Lightning Red and his series on the origins of the modern electric
Part Six: The Boogiemen
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 I would like to feature the great guitarists who invented and who build upon that elusive musical genre' we call Boogie. Rather than attempt to trace the origins of this hypnotic sound, we will look at those artists responsible for popularizing the "modern" or "urban", electric form of the Boogie. I hope you enjoy it and please return next time to read about the great, modern Slide players, their guitars and techniques.
John Lee Hooker
John Lee Hooker nearly single-handedly invented the style of blues guitar that we call "The Boogie". I sincerely wish that this style of music were as easy for me to describe as it is for me to play. I'll take a stab at it: an easy-rolling repetitive rhythmic phrase that puts the listener into a slight hypnotic state -- a fat, chugging lick that charges on nearly endlessly. A continual pulsation, the soul's heartbeat. Well, that's the best I could do.
However, I know that once you've experienced the "Boogie" it will never be erased from your consciousness. It has a way of becoming firmly attached, as it did when helping a young John Lee through long hours of pushing a broom at a General Motors plant near Detroit in the mid 1940's.
But if you're still not sure what I'm talking about, let me provide another, more technical explanation: You are in the Key of A, in an endlessly repeating series of two measure phrases you'd play six beats on the dominant (or root) chord which in this case is A. On the seventh beat you'd hit the minor third chord which is C, and you'd hit the fourth interval chord, D, on the eighth beat. Simple? You'd think so. But it takes a special skill and numerous hours of intense concentration and practice to master this art form.
The roots of boogie can be heard just below the surface in the songs of a number of early, acoustic blues guitar players Mississippi Fred McDowell and Bukka White, to name but a few, but it was the young Michigander from Clarksdale, Mississippi who laid the foundation for this modern, electrified musical genre. Usually tuning to an open G chord (low D, G, D, G, B, high D), John Lee began pumping his way toward stardom and recorded "Boogie Chillin' in 1948 for Modern Records. His guitar of preference has always been a thin-line Gibson hollow bodied model, usually his favorite ES-335, a 345 or a similarly designed Kay model.
A little history ala his booking agency, The Rosebud Agency:
Born near Clarksdale, Mississippi on August 22, 1917 to a sharecropper
family, Hooker's earliest musical influence came from his stepfather,
Will Moore. By the early 1940s, Hooker had moved to Detroit. Among his
first recordings 1948, "Boogie Chillen" became a number-one jukebox hit
and his first million-seller. This was soon followed by an even bigger
hit with "I'm In The Mood" and other classic recordings including
"Crawling Kingsnake" and "Hobo Blues." Another surge in his career took
place with the release of more than 100 songs on Vee Jay Records during
the 1950s and 1960s.
When the young bohemian audiences of the 1960s "discovered" Hooker along
with other blues originators, he and various others made a brief return
to folk blues. Young British artists such as the Animals, John Mayall,
and the Yardbirds introduced Hooker's sound to a new and eager audience
whose admiration and influence helped build Hooker to superstar status
in mid-'60s England. By 1970, he had moved to California and began
working with rock musicians, notably Van Morrison and Canned Heat.
Canned Heat modeled their sound after Hooker's boogie and collaborated
on several albums and tours.
During the 1970s and much of the 1980s, Hooker toured the U. S. and
Europe steadily but grew disenchanted with recording, though his
appearance in The Blues Brothers movie resulted in a heightened profile.
Then, in 1989, The Healer was released to critical acclaim and sales in
excess of a million copies. Today, the "King Of The Boogie" is enjoying
the most successful period of his extensive career. In the past seven
years, Hooker's influence has contributed to a booming interest in the
blues and, notably, its acceptance by the music industry as a
commercially viable entity.
Hooker's career has been a series of highlights and special events since
the release of The Healer. In addition to recording his own albums Mr.
Lucky, Boom Boom, Chill Out, and now Don't Look Back for Pointblank, he
contributed to recordings by B. B. King, Branford Marsalis and Van
Morrison and portrayed the title role in Pete Townshend's epic, The Iron
John Lee was invited to perform with The Rolling Stones and guest Eric Clapton for their national television broadcast during The Stones' 1989 Steel Wheels tour. In 1990, many musical guests paid tribute to John Lee Hooker with a performance at
Madison Square garden. Joining him on some or all of these special
occasions were artists such as Bonnie Raitt, Ry Cooder, Joe Cocker, Huey
Lewis, Carlos Santana, Robert Cray, Mick Fleetwood, Al Kooper, Johnny
Winter, John Hammond, Johnnie Johnson, and the late Albert Collins.
