Lightning Red and his series on the origins of the modern electric
Part Three: Early Electric Blues Guitarists
and the techniques and hardware used by the legends to get their
Many young players have asked me how I'm able to reproduce or generally
simulate the sounds of such blues guitar legends as B.B.King
Albert King, Freddie King, Albert Collins, John Lee Hooker
or Stevie Ray Vaughan.
As I've learned by watching and listening to these and countless
other great blues guitarists, I may be able to shed some light on a few of
the mysteries surrounding the execution of this uniquely American art form.
Since I am most knowledgeable of modern electric guitar, this will be our
primary focus. Future topics will cover modern player techniques, axes
and equipment, blues tunings, string gauges, fingering techniques, string
bending, new amplifier combinations, and whatever topics that may be of
I welcome any input, suggestions, comments, etc. If you note an inaccuracy
in anything you read, please let me know. All of us are continually learning.
Contents © 1997 Lightning Red
In this installment of the Talkin' Blues Guitar Series I would like to mention a number of influential blues guitarists who helped lay the groundwork for the "urban" electrified sounds that have influenced many successive generations of players, and who should be heralded for their contribution to this great American art form -- the Blues. I realize I may have skipped over one or a number of your favorite players from this era and do not wish to slight anyone or ignore a significant contribution they might have made. If so, please accept my apology, and please let me know.
In subsequent installments I plan to devote one or more articles to the active, contemporary players among us who deserve serious attention, to devote an entire article to John Lee Hooker and his influence on the modern 'Boogie' and its many family trees and devotees. I plan to attend to Elmore James, Duanne Allman, Earl Hooker, Bonnie Raitt, Roy Rogers among others in my article on Slide Guitar Techniques, to look back far into the past toward the very early days and Delta Blues, and to cover a number of other topics and include many more players as we go.
Thanks for reading and please send along any corrections, comments and critiques that you may have. Best Blues to you all.
"If you don't like the Blues, you've got hole in your soul."
- Luther Allison, speaking to the crown at the 1972 Ann Arbor Blues Festival
If Magic Sam (Sam Maghett) had not died in 1969 at the young age of 32, he could easily have developed into one of the world's greatest guitarists. Some say that he might have even eclipsed Jimmy Hendrix. His virtuosity was unparalleled and his haunting voice was a unique instrument unto itself. Along with Otis Rush, Freddie King and Buddy Guy, Sam Maghett was a founding member of the West Side Chicago scene, and a strong influence on subsequent generations of players.
Before his death, Sam performed to roaring crowds at San Francisco's Fillmore and Avalon Ballroom as well as the `69 Ann Arbor Blues Festival in Ann Arbor, Michigan.. Of all the Chicago blues performers, only Freddie and Albert King shared his level of stature with the young rock audiences of the `60s. Magic Sam was also one of the few
blues guitarists of his day to record instrumentally. As they say, "He could boogie all night long!"
Aspiring players take note; it is a must for you to spend some time with the music of this great guitarist. Whether you plan to specialize in blues or rock or another field, I believe it is well worth your time to check out any of these classic recordings: West Side Soul-Delmark (615), Black Magic-Delmark (620), Magic Sam Live-Delmark (DE 645), West Side Guitar-Paula (PCD 02), Give Me Time-Delmark (DD 654), Magic Touch-Black Top (BT 1085).
Other than myself, Ronnie Earl is the only guitarist I've heard attempt Magic Sam's fine instrumental, 'Lookin' Good'. This would be a great tune on which to practice your boogie chops. The chord formations are not terribly difficult to play, but it will take a bit of doing to figure out exactly how they are formed. Good luck and happy practicing. Other cool tunes to check out are 'Found A New Love', 'Every Night And Every Day', 'Love Will Never Die', 'Love Me With A Feelin', and 'All Your Love'. 'All Your Love' is one of the most hauntingly beautiful songs I've heard, and one that I'm petrified to attempt live.
