Before there was R&B and Rock and Roll, there was the Blues. From seeds planted by the hymns and work songs of field workers, the American South’s Mississippi Delta gave birth to the first truly American musical form. In this article, Guitar Command attempts to list the best blues guitar albums ever made. Read on to find which albums we chose ...
The Ten Best Blues Guitar Albums
The guitar was just the right instrument for the blues; an instrument as rugged and as versatile as its owner. Together they have captured the imagination of generations of young musicians the world over.
It’s hard to boil the list of albums made in the tradition of the delta bluesmen down to a small number representing the whole, but here’s an attempt to list the ten best blues guitar albums ever made, in chronological order:
1. Robert Johnson – The Complete Recordings (1936/37)
All roads lead back to Robert Johnson. Legend has it that he sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads in exchange for his prodigious guitar talent. While this collection can’t be called an “album” (it was recorded well before long play records), it does comprise the entire recorded output of Robert Johnson. Which means it's pretty much a dead cert for inclusion among the best blues guitar albums. Check out the classic “Crossroads Blues”, “Terraplane Blues”, and “Dust My Broom.”
2. Son House – Complete Library of Congress Sessions (1941-42)
Son House was one of Robert Johnson’s Delta contemporaries, whom Johnson himself set out to emulate. These two sessions, recorded by the famous Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress, catch Son House mid-stride, in full voice and with a cutting slide guitar style. The first seven tracks were recorded in a store near Lake Cormorant, Mississippi, the only location handy that had electricity. Most notable among them is “Shetland Pony Blues”, in which you hear a train steam past behind the store. Also on the record are “Walking Blues”, and “Country Farm Blues”.
3. Sam “Lightnin'” Hopkins – Lightnin’ Hopkins (1959)
Hopkins had had some success over the previous decade, but had become discouraged by his failure to earn a solid living with his music, and had pawned his guitar. Sam Charters hunted him down in his Houston home, and lured him into a recording session by rescuing his guitar and buying him a bottle. The result is a raw acoustic country blues, ten songs all Lightnin’s own. Standouts include “Bad Luck and Trouble” and “See That My Grave is Kept Clean”
4. Elmore James – Blues After Hours (1961)
Elmore James earned himself the title of king of the slide guitar, and while there is some dispute as to whether he or Robert Johnson wrote “Dust My Broom”, James’ version, complete with a thundering slide guitar intro, is his signature tune. By installing pickups on a standard acoustic guitar, James made himself one of the loudest players around, and Blues After Hours shows the impact that James had on the creation of the “Chicago” blues sound.
5. Junior Wells – Hoodoo Man Blues (1965)
Junior Wells is a frontman with deep resonant vocals and fantastic harmonica technique. Buddy Guy’s guitar is the icing on a delicious cake. Although, due to contract issues, Guy is credited only as “Friendly Chap” on the original pressing of the record, he elevates this collection of studio-recorded standards and traditionals to legendary status. Eric Clapton has described Guy as his 'pilot into the world of blues guitar', and in the blues resurgence of the late 80s and 90’s, he has become one of the most prolific. Recommended cuts are “Good Mornin’ Schoolgirl” and “Chitlins Con Carne.”
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6. John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers - Bluesbreakers With Eric Clapton (1966)
Young British musicians, bored by their quick rise to dominance of the US-invented Rock N Roll, started looking further back in the American catalogue, and unearthed the truth in the form of the Delta blues. John Mayall hired a young Eric Clapton, who had just quit the Yardbirds because they wanted to play more pop-oriented material. Clapton wanted more blues. This record wasn’t released until after Clapton had left to join Cream, but it served an important role in bringing the Blues to a wider audience. It also cemented Eric Clapton as the premiere blues guitarist in Britain.
7. Albert King – Born Under a Bad Sign (1967)
A list of the best blues guitar albums has to include Albert King at some point. This record was a late breakout for Albert King, who had tasted only a little success since he began playing in the early ‘50s. The backing band for this record was the Stax Records house band, Booker T. and the MG’s. Born Under a Bad Sign was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame in the “Classic Blues Recordings” category, and received a Grammy Hall of Fame award. The tracks on the record all feature King’s excellent singing and playing, notable among them are the title track and “Kansas City.”
8. Mississippi Fred McDowell – I Do Not Play No Rock and Roll (1969)
The original Hill Country Bluesman Fred McDowell was a popular player through the late 50s and early 60s. He influenced players like Junior Kimbrough and RL Burnside, as well as many rock players. This 1969 recording features 14 songs, 12 of them written by McDowell. Many blues purists were alarmed to see the McDowell had elected to play an electric guitar on this record, but it suits him well.
9. B.B. King – Live in Cook County Jail (1971)
Even to the most casual fan of the blues, B.B. King certainly needs no introduction. When compiling a list of the ten best blues guitar albums, the question is really 'which of B.B. King’s records do you include?'. Live in Cook County Jail features 8 songs recorded live in the largest jail facility in the United States, in front of an audience comprised largely of inmates. The version of “The Thrill is Gone” on this record is certainly among King’s definitive performances.
10. Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble – Texas Flood (1983)
Stevie Ray Vaughan brought blues guitar back into vogue with his debut record. Well chosen covers, solid vocals, and soaring guitar work caught the imagination of a public that were offered very little guitar music otherwise. While it didn’t sell as much as the follow up “Couldn’t Stand the Weather”, Texas Flood is generally regarded as SRV’s best studio record. Standout tracks include the title cut, “Pride and Joy”, and a cover of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Tell Me.”
While any list of the “ten best blues guitar albums” is likely to incite controversy, mostly over the recordings that were omitted, it’s likely that, by starting with the ten records on this list, a casual blues listener will be inspired to dig deeper into the rich catalogue that is the blues, and that’s really the point.
Over To You
Do you agree with our choices? What have we missed? What would you consider to be the best blues guitar records? Let us know in the comments below.
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