Hooker's 1991 induction into the Rock n' Roll Hall Of Fame was fitting
for the man who has influenced countless fans and musicians who have in
turn influenced many more. The 'South Bank Show' documentary on John Lee
continues to air in the U. S. and offers an overview of his amazing life
from runaway sharecropper's son to a world-famous legend whose music has
been a major influence on modern rock n' roll.
John Lee's style has always been unique, even among other performers of
the real deep blues, few of whom remain with us today. While retaining
that foundation, he has simultaneously broken new ground musically and
When I reflect on the long, illustrious career of Mr. John Lee Hooker, one memory always appears before my mind's eye. At Clifford Antone's Club on Guadalupe Street in Austin Texas, a solitary bluesman sits above us on the stage while the usually chaotic, boisterous dance floor is now occupied by mesmerized, polite, quiet music lovers who remain seated like numerous Buddhas. And as he begins performing, sitting with an ES-335 thin-bodied Gibson in his lap, that haunting, signature voice floats above the silent crowd. Every word, every breath, every subtle guitar lick dominates the room.
Never have I ever seen this club transformed into such an intense listening experience. Song after song flows through the evening, and with each note the audience is drawn more tightly into the web spun by this giant of the blues - the main BOOGIEMAN. The God of boogie guitar. Never have I been touched so deeply by a performance. The band struggles to follow his chord changes, hangs on his every syllable. He is the MAN.
Spending quality rehearsal time with this deceptively "simple" style of blues is essential for the beginning or intermediate guitarist. Although John Lee never bends a string (something we'll cover in depth in a subsequent installment) or uses intricate phrasings, it has always been my experience that those licks or musical stylings that sound so "easy" to play can prove to be the most difficult. I've often been told that I'm the master of writing things that flow smoothly right by the listener, but are actually a nightmare for most musicians to grab onto. Maybe those countless hours perfecting this "simple" musical form is the culprit.
I must say I've heard a number of respected heavy metal or hard rock artists mangle this magical musical form pretty severely. Perhaps its because they've only captured a vague notion of what the boogie is all about. Or, maybe its because they don't really respect the blues and haven't put in the time to actually "feel" the music. I don't know, but I do know that if you want to be a serious blues guitarist, you will study the boogie until your fingers bleed and your brain convulses to the beat long after the recording has ended. To my mind the boogie is not just a form of the blues. It is Detroit, Chicago and Cincinnati all rolled into one; the eternal pulsations of the rust-belt foundries and factories that echoes from the past and propels every bluesman's heart toward an unforeseen future.
Be sure to check out:
The Ultimate Collection: 1948-1990/Rhino (R2-70572)
The Hook/Chameleon (D2-74794)
John Lee Hooker Plays & Sings The Blues/Chess (MCA) (HD 9199)
The Healer/Chameleon (74808-2)
The Real Folk Blues/MA-Chess (CHD 9271)
That's My Story/Riverside (OBCD 538-2)
Hooker 'N Heat/EMI (Liberty) (CDP 7-97896-2)
More Real Folk Blues and The Missing Album/MCA-Chess (CHD 9329)
Mr. Lucky/Point Blank-Charisma (91724-2)
The Best of John Lee Hooker/MCA-Chess (MCAD 10539)
Boom Boom/Point Blank-Charisma (86553)
Canned Heat, named after an old Tommy Johnson song., was formed in 1966 by
Bob Hite and Alan "Blind Owl" Wilson (The Blind Owl). The group had two Top 20 hits in 1968, and was one of the very few blues or boogie bands to enjoy such a high level of fame. Bob Hite was the main vocalist and harp player, and Alan Wilson, from Boston, played lead and slide guitar. Alan also sang lead on one of their hits, "Going Up The Country" while Bob handled the vocal chores on the other, "On The Road Again".
Rather than attempting to describe their unique sound, I'll let Austin native Ed Ward speak: "Wilson's high voice, eerie harmonica and fluid rhythm guitar floated above a grunting rhythm section..." - THE BLUES REVIVAL by Ed Ward (The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll)
Alan was a serious student of the blues, and it is said he "re-taught" Delta Blues legend Son House how to play and sing some of the old recordings that Son had made, and had forgotten about. It is obvious when listening to tunes by Canned Heat, that Wilson had a special mastery of blues and boogie guitar techniques. I strongly urge the intermediate blues guitar students out there to play along with the group's many recordings.
You will be getting a quality introduction to a variety of techniques used by one of the finest, second-generation guitarists in the blues and boogie world. Second only to John Lee Hooker, Alan Wilson demonstrated a thorough knowledge of chugging, but fluid, boogie guitar playing.
Unfortunately, the "Blind Owl" had some severe emotional problems, and his short-term solution to them should be a red flag to every struggling blues guitarist. Once again we turn to the words of Ed Ward in THE BLUES REVIVAL, "Wilson, nearly blind and subject to intense depression, died from a drug overdose in 1970, the band survived him in name only."
