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Top Ten All-Time Blues Guitarists

JIMI HENDRIX

"I don't want to be a rock and roll star," confessed Jimi Hendrix in an interview with Rolling Stone in November 1969, a year after the release of the third and final album by his group the Jimi Hendrix Experience and less than a year before his untimely death. A star during his lifetime, it would not be until the years following his passing that Hendrix would be considered a musical legend and pioneer of the electric guitar. Johnny Allen Hendrix was born in Seattle, Washington in November 1942 to a teenage mother, who raised her son while the father was serving in the military. He would not see his child for three years, until he was finally discharged from the army, when he applied to have his name changed from Johnny to James, but when Hendrix was nine his parents filed for divorce. The boy’s passion for music began when his father discovered an old ukulele, which he tried to play despite some missing strings. Soon after the death of his mother, fifteen-year-old Hendrix purchased an acoustic guitar for $5 but, due to being left-handed, had to turn the guitar upside down and change the strings around. He began to perform for anyone who would listen and was rarely seen without his new instrument, and the following year his father purchased an electric guitar. Forming his first group, the Rocking Kings, they made their debut at the National Armory in Kent, Washington, which led to further shows around the Seattle area. Dropping out of school the same year, he enlisted in the Army and served as a paratrooper, although he continued to play his guitar to his fellow troops in a group called the King Kasuals. Leaving the military in 1962, Hendrix made his way to Nashville, where he discovered the music of such celebrated artists as Elvis Presley and Muddy Waters. After moving once again to Harlem in New York, Hendrix was discovered by a scout who introduced him to the Isley Brothers, whom he wrote and performed with for almost a year. After a short time touring with Little Richard, he formed the Jimi Hendrix Experience in 1966. Their debut album, Are You Experienced, was released the following year. "I've got a lot to offer pop," Hendrix told Rave in 1967. "I record stuff I believe is great. Pop has less to offer me back because it is run by people who only talk about what is commercial." Two more acclaimed albums followed before Hendrix's unexpected death in September 1970. In a 2011 countdown of the greatest guitarists of all time, Rage Against the Machine's Tom Morello said, "It's impossible to think of what Jimi would be doing now; he seemed like a pretty mercurial character. Would he be an elder statesman of rock? Would he be Sir Jimi Hendrix? Or would he be doing some residency off the Vegas Strip? The good news is his legacy is assured as the greatest guitar player of all time."

ERIC CLAPTON

One of the leading figures in the blues explosion that took place in Britain in the mid-1960s, Eric Clapton has long been considered one of the most talented musicians of the last fifty years, having recorded his first Platinum-selling album in 1967 as a member of Cream, before gaining acclaim and commercial success as a solo artist with such hits as Wonderful Tonight. Born in Ripley, Surrey in 1945, six months before the end of the Second World War, Clapton started playing guitar in his early teens and at the age of seventeen joined an R&B group called the Roosters. "I began to meet lots of people who saw the world the same way as I did," Clapton told Uncut. "It's a fantastic moment when you realise it’s a fellowship and you meet other people who have respect and reverence for this music. That's what ultimately leads you to becoming a musician." This last for about a year before Clapton decided to leave, accepting an invitation to play guitar with the Yardbirds, the brainchild of vocalist Keith Relf and bassist Paul Samwell-Smith. Earning the moniker 'slowhand,' Clapton performed on the band's first two studio albums, before leaving and being replaced by Jeff Beck. Clapton then joined John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers for their second studio album, Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton which, unlike the Yardbirds, allowed Clapton to flex his writing muscles. "Eric was the first one who really had a handle on the blues," Mayall told Classic Rock’s Blues magazine last year. "He had the touch, he had the background and the knowledge of all these players who’d influenced him. Eric was very different to everybody else." Leaving after just one album, and joined forces with drummer Ginger Baker to create Cream. One of the most celebrated groups of the 1960s, Clapton appeared on all four of Cream's studio albums, while also receiving praise for their inspired reworking of Robert Johnson's 1936 composition Cross Road Blues, retitled Crossroads. By the end of the decade Cream had split, finally allowing Clapton to gain recognition as a songwriter in his own right, although he would also enjoy success with covers of Bob Marley's I Shot the Sheriff and Bob Dylan's Knockin' on Heaven's Door. Following the tragic death of his four-year-old son, Clapton wrote the track Tears in Heaven for the movie Rush which, along with his 1978 hit Wonderful Tonight, remain his most famous songs as a solo artist.

