarists didn’t slow down for the ’60s, even as their white counterparts took the spotlight. The blues heavily influenced rock and roll, and the blues was the genre Black people were allowed to keep, so all the best guitarists gravitated there. And they played music that would’ve blown just about any rock band of the era out of the water if they shared a genre and an audience.
But they didn’t because, as now, music is segregated.
Buddy Guy — “Stone Crazy”
When Buddy Guy was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Eric Clapton introduced him. Jeff Beck said that when he shared the stage with Guy, he felt completely out of his element. This is the guitar player that other people considered great guitar players look up to.
The most amazing thing, though? The pandemic postponed his tour! At 83 years old he was supposed to be on the road right now. Until he had to postpone a bunch of dates due to the plague he still played over 100 shows a year, despite his first record coming out in 1958.
Gary Clark Jr. — “This Land”
Let’s jump ahead to now, when Black guitarists are still running circles around everyone else. And let’s start with one of my favorite songs of 2019.
I won’t shut up about this song. I really won’t. I’ve posted a link to that video on Twitter and Facebook with no commentary multiple times. It’s amazing in every way, including being a very comprehensive about why there are still protests every night across the country.
For the purposes of this column, though, let’s focus on the guitar: Gary Clark Jr. is really, really good at playing the guitar. So good. I mean… just listen to it. What am I supposed to say that his guitar itself doesn’t?
Christone “Kingfish” Ingram — “Hard Times”
And now we go to the future.
This man? He’s 21 years old. He has one album to his name, though he’s played with just about everyone else on this list whose lifetime overlapped with his, and more. The fact that he’s still getting better is amazing considering he’s already one of the best guitar players in the world.
He specializes in the electric guitar and he’s unparalleled at it. But I chose this song on an acoustic guitar for two reasons: First, it provides some symmetry with Robert Johnson and really highlights how influential Johnson was. Second, as the preview image highlights, Kingfish recorded this while sheltering at home and released it on April 2. This song is about two months old.
If you think there are any guitarists I missed… yeah, I know, I had to pick five. Otherwise this column would be 10,000 words long. So please do my job for me and put them in the comments.
Follow editor Daniel J. Willis and tweet column ideas to him at Twitter.com/BayAreaData.