Although the main guitar duties in the group were taken over by Harvey Mandel before their appearance at Woodstock, the original second guitarist in Canned Heat was Henry Vestine who recently had a successful release in France produced in Austin by my friend Jim Yanaway. Mr. Mandel is a fine guitarist who seldom adheres to the rudiments of the blues, and prefers to wander into "psychedelic" and previously uncharted musical territory - not someone I'd consider a bluesman. I first saw Henry in a tiny club on the near North side of Chicago and was very impressed with his guitar abilities. He "played around" with a few blues numbers, but quickly strayed of into his special brand of "space rock". For a little peek into his guitar and amplification techniques:
In his own words: "I wanted to be able to express it [the guitar] more like a violin or a harmonica; for some reason I always went for that sustain, long before I even knew what it was. Then feedback came as a result of that. [ Marshall amps had not yet made their appearance.] "No, it was mostly on little Fender amps at first, using different tricks, and I eventually used an all-tube, low quality Bogan pa amplifier. Had the greatest natural sustain." Today Harvey uses Parker Guitars, Crate Amps, Dean Markley
Strings and Di Marzio Pick-Ups.
Harvey Mandel's Discography includes:
Cristo Redentor/Phillips Records (distributed by Mercury), PHS 600-281/ 1968
Righteous/ Phillips Records, PHS 600-306/ 1969
Games Guitars Play/ Phillips Records, PHS 600-325/ 1970
Baby Batter/ Janus Records (distributed by GRT), JLS-3017/ 1971
The Snake (with Sugarcane Harris), Janus Records, JLS-3037/ 1972
Shangrenade (with Harris) / Janus Records, JLS-3047/ 1973
Feel the Sound of Harvey Mandel/ Janus Records, JLS-3067/ 1974
The Best of Harvey Mandel/ Janus Records, 7014/ 1975
On October 24, 1995, PolyGram Records released "Harvey Mandel: The
Mercury Years," an anthology featuring Harvey's first three
Phillips/Mercury solo albums in a special two-CD mini-box set in their
entirety; the classics Cristo Redentor (1968), Righteous (1969), and
Games Guitars Play (1970).
The original members of Canned Heat were also responsible for resurrecting the faltering career of John Lee Hooker in the early seventies. They idolized their main hero and would record him for hours on end, thereby creating the wonderful 'Hooker 'n Heat' albums that demonstrate both Hooker's genius and the group's ability to wrap a nearly invisible musical envelope around the elder Boogieman. Breathing new life into his subtle, galloping songs, the members of Canned Heat laid down a solid, yet unobtrusive, foundation to the forward-looking lyrics and endlessly chugging guitar virtuosity of 'the Master'. Bob Hite and Alan Wilson are also responsible for 'discovering' Albert Collins in a bar in Houston. They convinced him to come to California, helped him along, and assured him a page in blues History.
I feel very fortunate to have seen the original group in Chicago's Aragon Ballroom in 1968. They were at the peak of their career and helped instill the boogie bug into my guitar-bending fingers. Be sure to add these Kings of the boogie to your collection. I believe your career will thank you.
The CANNED HEAT Discography includes: Canned Heat (Liberty 7526 - 76, 1967), Boogie with Canned Heat (Liberty 7542 - 37, 1969), Best Of Canned Heat (Ua) / Capitol Records, Ties That Bind/Archive Records, On The Road Again/AIM Records, Best Of- Uncanned!/Capitol Records, 1967 Monterey International Pop Festival (4 CD / 4 Cass Box Set Includes 96 Page Book) (Monterey International Pop/ Rhino Records), Best Of Canned Heat (Remastered) (Hooker / Canned Heat) Capitol Records, Hooker 'n Heat (2 CD Set 24k Gold Disc) (Hooker / Canned Heat) Ultradisc Records, Never Get Out Of These Blues (John Lee Hooker) MCA Records
ZZ TOP - Billy Gibbons
I now strongly urge all intermediate blues guitarists out there to give a listen to ZZ Top's 'LaGrange'. This is as close as one can get to emulating the sound of John Lee Hooker when powered by strong rock-tinged trio. Even down to the famous "How, how..." of the master, Billy Gibbons shows from whence his personal brand of Boogie originates. And throughout their illustrious career, the boys from Texas delve into Boogieland to give their fans a taste of the 'real thang'. Let me conclude this installment by thanking Mr. John Lee Hooker and his loyal student of the Boogie for their contributions to this great American art form.
For a complete list of the recording of Billy Gibbons and ZZ TOP see Part Four: Modern Electric Blues Guitarists in this series.
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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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