Lightning Red and his series on the origins of the modern electric
Part Five: More Modern 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
As is happening all too frequently, another Great Bluesman has left us. I first met Luther Allison after his second successful appearance at the Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival. He had just lost his friend and keyboard player to a drug overdose (a fellow from Dallas whose name escapes me, a fine organ player) and was in search of a new sideman. I was fronting my own band at the time, and drove from Bloomington, Illinois to his home in a suburban area of Milwaukee for my audition.
After being introduced to his gracious wife and his well-behaved sons, I was invited to spend the night and was amazed at the Allison's warmth and hospitality. I never expected one of my idols to be so unassuming and genuine. Having just moved out of my teenage years, my naiveté was not too surprising. It would be a few more years before I learned that 'blues people' have hearts as big as their personas. I am proud to say that Luther never forgot me, and although our musical relationship was very short-lived, he treated me warmly whenever our paths crossed.
It is a fitting legacy that America has embraced Luther's music wholeheartedly before his passing. However, I am deeply saddened that he could not have had more time to enjoy success. To his family I would like to express my heart-felt condolences. May the music and the memory of Luther Allison live forever.
Luther Allison died August 12th of complications resulting from lung cancer and metastatic brain tumors. He did not have insurance to cover the cost of the radiation therapy and inpatient hospital care received during the last month of his life. It is suggested that monetary donations be sent to his family at this address:
Luther Allison, c/o Blue Sky Management,
761 Washington Ave. North,
Minneapolis, MN 55401.
On a happier note, I've just learned that Johnny Winter's health has improved and he is embarking on an extended tour. I wish him the best of luck and urge my readers to check out this great Texas legend when he roars through your town.
Big Jack Johnson
"The Oilman" as he calls himself, is the most recent seasoned bluesman to emerge from Mississippi. After many years of weekend gigs in the local Clarksdale juke joints, Jack Johnson has been bringing both his traditional and original licks to audiences from coast to coast. As he told me last summer, "If I was home my daughters would be giving me money and I'd be happy to be just fishing all day. But, God has given me this gift [holds his talented hands up, fingers pointed toward Heaven] and I gotta use it to make people happy".
When I was asked to bring my guitar to a Wednesday night New England blues society concert, I didn't expect to be performing with one of today's most fluid, uplifting guitarists. Using the Gibson ES-345 with gold-plated hardware which he proudly holds on the cover of the March/April 1997 issue of Living Blues, Mr. Johnson had no trouble coaxing those signature B.B.King major/minor key phrases from the vintage instrument using his hard plastic thumb pick.
And when he picked up the finely-crafted black Epiphone Sheraton (which looks so much like a 335), Jack used it go get a sound that was uniquely his own. He played most of his leads in the high D or E position (starting on the 10th and 12th frets) and produced a barrage of great sounds with his beefy fingers. Big Jack Johnson also brought along a bright red solid-body axe (an Alvarez?) with a single-coil and two Humbucker pickups, tuned to an open E for his slide work. Starting from the lowest string, this would be E-B-E-G# -B-E. This is a common set-up, and we will cover these and many more slide techniques in a future installment.
Big Jack pumped each of his guitars through a Peavey amplifier which probably housed a single 12-inch speaker, and allowed his sound to float above his rhythm guitarist who used a Gibson ES-335 through a Fender Super Reverb. The Fender Super uses four 10-inch speakers and was my amp of choice for more than a decade. For the benefit of the uninitiated, the size of a speaker is determined by its diameter measured in inches. Common sizes used in nearly all amplifiers is 10-inch, 12-inch, and 15-inch.
Check out the sounds of Big Jack Johnson on his latest release on M.C. Records, 'We Got To Stop This Killin'. And as this powerful gentleman told me, "You are a star, everyone is a star in his own way". May the road be good to this true southern bluesman.
Eddie "The Chief" Clearwater
I first saw the flamboyant Edward Harrington at a now defunct club near the Old Port area of Portland, Maine. He had abandoned his trademark American Indian headdress of colorful feathers, but not his flamboyant, lightning-fast barrage of blues-rock licks. This left-handed guitarists and singer tore up the house with his right-handed Stratocaster played up-side down in the same manner as Otis Rush, with the low E string on the bottom and the high E on top.
One of the wonderful things about blues is the lack of a need for formalized training. The 'mistakes' that were made by the early blues musicians, 'errors' which subsequently produced unique sounds and an entirely new genre' of music, could not have occurred in a formal, academic arena. One of my main concerns is the way in which blues aficionados adhere to a very 'strict', conservative notion of what "real blues" should consist of. This form of music that we so lovingly call "the Blues" is a creation of unschooled performers who pushed the limits of their creations--who took chances and 'pushed the envelope'. I fear that this inability to allow for change and growth may well be the death knoll for "Blues". There is no life without evolution.
One performer who is stretching the limits of his art is Eddie Clearwater. And although the Portland crowd was a bit sparse, he put on an energetic show of mostly blues standards done is a refreshing way. I sincerely hope a recent series of heart problems have failed to slow down this unique entertainer.