Robbin Ford recently had a hit with Magic Sam's classic 'Mama, Talk To Your Daughter' and I believe the Englishman, Gary Moore also did an uptempo version that was also very popular. However, the original version is much more lively in a very natural way than either of these, and when I do my best to reproduce it on stage (with a slight Rockabilly tinge added) folks don't even recognize it. Some even accuse me of doing it "wrong". Boy, when you do the authentic, original version of a song and you get blasted for "messing up", somethin' is amiss, indeed. So, pleeeeze get yourself some Magic Sam. There are already way too many under-educated wanna-be blues players who suffer from this significant gap in their musical education.
Otis Rush remains one of my favorite blues guitar heroes. Born in Philadelphia, Mississippi in 1934, Otis Rush became a mainstay of Chicago's West Side six years after arriving there in 1948. I first witnessed this blues giant in concert at the University of Illinois in `69. His stinging cherry red Gibson 335 impressed me nearly as much as his high-pitched but rugged voice and 'classic' compositions. When he lit into 'So Many Roads', 'All Your Love', 'Can't Quit You, Baby' or 'Double Trouble', this young, gangly aspiring blues player (myself, that is) truly saw Heaven.
Rush played left-handed, without rearranging the placement of the strings. In other words, the high E was at the bottom and the low E was at the top of the neck. Albert King also played the guitar in this configuration. With his economical string-bending and vibrato-like chording, Otis left his listeners breathless. No one can truly say they are an electric blues guitarist without studying the songs and phrasing of this gargantuan talent. Although a run of sour luck pushed him into retirement during the early `80s, Clifford Antone made sure Rush had a place to perform and although it was a real treat to discover him there, it was disappointing to find him playing a white Stratocaster.
I had really enjoyed the way he made that Gibson 335 sing, and the Strat's sound just wasn't the same. Although proficient at playing it, I felt a bit of his magic had been lost. It's a sad thing; a bluesman finding an affordable Gibson 335 or 345 that "feels right" is about as likely as waking up on Mars. And, acquiring a vintage model similar to the one that Mr.Rush played in `69 is way out of reach for nearly anyone today.
To replace my `59 345-TD would take almost a year's salary, and I've met a number of players who would like to replace their stolen Gibsons or vintage Fenders but are financially unable. Perhaps there needs to be a foundation set up to help worthy blues guitarists regain their former sound. Would be nice. I even saw Joe "Guitar" Hughes, the Houston legend who grew up performing with Albert Collins and Johnny Copeland sing a mournful song he'd written about the beloved red 345-TD that had just been "ripped".
Even though he'd been given a nice Telecaster copy that had belonged to Lightnin' Hopkins, Joe was totally relearning life-long acquired guitar techniques on this 'foreign' instrument. With time he got back to playing as smoothly and wonderfully as always, but it was a torturous thing to have to witness. Eventually a double coil Humbucker replaced the stock mellow, neck position single coil pickup, a trick he'd learned from Albert Collins, no doubt. And many a Tuesday night I played a few tunes on Joe's "replacement" guitar in the 3rd Ward of Houston as he watched approvingly. (In a future installment I'll talk more about Joe Hughes, Pete Mayes, 'Texas' Johnny Brown and the other great guitarists I met while back in Houston.)
Robert 'Jr'. Lockwood:
Robert Jr. Lockwood, or Robert Lockwood Jr. as he prefers to be called, is one of the least heralded of the early electric guitar monsters. Having used a Gretch hollow-bodied electric for most of his career, possibly a Gretch Tennessean, Mr. Lock wood single-handedly created a jazzy blues style that was the backbone of nearly all the Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller) recordings and the live KFFA "King Biscuit Time" radio programs that could be heard throughout the South during the `50s. His unique phrasings can also be heard on numerous 1950s Chess Records releases, which included a number of classic Little Walter (Jacobs) cuts. There exists a photo of Lockwood playing a 12 string Gretch, but I don't believe any recording have been done in this instrument.