ROBERT JOHNSON

One of the first artists to inspire the urban legend of stars dying at the age of twenty-seven, which has since become a popular myth in the annals of rock and roll, Robert Johnson laid the foundation for many modern guitar techniques and how blues evolved over the decades since his passing in the summer of 1938. "Johnson did not receive much recognition until 1961, when Columbia Records released an album of his music called King of the Delta Blues Singers," explained author Patricia R. Schroeder in her biography Robert Johnson, Mythmaking, and Contemporary American Culture. "Not until his Complete Recordings appeared in 1990 did he receive widespread public acclaim. By that time he had been dead for over half a century, survived only by a few sketchy documents, the fading memories of ageing people who knew him or claimed to have known him decades ago, and twenty-nine recorded songs." It is shocking to believe that only a little over two dozen of Johnson's songs were captured on tape, which he had recorded for the for the American Record Corporation during 1936 and the following year. While little is known regarding Johnson's all-too-brief life, one of the more popular and widely-told stories that surround his his legacy is that he allegedly sold his soul to the devil in order to master the guitar, a myth that was explicitly referenced in the 1986 blues drama Crossroads. Regarding the origin of this legend, biographer Bill McCulloch stated, "Our investigation showed that the first mention of Johnson selling his soul came in a Pete Welding essays (in Down Beat) in 1966 with the infamous quote attributed to Son House, 'that Johnson sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for learning to play like that.'" Despite only less than thirty of Johnson's songs surviving, his music has inspired countless generations of musicians and blues lovers, with his work being covered by such diverse artists as Eric Clapton, Cowboy Junkies and The White Stripes.

JIMMY PAGE

Led Zeppelin remain one of the most popular rock groups of all time, often referred to by generations of musicians as one of their greatest influences. Arguably the driving force behind their success and musical genius was Jimmy Page, universally hailed as one of the finest guitar players that has ever lived. Born in 1944, Page first picked up a guitar at the age of twelve after hearing numerous rock and roll songs on the radio. "Like many young people of the era, I loved the guitar-driven rockabilly of Elvis and Gene Vincent," he told author Brad Tolinski. "It didn't take me long to notice that some of my favourite Elvis songs, like Hound Dog and Milk Cow Blues, were originally written and recorded by blues performers. We began to discover people like Arthur Crudup, who wrote Presley's hit That's All Right." It would be from there that Page would begin to embrace blues and seek out its key innovators, such as B.B. King, Elmore James and Otis Rush. His first professional work came as a session musician during the mid-1960s, in which he performed on You Really Got Me by the Kinks, Gloria by Van Morrison and I Can't Explain, the debut single from The Who, all released in 1964. Page was then approached to play guitar with the Yardbirds, writing and performing on their 1967 album Little Games, but when the band split the following year he decided to form his own. After considering several different local musicians, Page approached Band of Joy's Robert Plant to be his new frontman, while also recruiting bassist John Paul Jones and drummer John Badham. "I'm not a guitarist as far as a technician goes, I just pick it up and play it," claimed Page in a 1975 interview with Rolling Stone's Cameron Crowe, who a decade later would launch a successful career as a filmmaker. "Technique doesn't come into it. I deal in emotions." Over the next twelve years, Led Zeppelin would would release eight studio albums, several of them considered classic examples of early hard rock, while many of their tracks - such as Whole Lotta Love, Stairway to Heaven and Immigrant Song are among the finest ever written. Following the death of Bonham in September 1980, the band released one more album that featured outtakes and previously unreleased material, but with the dynamic having now changed the band eventually split. Page's solo career failed to achieve the same kind of critical or commercial success as his work with Led Zeppelin, although the 1993 album Coverdale and Page, recorded with Whitesnake frontman David Coverdale, was certified Platinum. Several times in recent years Led Zeppelin have made appearances onstage, with Bonham’s son, Jason Bonham, taking his place.

