Throughout the history of popular music, the electric guitar is arguably the most familiar and enduring of instruments that has at once warmed our hearts and expanded our horizons. Over the years, a number of African-Americans would comprise a select cadre of some of the greatest musicians to showcase this six-string and 12-string wonder to the world.
B.B. King was widely recognized as the greatest blues guitarist of all time. The title derives not only from his mastery of the guitar, but from the generosity of spirit he brought to the blues.
King was often called the “common man’s blues player” and is hailed as one of the top 100 guitarists of the past 60 years. King’s biting lead guitar (a black Gibson affectionately named “Lucille”), his passionate vocals and a genteel presence have epitomized the blues for millions of listeners.
At a time when the sales of blues records began to wane because of the popularity of Motown and Stax records—and also the British Invasion—King helped to popularize the blues with rock audiences. During the late ‘60s King would perform with rock artists like Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton, the latter of whom has cited King as a crucial influence on his career.
King was influenced by the early blues recordings of Robert Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson and King’s admitted favorite, Sonny Boy Williamson, whom he once said was instrumental to his learning to play the guitar. He was particularly known for his trademark “first-finger” vibrato that shook at the wrist and punctuated each note.
King’s most enduring hit was 1969’s “The Thrill Is Gone” which won a Grammy Award in 1971. King won a 1984 Grammy for Best Traditional Blues Recording for “Blues ‘n’ Jazz;” a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1988; induction into the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame in 1992; a Presidential Medal of Freedom Award from President George W. Bush in 2006; and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Aaron Thibeaux Walker was an American composer, musician and blues guitarist known for his “lightning-fast” finger work. He was the earliest pioneer of both electric blues and jump blues type of music. Walker was placed at number 67 by Rolling Stone magazine on its list of “the 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time” in 2011.
In 1929, Walker released his recording debut with Columbia Records under the name Oak Cliff T-Bone. He released two singles titled “Wichita Falls” and “Trinity River Blues.” In his mid-20s he started working in several clubs along Central Avenue in South Los Angeles together with Les Hite’s orchestra.
By the 1940s Walker had moved to Chicago and began recording with the Marl Young Orchestra. Following World War II, Walker recorded his major hit “Call It a Stormy Monday (But Tuesday is Just as Bad’), a blues standard that has been recorded worldwide. Other songs during this period include “Bobby Sox Blues” and “West Side Baby.”
“T-Bone Blues” is perhaps Walker’s most popular composition. It took five years to write, arrange and record the song. By the late 1950s, he—and many more blues stars—began to lose audience favor because of the growing popularity of rock ‘n roll. He recorded “I Want a Little Girl” in 1968 and remained active primarily in small clubs at home and overseas.
T-Bone Walker was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1980 and entered the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.
The “King of the Slide Guitar” had a significant influence in the development of rock music. His 1952 hit “Dust My Broom” would encourage a string of hits largely based on the opening guitar chorus.
James’ singing was characteristically harsh, including shouted phrases which were not often done at the time. His vivid slide guitar replies to his vocals featured heavy amplifier reverberation.
James’ most praised work began in the late ‘50s and included the slow blues songs “The Sky is Crying” and “It Hurts Me Too.” Numerous rock musicians including the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton and George Harrison would adopt James’ hard-driving style playing style and often recorded his songs.
Other hits included “TV Moma,” a 1954 collaboration with Big Joe Turner; “My Bleeding Heart,” “Stranger Blues,” “Look on Yonder Wall,” “Talk To Me Baby” and “Shake Your Moneymaker.”
Elmore James was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1980 and into the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame in 1992.
Jazz guitar is among the most popular applications of the instrument. A teenage Wes Montgomery heard a recording of “Solo Flight” by the Benny Goodman Orchestra with Charlie Christian on guitar. A legendary career would follow.
While Montgomery’s place in jazz history was largely earned via his early recording, his talent was encompassing enough to enable him to take on the requirements of “commercial” music and execute with a clean, unerring taste, musicianship and true distinction.
Montgomery got his big break in 1959 when he impressed saxophonist Julian “Cannonball” Adderly who subsequently contacted Riverside Records to listen to the budding star. They signed Montgomery and he soon traveled to New York City to record his first album “The Wes Montgomery Trio.”
Over the next few years, Montgomery performed and toured with various artists and groups including John Coltrane and the Wynton Kelly Trio. He signed with Creed Taylor International records and saw a big hit with “Goin’ Out Of My Head” in 1965 which won a Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Jazz Performance. Other songs during this period included “Bumpin’ On Sunset,” “California Dreaming” and an instrumental cover of the Beatles’ “A Day In the Life.”