Robert Lockwood Jr. is the only living link to infamous, influential bluesman Robert Johnson, who will be covered in a future installment. Robert Johnson spent a great deal of time with Lockwood's mother and became a sort of stepfather to the musically inclined adolescent. With Johnson's appearance at his home, Robert Lockwood decided to switch from organ to guitar and then studied at the foot of the master. Lockwood learned quickly and by age 15 was touring with Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller).
I wish I knew exactly which cuts he did as a Chess Records sideman behind Little Walter Jacobs, but whatever songs you may be able to add to your collection by Little Walter will benefit you enormously. When listening, if you're not experiencing the genius of Robert Jr. Lockwood, then you are learning invaluable lessons from Walter's staple on the guitar, Louis Myers. With his older brother, David Myers on second guitar/bass and Fred Below on drums, Louis Myers helped created a wonderful style of modern Chicago blues. His ingenious single-note runs and sparse jazz tinged chordal changes can be heard on The Best Of Little Walter- MCA/Chess (CHC 9192), The Best Of Little Walter, Volume Two-MCA/Chess (CHD 9292), Kings Of The Chicago Blues, Volume One-Vogue (LDM 3017), I'm A Southern Man-Advent (2809), Tell My Story Movin'-Earwig (4920).
So be sure to check out any of the Little Walter (Jacobs) releases and you'll probably be comping along with either Louis Meyers, David Myers or Robert Jr. Lockwood. After leaving Chicago in 1961, Lockwood made a rather unfortunate decision by moving to Cleveland, Ohio where he resides today. However, his talent and contribution to the postwar electric blues has been acknowledged by his induction into the Blues Foundation's Hall of Fame. After releasing the album, 'Whats The Score' on his own label, he recorded 'Contrasts' (3307) for Trix Records in `74 which features a cool tune I used to do in the clubs of Detroit, 'Little Boy Blue'. Robert Jr. Lockwood can also be heard on Mister Blues Is Here To Stay-Rounder (2026), Hangin' On (with Johnny Shines who used to perform with Robert Johnson)-Rounder (2023), Dust My Broom-Flyright (CD10), The Baddest New Guitar-P_Vine (PCD 2134) and Steady Rollin' Man-Delmark (DD 630).
In my mind Jimmy Reed stands as a bridge between the delta tinged electric blues that immediately followed the Second World War and the more aggressive guitar heroes we've been talking about in this series of articles. Ironically, although few modern players attempt to reproduce his laid back, behind the beat rhythmic style (while countless artists have done his most famous songs including 'Big Boss Man', 'Bright Lights Big City', 'Baby What You Want Me To Do', 'Goin To New York', 'Ain't That Lovin' You Baby', 'Honest I Do') the two-string alternating 1-4, 1-5 riff that was the basis of his musical genius later developed into the foundation upon which early rock and roll is built.
Perhaps the fact that he sold more records in the `50s and early 60s than any bluesperson besides Riley B. King stands as a testimate to his immense impact on modern music. And his inductions into the Blues Foundation's Hall of Fame and the Rock & Rock hall of Fame further underscore the huge legacy this gentle bluesman left for the rest of us.
To have the opportunity to absorb the texture and feeling of one of the greatest innovators in modern music, and to also hear guitarist Eddie Taylor who is credited with co-creating Jimmy Reed's signature rhythm patterns, please give a listen to either The Best of Jimmy Reed-Vee Jay (1039), Upside Your Head-Charly (CD61), I'm The Man Down There-Charly (CRB 1028), Ride `Em On Down-Charly (CD 171), Jimmy Reed-Paula (PCD 8), or Jimmy Reed at Carnegie Hall-Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab (MFSL 566).
Albert Collins was born 1932 in Leona, Texas and found his early fame recording on the Peacock and Duke labels in Houston. Albert was truly the "master of the Telecaster" and was one of the few highly respected bluesmen to use this Fender guitar exclusively throughout his career. Although he produced his bone chilling, biting sound primarily by utilizing the single coil treble bridge pickup, he had a double coil Humbucker pickup installed at the neck position.