MUDDY WATERS

"Twentieth-century music is based on the blues. You wouldn't have jazz or any other modern music without the blues," stated rock legend Keith Richards in his foreword for the biography Can't Be Satisfied: The Life and Times of Muddy Waters, "And therefore every pop song, no matter how trite or crass, has got a bit of the blues somewhere in it - even without them knowing, even though they've washed most of it out." Along with Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters is one of the most influential and celebrated blues artists of all time, cited by countless musicians as a pioneer and inspiration in their own work. Born McKinley Morganfield in 1913, one year after the sinking of the Titanic and a year before the outbreak of war across Europe, Muddy was raised by his grandmother, who allegedly was only in her early thirties when he was conceived and who was ultimately responsible for the nickname that he would later become known professionally by. Raised on a plantation in Mississippi during the early years of the Great Depression, Muddy learned the harmonica as a means to provide a distraction from the struggles of poverty, before finally being able to afford a phonograph. Among the artists whom he would regularly listen to and ultimately become inspired by were such guitarists as Barbecue Bob and Blind Lemon Jefferson and before long he had expressed his own desire to make music. In 1932 he married a local girl from the plantation called Mabel Berry, and his wedding celebration saw an appearance from blues guitarist Robert Nighthawk, who performed for the crowd. A few years later, Nighthawk announced that he was travelling to Chicago to pursue his musical dreams and invited Muddy to join him but he declined the offer, only to discover soon afterwards that Nighthawk had managed to release a record. But by the end of the decade he had begun to gain a strong reputation of his own in the area for his guitar playing, and in August 1941, four months before America joined the Second World War, Muddy was visited by folklorist Alan Lomax, who intended to record various blues musicians in the area. In 1947 he was invited to record with Delta pianist Sunnyland Slim, and three years later Muddy enjoyed his commercial breakthrough with the hit single Rollin' Stone. Success followed over the next decade, although Muddy never became a household name, but he did prove to be an inspiration to young musicians, with his first hit even providing the name for one of the biggest rock bands in the world, the Rolling Stones. Muddy died in 1983 at the age of seventy.

STEVIE RAY VAUGHAN

In 2000, ten years after his death, Stevie Ray Vaughan was inducted into the Blues Foundation's Hall of Fame. Despite having never broken into the mainstream and largely ignored by the music press, he had posthumously gained a loyal following as a gifted and unique pioneer of modern blues. Born in Dallas, Texas in 1954, three-and-a-half years after his older brother Jimmie, Vaughan spent the first few years of his life on the road as their father moved from town to town, following work wherever it was available. Music entered his life by accident when Jimmie was injured during a high school football game, forcing him to bow out of sport and search for a new outlet. "A friend of my father brought over a guitar and handed it to him and said, 'Hey, play this, it won't hurt you,' and Jimmie started playing right away," explained Vaughan in a 1988 interview. "It was amazing to watch him do it. He had three strings on the guitar and I went to school and came home and he'd made up three songs. I'm serious." Eager to follow in his older brother's footsteps, Vaughan also tried his hand at learning a music instrument, often strumming the guitar when Jimmie was not around. At the age of fifteen, the older sibling began performing in a local group called the Penetrations, before then moving onto to another act known as the Chessmen. Soon afterwards, Vaughan once again took his brother's lead and formed his own group, playing wherever they could, and soon he stayed out late and came home drunk. In 1976 he launched his first real band, Triple Threat Revue, who soon gained a small following around Austin and neighbouring Texan cities, but this proved to be short-lived and this Vaughan and one of his bandmates formed a new act, Double Trouble. After landing the opening slot for the Clash on their American tour, Vaughan was approached to perform guitar on David Bowie's latest album, Let's Dance, at the request of the legendary singer. Two months later, Double Trouble's own debut, Texas Flood, was released through Epic Records. Over the next seven years, Vaughan enjoyed equal success and acclaim, but tragically both his life and career were cut short when he died in a helicopter crash in East Troy, Wisconsin, shortly after performing with Double Trouble.

