Lightning Red and his series on the origins of the modern electric
Part Eight: The Houston Scene
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 © 1999 Lightning Red
Happy New Year!
Hello friends in the blues. I apologize for my recent hiatus and want to thank all of you for your communiqués and kind words.
May 1999 be a Fantastic Year for blues lovers and players everywhere!
This installment is dedicated to the Blues Giants of Houston, Texas who welcomed me into their musical circle. When My wife and I relocated there from Austin in the late 80's, we did not expect to find such a rich and vibrant blues culture. Hidden in the wards that surround downtown is a vast wealth of largely unrecognized talent. In addition to the great guitarists covered below, I'd like to mention several performers with whom it was a pleasure to have shared the stage - vocalists Trudy Lynn and Lady D. (Donna McIntyre), the great Sax man, Grady Gaines who toured for years with Little Richard, the wonderful trumpeter, bandleader and vocalist Paul David (Texas Horns), the up-and-coming tenor sax man/vocalist Aubry Dunham, a the good folks of the Houston Blues Society.
I would also like to thank promoter Sirron Kyles for believing in me and helping me along that lonesome Gulfcoast blues highway.
- Lightning Red
Joe "Guitar" Hughes
When you pick up the July/August 1998 issue of Living Blues magazine, the warm, friendly eyes of one of today's most talented and fluid blues guitarists welcome the reader into a world of smooth licks and hot tricks. Clutching the Japanese Telecaster copy that he's mastered, my all-time favorite Houston bluesman seems to bare his very soul.
Although it had the standard chrome-covered neck position single coil pickup intact when I first played this axe (and which I prefer to the present setup), Joe decided to replace it with a dual coil humbucker. I believe his reason for this to be as follows: when Joe first mesmerized me, he was coaxing ever-so-sweet tones out of a bright red (B.B.King-style) Gibson ES-345 from high atop the stage of the Doris Miller Outdoor Theater in South-central Houston.
The next time I saw him in a small, restaurant-style place in the Montrose area, he was struggling with his newly acquired, cream colored Tele copy. And he was singing a slow blues about having his 345 stolen (every player's nightmare - when mine disappeared from our south Austin residence I had reward flyers plastered all over town, and Ray Hennig took pity on me and nearly "gave me" a 1970's 335 - could never replace the '59 gold plated 345 that 'walked').
This drove me into orbit. I missed the sound of that 345 in Joe's able hands so much that I pleaded with the club owner (who was a blues fan, and who I assumed to be wealthy) to buy Mr. Hughes a replacement Gibson. My efforts failed but after struggling for many months on that Fender, Joe eventually mastered the 'foreign' instrument and proceeded to pump out his signature flowing blues cascades in small clubs all over the city.
After Joe Hughes saw me play at a Blues Society benefit (man, was I nervous to be performing face to face with Joe, "Texas" Johnny Brown, Pete Mayes, Trudy Lynn and TNT Briggs - a legendary piano player) he would always shove that Tele copy into my hands when I'd greet him at his Tuesday night blues jam in the 3rd Ward. "Go to it Red" he's say and then sit back and smile.
The action was set way too low, and the strings were too light (with a 9 or 10 thousandth of an inch diameter - the top E position) for my big hands, but I did the best I could. I felt like royalty playing that beat-up old axe which was said to have been presented to Joe Hughes by the legendary Lightning Hopkins. Eventually I learned how to get his Peavey amplifier with two 12 inch speakers to sing, but watching this great bluesman master his recently acquired solid body guitar was my greatest treat. The master of "passing chords" (chords that 'lead' the listener to the dominant 1, 4, 5 progression chords), Joe knows how to interject just the right amount of 'jazzy' quality into a ballad or slow blues to please the most jaded taste, much as the legendary T-Bone Walker did.
And when I saw Joe "Guitar" Hughes play a throbbing boogie [my all-time fave groove] with a five piece horn section punching out the lines behind him at a Houston Blues Society event, I nearly flipped. And if I may digress for a moment: It is unfortunate that the vast majority of Houstonites do not support the blues, and night after night we'd see the great bluesmen featured in this installment (with the exception being Johnny Copeland, who was a "touring act") playing to an empty house. Very sad indeed.
Someday I hope to get back to Houston and play his 'Tele', or to be on stage while HE plays it. So, I strongly suggest the intermediate guitarist play along with Joe on:
Down & Depressed: Dangerous / Munich Records
Texas Guitar Slinger / Bullseye Blues (BB 9568)
Texas Guitar Masters / Double Trouble Records (TX 3012)
If You Want To See The Blues / Black Top Records (BT 1050)
"Texas" Johnny Brown
I'm not certain if the guitar I saw "Texas" Johnny Brown play in the small clubs was a Hagstrum [German Guitar] or a really unusual Epiphone [formerly Gibson-Epiphone]. It looked like a 'confusion machine' to me, with a slew of toggle buttons and knobs that could have been borrowed from the space shuttle.
But when cranked through his Fender Twin Reverb, it produced the sweet sound of a bluesman who knows his stuff. After nearly twenty years on the Chitlin' Circuit, which provided black players with regular tours of the Southern US, playing behind everyone from Bobby "Blue" Bland to Joe Tex , Johnny Brown decided that Sunday mornings were much too lonely and he settled down in Houston to raise a family.