Although I saw him perform countless times at Antone's on Guadalupe in Austin, Texas, I never saw him switch from the ice-pick sound of that single coil. Albert had a unique setup on that natural wood-colored axe. He used a minor tuning and placed a capo at about the fifth (or seventh?) fret. The only other blues player I've seen use a capo recently is Jimmy Lee Vaughan. The story behind this unique setup is one to which beginning and intermediate players should pay special attention, not only for its technical application, but more importantly because it says a lot about the present state of blind imitation that pervades the blues and general music world today.
When Albert came to Don Robey (owner of Peacock and Duke Records) with his B.B.King-like playing style using standard tuning sans capo, Mr. Robey told him to go woodshed (practice in private) until he developed his own style. And this unique tuning and capo setup is what Albert Collins came up with. Please allow me to shout it now--DON'T BE A COPYCAT. THAT WILL GET YOU NOWHERE FAST. And this Grammy Award winning blues giant with his love of easy-going funk tinged, razor-slashing blues is proof positive.
Sure, when you're starting out, learn every nuance of your favorite player's style. Pick up ever lick and study your favorite phrases and guitar runs. I did, for a lot of years. But, when it's your turn to showcase at your favorite club or audition for a booking agent or record your own CD, do your own thing! There are thousands of players out there who can spit out SVR licks note for note (especially on Sixth Street in Austin, Texas), but they will never be taken seriously. All of the blues giants had one thing--their own recognizable sound. Perhaps this will take you years to accomplish. In the meantime be prepared to back-up or be the musical support for an artist that you respect, and be a supportive, respectful sideman. If you are persistent and have what it takes to front your own unit, it will come. I take my hat off to those very young artists who have their acts together and their egos in check. The blues does indeed have a bright future.
But I digress. I would like to do a future installment on the topic of the US music industry and how their insistence on copycat music and copycat artists is KILLING the industry (and our young talent) vis-a-vie the approach taken by Canada and the rest of the world, but perhaps I should leave this decision to you, the readers, and to my gracious editor.
Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown:
Texas legend Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown was a regular feature in the Austin and Houston clubs during the `80's and, although a man of 73 years, continues to coax a mean blues out of his Epiphone Sheriton, 335-style guitar. This axe has become a staple of many respected bluesmen, and I believe the high cost of a new Gibson 335 may be the determining factor. The Epiphone Sheriton has the feel and look of the older, more carefully made 335s, and has a very smooth, rich tone and easy playability.
Back when I'd frequent his Austin and Houston club gigs, Gatemouth was exclusively playing his Gibson Firebird thin-line solid body with the custom-made, sculpted pickguard. You can sometimes see it in recent photos of this highly respected gentleman. Mr. Brown's history with the big bands of the 40's is evident in his treatment of Count Basie's 'Take The A Train'. When he'd swing into this number you'd swear the horn section was somewhere hiding in the background. For those of you who appreciate a jazzy style or approach to the blues, be sure to check out 'Gatemouth' Brown's guitar and fiddle magic on Alright Again-Rounder (2028), The Original Peacock Recordings-Rounder (2039), One More Mile-Rounder (2034), Real Life- Rounder (2054), Texas Swing-Rounder (11527), Pressure Cooker-Alligator (AL 4745), or Stand My Ground-Alligator (AL 4779).
Johnny "Clyde" Copeland:
Johnny "Clyde" Copeland was one of the most soulful, intense bluesmen I've ever had the pleasure of meeting. This blues lover will miss him dearly. When he was presented the key to the city of Houston by a representative of Mayor Cathy Whitmire, this muscular ex-boxer literally bounced back and forth across the nearly 100 foot wide stage of Miller Outdoor Auditorium for the remainder of his 45 minute show. I have yet to see this much energy expounded in a blues performance, or even by another of my heroes--James Brown. He had just returned from Africa and looked forward to a brilliant career. This experience remains one of the dearest memories of my life. Thank you Johnny.