The music of Mr. Harrington can be heard on: 2x9/Charley Records (1095), The Chief/Rooster Blues (2615), Flimdoozie/Rooster Blues (2622), Help Yourself/Blind Pig (BP 747920), and Blues Hang Out/Evidence Records (ECD 26008-2)
Tinsley Ellis is one of the few blues guitarists to remain true to the Gibson ES-335 pumped through a Fender Amplifier. His blues-rock licks done on this classic axe/amp combination can be heard on a number of Alligator Records releases, and Tinsley's 335 is a sunburst model with the standard, fixed stop tailpiece that I prefer. While sitting-in with Kenny Neal's band during a 1996 tour (during which he was the opening solo, acoustic act) Tinsley used great finesse' on Kenny's slightly altered Fender Telecaster.
Instead of the standard grooved three-cylinder "floating" bridge set-up that is found on the 'Tele', Kenny has replaced it with a rigid, fixed 1990's Fender American Standard Stratocaster-style bridge. This is the one that I use, and although it sits firmly immobile on the Telecaster, I was forced to strengthen the springs and force the attaching screws much further into the wood of the body in order to stiffen the bridge to my specifications. This makes it totally unmovable -- no whammy bar (vibrato arm) could move this baby.
Because I played a Gibson ES-345 with the stop tailpiece for so many years, my switch to the Stratocaster was much easier with this arrangement. I find that I am able to use a heavier gauge of string, and can pull, or bend, the strings very drastically without intonation problems. That is, I can bend them severely without the guitar going out of tune. But remember, I don't suggest you use too heavy a gauge of string on a Gibson ES-335, ES-345, or similar slimline acoustic. You should probably not put anything heavier than a 0.10 thousandth high E string on your Gibson, Epiphone, Gretch, or semi-hollow bodied electric. The neck is not built to withstand an undue amount of tension. Better safe than sorry.
To check out this young bluesrocker try these Alligator releases: Georgia Blue (ALCD 4765), Fanning The Flames (ALCD 4778), Cool On It (ALCD 3905), and Trouble Time (ALCD 4805)
Kenny Neal is the son of Raful Neal, a Baton Rouge, Louisiana legend. In addition to being a fine guitarist, Kenny plays a mean bass guitar and blues harp. His FenderTelecaster with the 90's American Strat bridge has toured the world, and Mr. Neal's easily flowing, somewhat traditional blues phrasings sound unique when played on this very untraditional blues instrument through a Fender amplifier.
Unlike most Telecaster players, Kenny does not fixate on the treble, or bridge, pickup. He coaxes a very sweet, mellow tone out of his well-worn Tele by utilizing the fatter-sounding neck pickup or by using both pickups simultaneously. Telecasters are funny instruments. I have found that no two bass, or neck position, pickups sound alike. And Kenny Neal's well-worn Tele has a unique sound all its own -- he's got a great one and knows exactly how to make it sing sweetly.
Check his sound out on these Alligator Records discs: big News From Baton Rouge!! (AL 4764), Devil Child (AL 4774), Walking On Fire (AL 4795), or Bayou Blood (AL 4809)
As a founding member of the Nighthawks from Washington D.C., Jimmy Thackery has been bending his roundwound strings for nearly thirty five years. (a quick note to the beginning blues guitarist: Avoid flatwounds like the plague, especially the G string. They are nearly impossible to bend and will severely cramp your style.) Mr. Thackery has gained a sizable following in the last few years as a solo guitarist fronting a blues-rock trio, the Drivers, and is continually touring.
Jimmy's guitar of choice is a 1996 Fender Stratocaster with a Floyd Rose (floating) tailpiece/bridge combination and Joe Barden, stacked humbucker-style pickups pumped through two Fender Twin amplifiers. He notes that two of the four 6L6 vacuum tubes have been eliminated from each amplifier in order to increase the distortion at a lower volume setting. This would allow him to get a more rock-like "crunch" while being a bit more gentle on the listener's ears.
When using his many different slides (again, to be covered in a subsequent installment) Jimmy utilizes a vintage Flying V solid-body Gibson. I confess I haven't heard him perform, but a growing number of fans continue to turn out for this active blues-rocker.
He can be heard on these Blind Pig Records releases: Drive To Survive (released 1996), Wild Night Out (1995), Trouble Man (1994), Empty Arms Motel (1993) Sideways In Paradise - with John Mooney (1993). Hot Tracks, released in 1982 by Vanguard Records has him performing with John Hammond.
Nighthawks releases include: Open All Night/Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs (MFCD 754), Ten Years Live/Varrick (001), The Best of The Nighthawks - Rock (released 1988 by Adelphi Records), and The Best Of The Nighthawks -Blues (1988, Adelphi).
Joe Louis Walker
I was very fortunate to have attended the June `97 performance by Joe Louis Walker and his band at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco. He was in fine form and coaxed some searing blues out of his black Gibson ES-335 for a sold-out crowd. Before he came onto the stage, his rhythm guitarist squeezed a good bit of lightning-fast licks out of his cobalt-blue Stratocaster while his bass player handled the vocal chores.
