I spent many years in my youth learning and playing blues guitar, mostly electric, but some acoustic. During college, I joined a band in my hometown of Nacogdoches called Cold Shot (with Danny Britton and Richard Suggs) and played a couple of shows a month, mostly at a club called Blank and Co. We would do three sets, one acoustic and two electric, and over the years we had tons of guests join us on stage and had a great time playing mostly blues standards, maybe a little rock and roll.
Then my buddy Landis invited me up to Portland, OR, to start a band and I spent a few years up there playing with Mel Solomon and watching Jim Mesi and Steve Bradley and half a dozen other great players every night. I WAS OBSESSED!
Anyways, after I moved back to Texas, I got in touch with all my old friends and started playing old-timey and bluegrass tunes, and moved along from the blues. Mostly.
Because of my obsession in those formative years, I still retain a lot of memories and opinions. I’m gonna run through this list of favorite Texas Blues guitarists. I’ll have to talk about BB and Muddy and Brownie McGee and Leadbelly elsewhere, but for now,
Acoustic Texas Blues Guitarists
Although I have recently started exploring American Primitive Guitar, I was always pretty bad at the acoustic blues. That doesn’t mean I don’t know whats worth admiring.
Blind Lemon Jefferson
This guy’s good. Blind, if not from birth then from a very young age, and born in deep East Texas, he obviously attached himself to the guitar furiously, and is widely regarded as the father of Texas Blues. He moved on to Dallas, started making a little money and then got picked up by Paramount Records in the 1920s. He got to tour pretty widely through the south and was dead by the age of 36 (in 1929).
He was an excellent finger picker and had a voice that cut well and inspired many a blues musician to come. His most famous tracks are “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean,” which has been covered and reworked by dozens of artists, and “Matchbox Blues” which was covered by The Beatles.
Notice how interesting and varied the guitar accompaniment is. Most modern “bluesmen” could learn a lot from his spirit.
Born in Centerville, TX, Lightnin started getting some notice for playing and recording around Houston in the late 40s and 50s and was invited to play Carnegie Hall in 1960. I have a few personal stories about Lightnin. When I was a toddler Lightnin came through Nacogdoches and spent the afternoon at Stan Alexander’s house, picking and smoking a joint or two. I was a very rambunctious kid, but apparently that afternoon I spent transfixed and calm intently watching his every move. According to my dad, later that evening while he played at the Crossroads, apparently he fired his drummer during the first tune and got some kid out of the audience to join him for the rest of the set.
If you go through his recordings, you’ll notice that every track lives in its space and time – he was a different person telling a different story every time – even with the same song. Most modern “bluesmen” could learn a lot from his spirit.
Born down the river a way from Lightnin, in Navasota, Mance Lipscomb didn’t have the same level of success as Lemon or Lightnin, but as you can see in this recording of him playing WITH A BROKEN FINGER, he is a badass.
Notice how different each of these tunes is from each other. Most modern “bluesmen” could learn a lot from his spirit.
Electric Texas Blues Guitarists
Apparently, T-Bone was a protege of Blind Lemon Jefferson at the age of 10, so has roots in the acoustic blues, but he is best known for being one of the earliest showmen of the blues guitar. His slick “jump blues” style brought jazz rhythms and harmonies into the blues structure and provided a platform for his extraordinary playing. His roots were in Dallas, but he did a lot of recording and performing in the 40s and 50s in both Los Angeles and Chicago. This is an excellent film from 1962.
Notice how he plays an augmented/whole tone run on the V chord? Most modern “bluesmen” could learn a lot from that.
“The Texas Cannonball” was another fine picker from Dallas. He had a string of hits in the late 50s/early 60s including some fine instrumentals like “The Hideaway” and “The Stumble,” and recorded a few “crossover” LPs in the 70s with Leon Russell that are just amazing, in my humble opinion. When I started with Cold Shot the first 4 or 5 songs I learned were by Freddie, and that he died in 1976 at the age of 42 is a terrible shame. There are a lot of good videos of him playing live, but this clip from some weird 60s show is a personal favorite in spite of the rushed ending.
Notice how he is a badass at playing and singing and all in all the time and not fake about anything? Most modern “bluesmen” could learn a lot from that.
The “Ice Man.” Another Deep East Texas born guitar slinger, who apparently was inspired by his cousin Lightnin Hopkins playing at family gatherings, Albert went on to create an unmistakable sound and style. You may have noticed in the Freddie King video above how he played with the flat of his fingers? Albert Collins struck the notes similarly and also used an alternate tuning and a capo up the neck. I had the good fortune to see him play many times (at Antone’s, naturally) and he was just a force of nature with that stinging icy Telecaster attack. This clip is long but very fun to watch.
Notice how he is continually phrasing everything conversationally as if he is talking to you? Most modern “bluesmen” could learn a lot from that.
Johnny Winter (and his also incredible musician brother Edgar Winter) was from the East Texas coast in Beaumont. His first album, Johnny Winter, and the three he produced for Muddy Waters, I’m Ready, King Bee, and Hard Again are among my favorite albums of all time. It’s hard to pull out any one aspect of his style because he does everything so well, but here is one of my favorite solos by him.
Notice how he turns on a dime and varies his direction and pacing like the human voice? Most modern “bluesmen” could learn a lot from that.
Stevie Ray Vaughan
Another Dallas-born picker, although Austin lays a strong claim to him. Live at Montreaux, 1982. Start at 12:55 for “Texas Flood,” or watch the whole thing.
Notice how he fuses influences from all the players above (and then some) and puts it out through his personality? Most modern “bluesmen” could learn a lot from that.
Stevie’s big brother, also from Dallas. His band, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, was a counterpoint and return to roots from the blues rock of the seventies, and I especially loved their focus on swampy blues like “The Crawl,” and “Matilda,” and so forth. Live “Full-Time Lover” from 1986.
Timing and phrasing and tone. Most modern “bluesmen” could learn a lot from that.
There are many other Texas Blues Guitarists that I’ve left off the list on technicalities – Gatemouth Brown and Johnny Copeland were born in Louisiana, for example – and I’m not even sure where many of the players I saw and loved over the years are from. WC Clark, Derek O’Brien, Mel Brown, Sarah Brown (bass guitar but she’s so good), Steve James, Denny Freeman, etc. are sure to find their way into other posts for sure.
My first draft I talked about John Campbell, but then I realized he was from Louisiana. He was crazy beloved in my hometown, and when he passed at the age of 41, it made a lot of people very sad. Even the announcer in this clip displays a sense of personal loss at his passing. Most modern “bluesmen” could learn a lot from his humility and approachability.
If you like Texas Blues, check out some Zirque Bois d’Arc.