Mr. Copeland known primarily for his powerful gospel-influenced voice, played a black Gibson Les Paul through a late model Fender Twin Amplifier, a standard Fender of many contemporary blues guitarists. Using a very sparse yet moving soloing style, Johnny left much of the soloing chores to his very competent young back-up guitarist. Although his licks will not be placed in the category of the blues guitar greats we've mentioned, his voice and the depth of feeling within his music guarantees him a place in blues history.
Check him out on either Copeland Special-Rounder (2025), Make My Home Where I Hang My Hat-Rounder (2030), Bringing It All Back Home-Rounder (2050), Showdown! (with Albert Collins and Robert Cray)-Alligator (4743), Ain't Nothin But A Party-Rounder (205), Boom Boom-Rounder (2060) to mention a few.
Although I would not have purchased this album had I known the circumstances under which it was release, I am honored to be the owner of an autographed copy of Johnny Copeland, The Copeland Collection-Vol. 1- Home Cooking Records. It was odd to me at the time that Johnny did not seem happy putting his signature on the cover. I later learned that Mr. Copeland had not received a single penny from the sale of this recording. As he had done to so many Houston blues artists including Joe Hughes, Hopp Wilson, Johnny Winter, Roy Ames had taken advantage of one of my heroes by acquiring the tracks under suspicious circumstances and releasing them on his label with credits as the "producer." Mr. Ames is finally facing civil charges for his music industry activities and in my installment on the Houston blues scene I will go into more detail regarding the long history of 'abuse' that performers have had to endure.
Although he plants one foot firmly in rock and roll, Bo Diddley is first and foremost a bluesman. His custom-made square axe with its two Humbucker pickups is his trademark. While he was with Chess Records in the `50s and `60s, Bo Diddley did countless sessions with soon-to-be famous blues performers. Although as a young man he studied spirituals and even classical music on the violin, the influence that was to shape his life came in the form of John Lee Hooker's 'Boogie Chillen'. When you listen to his recording of 'I'm A Man', there's no doubt 'bout his blues roots.
Not a soloist in the traditional sense, Mr.Diddley's intense, throbbing rhythm guitar virtuosity remains sufficient to keep the listener satisfied. And don't believe that what this man is doing is "easy" or "simple". Just try to do what he does. It may take you years to master his pounding guitar technique. But when you've finally "got it", it'll feel real good. Mr. Otha Ellas Bates McDaniels Blues Discography: Go Bo Diddley-MCA/Chess, Bo Diddley: The Chess Box-MCA/Chess (CHC 2-19502).
This concludes our discussion of my Early Axe-wielding Heroes. As we proceed I'll be tossing out facts, figures and gear/playing techniques relating to a few additional players of this era, and welcome suggestions on whom or what I may have left out or passed over. The next installment will be Part Four: Modern Electric Blues Guitarists. See you then.
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Lightning Red has been playing blues guitar for over 40 years.
Although he credits Luther Allison with showing him some "serious licks", he also cites B.B.King and
Buddy Guy as major influences. After moving from the Chicago area to Austin, Texas in the mid-seventies,
Red began absorbing the state's rich blues heritage and was a favorite of Houston legends Joe ‘Guitar’
Hughes and Milton Hopkins. When Jimmie Lee, Kim Wilson and Stevie Ray Vaughan were unknown club
performers honing their craft, Red was there listening closely and witnessed their rocky rise to stardom.
He also performed locally and played on stage with W.C. Clark, Omar, and "little" Charlie Sexton,
Marcia Ball, Willie Nelson and a host of legends. His music has an original sound and is a blend
of Chicago and Texas – Texicago blues. Red tours the world with the acclaimed acoustic
duo LZ Love & Lightning Red, and with his own electric band. Often seen performing at blues festivals,
he gets accolades and widespread airplay for his songs and legendary guitar skills.
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