George Benson was a child prodigy and became famous in the 1960s while playing soul/jazz with Jack McDuff among others. He has had a highly successful solo career which includes “Breezin’,” a number one, triple platinum album in 1976 which yielded the hit “This Masquerade.”
Benson has had a profound impact on the music world when it comes to jazz and pop genres. Known as one of the world’s finest guitarists, Benson is also an accomplished vocalist. He has been universally awarded and recognized, winning 10 Grammy Awards for his work spanning more than five decades.
In the late ‘60s, Benson was a guitarist on Miles Davis’ album “Miles in the Sky” and, not long after, he signed with Creed Taylor International records which focused on jazz in leading up to his popular 1974 album “Bad Benson.”
Benson’s breakthrough in pop music was 1980’s “Give Me The Night,” produced by Quincy Jones, which included a number of hit singles such as a remake of the James Moody classic “Moody’s Mood For Love.” Benson holds an honorary doctorate of music from Berkeley College of Music and was recognized as a Jazz Master by the National Endowment of the Arts.
James Marshall Hendrix fused American traditions of blues, jazz, rock and soul with techniques of British avant-garde rock to redefine the electric guitar in his own image.
Hendrix altered the course of popular music and became one of the most successful and influential musicians of his era. An instrumentalist who radically redefined the expressive potential and sonic palette of the electric guitar, Hendrix was a composer of a classic repertoire of songs ranging from ferocious rockers to delicate, complex ballads.
Hendrix was also a charismatic in-concert performer, drawing large crowds in Europe as well as in America. Hendrix had an encyclopedic knowledge of musical roots, thanks in part to his years on the road with Little Richard and the Isley Brothers. He would also draw heavily on the music of Bob Dylan, the Beatles and the Yardbirds.
Among Hendrix’ biggest hits during his short career were “Purple Haze,” “Hey Joe,” “Red House” and “All Along the Watchtower.” The Jimi Hendrix Experience was inducted into the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame in 1992.
Guitarist/drummer/singer/songwriter Ernie Isley infused the Isley Brothers with a Jimi Hendrix-like virtuosity that took the veteran R&B group into a more rock-oriented direction. He grew up watching his older brothers O’Kelly, Rudolph and Ronald have such hits as “Shout,” “Twist and Shout” and “This Old Heart of Mine.”
Another young Isley, Marvin, along with brother-in-law Chris Jasper would join the more seasoned trio in the early 1970s to form Isley Brothers 3+3, a self-titled album that yielded the wildly popular songs “Who’s That Lady” and a cover of Seal & Crofts “Summer Breeze.” That last song showcased Ernie Isley’s fabulous guitar work that could be best described as “psychedelic funk.” It was the beginning of a string of albums spanning 13 years.
In the mid-80s, Ernie and Marvin Isley and Chris Jasper formed Isley Jasper Isley and found another smash hit with “Caravan of Love.” In 1990, Isley recorded “High Wire” to further showcase his guitar skills. In the late 1990s he reunited with Ronald Isley and they began touring once again as The Isley Brothers. Some of Ernie Isley’s most prolific guitar work can be heard on the songs “The Heat Is On Pts. 1 & 2,” “Hope You Feel Better Love Pts. 1 & 2” and “Who Loves You Better.”
Prince Rogers Nelson was the natural culmination of many of the aforementioned artists. He achieved worldwide fame in the 1980s with the album soundtrack “Purple Rain” which won an Academy Award for Best Original Song Score.
He would release the popular albums “1999” “Diamonds and Pearls,” “Around The World in a Daze,” “The Gold Experience” and “Musicology” all of which reached platinum status. Another child prodigy, Prince taught himself to play the piano, guitar and drums—and an additional 24 instruments ranging from the accordion to the xylophone.
Prince simultaneously became a well-known icon with his trademark sexual innuendo, elaborate coif, flowing jackets, and ruffled attire with punk embellishments. By the time of his 11th studio album, the soundtrack for “Batman,” (1989), Prince had become one of the world’s biggest selling artists and a most sought-after concert ticket.
In 1992 Prince signed a record $100 million deal with Warner Brothers Records, at the time the largest recording and music publishing contract in history. The contract provided Prince with the freedom to pursue TV, film, book and merchandising deals separately. As a comparison, fellow industry giants Michael Jackson and Madonna had $60 million-plus contracts that were all-inclusive.
Among the numerous awards Prince received were a 2007 Golden Globe Award for Best Original Song (“Happy Feet”); BET Lifetime Achievement Award (2010); NAACP Image Award (2005); and the American Music Award of Achievement (1995 and 1996).