For a few tunes, Joe used an SG model solid-body Gibson, but he quickly returned to his Gibson 335 and used its semi-hollow properties to full advantage to get some wailing feedback/sustain by crouching down in front of his Twin Reverb or Super Reverb Fender amp. The fat guitar tone jumping from the stage leads me to believe Joe used slightly heavier than standard strings, perhaps a ten or eleven (thousandth of an inch) gauge top E.
But whatever this man was sporting, the sounds were fine. I really enjoyed the slight funk edge and soulful rhythm of Joe Louis Walker that evening and want to thank my Bay Area friends for introducing me to the sound of this powerful guitarist. He can be heard on:
Great Guitars/Verve, Cold Is The Night/Hightone (8006), The Gift/ Hightone (8012), Blue Soul/Hightone (8019), Live At Slim's, Vol. 1/Hightone (8025) and Live At Slim's, Vol. 2/Hightone (8036).
Sherman Robertson is the latest high-powered blues guitar veteran to come out of the Louisiana/Texas area. With a great sounding new CD out on Code Blue/Atlantic Records, 'Here And Now', he's on the rise. One thing I like about this man is the way he builds his solo phrasing to a high crescendo. There is a well-thought-out logic to Sherman's efforts. His voicing follows a logical progression toward its riveting climax; a goal that I encourage all you intermediate-level players to strive for.
Mr. Robertson plays a white Fender Stratocaster with a standard 70's style floating bridge and a 1960's type (vintage style) blond neck with tall, super-fat frets which allow him to grip and bend the strings with ease. It looks just like the vintage-style, traditional radius Warmouth neck that I've got bolted to my Strat. In order to avoid cramping, I've found my huge hands need to be wrapped around a really thick piece of lumber, and I think Sherman may feel the same.
I've also noticed that his guitar sports Fender Lace Sensor pickups which sound pretty hot (have a very high output level). The Lace Sensors with the hottest, highest output are called "Red", while the next step down are "Blue", and then the really mellow ones are called "Gold". I don't see players using these as often as I used to, but many guitarists prefer their low-noise and high-output to the traditional single-coil Fender pickups.
On my second guitar, a Strat-like Charvell with a left-handed, combination radius (flatter toward the body than it is near the tuning keys) custom neck, I've installed a Lace Sensor "Silver" pickup in the neck position. I was told it has the most authentic "traditional" Fender single-coil sound, and I really like its dry, gritty tone and relatively high level of output. But, those haunting slide moans you hear in my tunes are accomplished by using the stock Charvell bridge position Humbucker-style and middle position single coil pickups simultaneously.
Presently Sherman has moved back from Houston to Breaux Bridge, Louisiana where he is writing and caring for his ailing father. So, check out this aggressive new Texan's first European recording on the Lunar No. 2 label if you can. And 'I'm Back, Here's Sherman on Code Blue/Atlantic.
Little Milton Campbell
Little Milton, a protégé of B.B.King, has been playing his stock Gibson ES-335 or ES-345 for well over fifty years and has gained an international reputation for his urban, electric guitar work and vocals. With his first hit on the Chess label in 1965, 'We're Gonna Make It', Little Milton became a household word. But, It was, 'Grits Ain't Groceries' and 'If Walls Could Talk' that gave him a permanent place in the annuls of bluesdom. And 'The Blues Is Alright' was invented while on a European concert stage.
With the special flair for subtlety and tone perfected by this accomplished bluesman on the "Chitlin' Circuit" for nearly four decades, Little Milton has developed into someone to emulate when studying your instrument. His style has sometimes been categorized as soul-blues, and there is a wealth of information to be garnered from the intricate phrasings of Mr. Campbell.
Check out: We're Gonna Make It-Little Milton Sings Big Blues/Chess (CHD 5906), The Sun Masters/Rounder (SS35), Movin' To The Country/Malaco (7445), Age Ain't Nothin' But A Number/Modern Fidelity Sound Labs (MFCD 766), or The Blues Is Alright/Evidence (ECD 260 26-2).
And, last but not least (for this segment), we turn our attention to David 'Guitar Shorty' Kearney. Guitar Shorty toured with Otis Rush and Guitar Slim in the 1950's, and it is said that this veteran bluesman taught Jimi Hendrix the finer points of blues guitar. His skill as a blues guitarist and entertainer has been validated by the W.C. Handy Award he received in 1992 for 'They Call Me Guitar Shorty' which was released on the JSP label.
Shorty is one of the few blues players to play a stock Peavey natural wood-colored guitar.
Its unique tone sets him apart from other guitarists - something that all you intermediate players might want to take note of. All too often struggling players do everything in their power to emulate the most popular, or most established guitar tone on the horizon. Perhaps your success lies in discovering a fresh new sound or method of coaxing the blues from those steel strings. A point to remember: the more astute producer or record company is always looking for something new - a unique, identifiable sound. At some point, you will have to consider this fact if you are pursuing a recording career.
Look for the sounds of Guitar Shorty on: Jericho Alley Blues, Volume Two/ Diving Duck Records (4313), On The Rampage/ Olive Branch Records (ER 5456), My Way On The Highway/ JSP Records, and Topsy Turvy/ Black Top (BT-1094)
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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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