PETER GREEN

Over the years, Fleetwood Mac had gone through several radical changes to both their sound and image, first emerging in the late 1980s as a blues act, before embracing psychedelia and later melodic rock and synth pop. Their first incarnation was created by guitarist Peter Green, following his departure from John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers. Born Peter Greenbaum in 1946, his father changed the family name through deed poll to Green two years later. At the age of ten, Green's interest turned to music after he was given a Spanish-style guitar. Throughout his late teens he spent a short time in a handful of local groups, before being approached by John Mayall to join the Bluesbreakers. After leaving the band, he recruited Mick Fleetwood and later John McVie from Mayall and formed Fleetwood Mac. Signed to Blue Horizon soon afterwards, the band’s first release was a rendition of Elmore James’ I Believe My Time Ain’t That Long, while their eponymous debut arrived a few months later. Over the next three years, the band enjoyed a string of popular hits, including the top five hits Man of the World and Oh Well, and their only U.K number one, Albatross. Following a scary LSD experience in Germany in early 1970, Green began to distance himself from his bandmates and eventually decided he was going to quit, immediately withdrawing from the public eye. Following a solo album, The End of the Game, Green took a hiatus for a few years due to health issues, but has remained active since the late 1970s.

B.B. KING

"It seems like I always had to work harder than other people. Those nights when everybody else is asleep, and you sit in your room trying to play scales," said B.B. King in a 2009 interview with the Telegraph. "I just wonder where I was when the talent was being given out, like George Benson, Kenny Burrell, Eric Clapton… oh, there’s many more! I wouldn’t want to be like them, you understand, but I’d like to be equal, if you will." Born in Mississippi in the mid-1920s and raised by his grandmother, Riley B. King spent much of his childhood working on a plantation and left school with few prospects. Born in Mississippi in the mid-1920s and raised by his grandmother, Riley B. King spent much of his childhood working on a plantation and left school with few prospects. His passion for performing was born from singing in church, but soon his interest also turned to guitar. After serving for a short time in the military and spending a few months in Memphis, Tennessee, King started his career as a recording artist in 1949 and over the next decade he enjoyed success with a slew of hit singles, while also winning a Grammy Award. While the 1950s remained the highpoint of his career, King was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the mid-1980s.

JOHN LEE HOOKER

Scoring a hit with the same song thirty years apart, John Lee Hooker was in his mid-twenties when he first embarked on a career as a musician and remained active until his death at the age of eighty-three. Hailing from Mississippi, Hooker was born in 1917, the son of a sharecropper, but in the early 1940s he moved to Detroit, where he worked as a janitor until he was introduced to the owner of Sensation Records, Bernard Besman. Hailing from Mississippi, Hooker was born in 1917, the son of a sharecropper, but in the 1940s he moved to Detroit, where he worked as a janitor until he was introduced to the owner of Sensation Records, Bernard Besman. His first important recording was entitled Boogie Chillen’, which transformed him into a star overnight. Following this surprise success, many of Hooker's songs were released through the recently-formed Modern Records, including Hobo Blues and Crawling King Snake, while the early 1960s saw another hit with Boom Boom. Hooker enjoyed something of a revival in 1989 with The Healer, an album that saw collaborations with the likes of Bonni Raitt, George Thorogood and Carlos Santana. "That was my big record, that was a real big record that put me right back on track again," he admitted in a 1996 interview. "Carlos Santana was very good on that record. He's not a blues guy at all, he's a Latin guitarist, but what we did together there was real good. What did it was his guitar and my voice. He's got his own voice on the guitar – one note from Carlos and you know it's him – and I guess one note from me and you know it's me, too."

JOHN MAYALL

John Mayall is one of the unsung heroes of modern blues, having almost been single-handedly responsible for its popularity in Britain during the mid-1960s. Earlier in his career he had helped to nurture the talents of Eric Clapton, Peter Green and Mick Taylor, while also introducing classic blues to a new generation of music lovers. Raised in the northern England town of Macclesfield, Mayall was the son of a guitarist and was raised in a musical home, being introduced to the works of Lead Belly and Eddie Lang from a young age. "I always heard music in the home," he told Classic Rock. "I went to art school in Manchester. There was a great record shop there and they had plenty of blues records to choose from, more than I could ever afford to pay for on my student wages." Following three years in the army, Mayall performed around Manchester with his group the Blues Syndicate, before moving to London to form a new group, the Bluesbreakers. While the band would be notable for boasting the talents of Clapton and Green, Mayall was a talented guitarist in his own right and would remain the Bluesbreakers’ guiding force until they disbanded in 1969. Soon afterwards, he released the appropriately-titled acoustic album The Turning Point, before relocating to Los Angeles to start a new life. Mayall continued to release albums through Polydor and ABC, until the long-awaited Bluesbreakers reunion saw him alongside Fleetwood, Jones and McVie once again.