This wonderful guitar "slinger" is now making regular trips to Europe and hopes to have an album out before too long. I feel honored to have seen "Texas" Johnny Brown perform countless times in [mostly empty] Houston clubs throughout the west and near east sides of town.
Unlike the fluid lead style of Joe Hughes, Johnny's experience was mostly as a rhythm player [playing chords to support the melody] doing very little lead work.. With a four-piece band that included keyboards, I experienced no shortage of exciting music and solid blues guitar emanating from the experienced fingers of this yet-to-be recognized Gulf Coast guitarist. Although he was inexperienced as a vocalist when first coming out of retirement, Johnny's voice developed quickly, and I assume his 'pipes' have sufficiently matured enough to allow him to "front" his band as the featured vocalist. Good luck to you "Texas" Johnny Brown.
The last time I talked to Pete Mayes was after he performed at a concert in San Jose, California with the Antone's house band featuring Derrick Obrien. [In a future installment I'll talk more about all the great guitarists and my experience coming of age in the fertile Austin, Texas music scene of the 70's.]
"Hey, Red!" Pete said, surprised to see me so far from Texas. We then reminisced about the scene in Houston and he filled me in on recent events and gave me his new home phone number. After his leg was amputated below the knee as a result of severe diabetes, Mr. Mayes was forced to sit in a chair when performing. Something he has mastered quite well.
Pete has played his cream colored mid-seventies Fender Stratocaster ever since I've known him. Usually he is seen pumping it through a late model, compact style Fender Twin Reverb amplifier - the one with the red knobs. This has become a favorite of many blues guitarists because of its size and portability. This was also the amp that Johnny Copeland and his sideman guitarist both used.
To hear this lesser known bluesmaster, check out his latest release on Antone's Records.
The most important thing to know about Milton Hopkins is that he is Lightnin' Hopkin's nephew, and was B.B.King's bandleader off and on for nearly seventeen years. The next vital piece of information consists of the fact that his favorite guitarist is Tal Farlow.
During the four months spent subbing (temporarily replacing) for his regular bass player, I studied Mr. Hopkin's amazingly full orchestral-like chording and sparse, soulful leadwork as best I could while facing the back of his guitar neck. It was only later, when I became part of the audience that I could fully appreciate the T-Bone Walker influenced runs (melodies, licks) that punctuate his six-string wide chords. To this day I am unsure how to form many of the jazz-like fingerings and chords that seemed to catapult off his fingerboard. The fullness of his sound is amazing.
The strings on every one of Milton's wide bodied Gibson jazz-style guitars are totally unbendable [each consists of a very heavy gauge metal], and this was reflected in his playing style. While most blues guitarists utilize a variety of string bending techniques to make the guitar "sing", this yet to be discovered bluesmaster prefers to use a flurry of notes to express himself. Just as Wes Montgomery or Kenny Burrell chose wide arpeggios (a fast flurry of notes) that move cleverly up and down the scale, Milton Hopkins would let loose a lightning fast torrent of notes moving in a jazz/blues jump around the tonic (the note that determines the key of the song).
This guitarist, unlike most blues players, was schooled in music and it was his reading ability and sharp ear that landed him the number one spot in B.B.King's show. But these days it's the vitality of his performance and the warm smile that brings in the crowd.
One night, while I stared in disbelief from the back of the bandstand in this old style lounge, a group of Frenchmen began "freaking" to the music. Flashbulbs began bursting and poor Milton was almost blinded. Later that night I learned that this group of Europeans had been following Mr. Hopkin's career and were begging him to go to Paris and record in their studio. I'm sorry to say that he declined. As far as I know, his music remains undocumented.
Like many of our best loved blues heroes, Mr. Hopkins found that a constant touring schedule wears thin and decided to settle down in Houston to be with his lovely wife and family. And, as is the case for the vast majority of entertainers who remain within the confines of the "Big H", fame has eluded him. If you're ever in this city on a weekend night, be sure to stop by the Reddy Room where Milton Hopkins holds 'blues court' on a continual basis. You won't be sorry you did.
Johnny "Clyde" Copeland
Johnny Copeland learned to play guitar from Joe "Guitar" Hughes and they performed together while still teenagers. Unlike Joe, Johnny was determined to leave Houston at the first opportunity. When he was offered help to relocate to New York, Mr. Copeland jumped on it. He followed a long line of Gulf Coast performers who left to find fame. And of course, it was always a special occasion when he returned home to perform during the early 90's. I was very fortunate to be at Miller Outdoor Theater when he was given the key to the city by Mayor Kathy Whitmire.
You've never seen a happier man. Johnny "Clyde" made his black Gibson Les Paul solid body guitar scream as he bounced back and forth across the huge stage like the ex-boxer that he was. But it was when he and his super tight band with Randy Lippincott on bass [also bandleader] played at Billy Blues club that I got a good look at his solid-state [using printed circuits instead of vacuum tubes], early 90's compact model Fender Twin Reverb amp with the red knobs.
Judging by the scarcity of his string bending, and the pained expression that crossed his brow when he did pull up on the string a bit, I'd say that he preferred a stout [thick gauge] set of strings under his meaty fingers. While not considered one of my favorite lead guitarists, Johnny more than made up for this feature with the strength of his singing voice and the power of his songs. He will be missed by blues fans everywhere and the beginning guitar student would be wise to study his sparse but soulful licks on:
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).
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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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