Black guitarists have been on the cutting edge of music as long as the instrument has been around. From electric to delta blues and jazz styles to rock and roll, it’s hard to find a time in history when some of the greatest guitar players of the time weren’t black artists. The influence of these master musicians’ styles and techniques has cast a far-reaching web throughout music history, and in this article, we’ll go over 25 of the most skilled and influential black guitarists of all time.
1. Jimi Hendrix
Jim Hendrix is widely regarded as not only one of the best guitarists of all time but as one of the greatest musicians of the 20th century and one of the best instrumentalists in rock and roll history.
His mainstream career only lasted four years but saw him pioneer the distortion of electric guitars in music, release multiple number-one hits in the US and UK, and become the highest-paid performer in the world.
Hendrix would go on to win numerous awards, both during his life and posthumously, including Artist of the Year by Billboard, Performer of the Year by Rolling Stone, and World Top Musician by Disc and Music Echo. He was inducted into both the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and the UK Music Hall of Fame, and his band’s three albums were all ranked in Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Albums of All Time, with the publication also ranking him as the greatest guitarist and sixth greatest musician of all time.
2. Chuck Berry
Nicknamed the Father of Rock ‘n’ Roll, Chuck Berry was one of the pioneers of rock music as a genre. His songs in the 1950s were some of the first to feature guitar solos and some of his most respected works, with examples like Johnny B. Goode, Roll Over Beethoven, and Maybellene as his biggest hits. Berry was one of the first musicians inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame when it opened in 1986 and consistently ranks as one of the most influential musicians in rock and roll. The song Johnny B. Goode was the only rock song to be included on the Voyager Golden Record.
3. Tracy Chapman
Chapman’s debut self-titled album would immediately launch her to commercial success by going six-times platinum and earning 13 Grammy Award nominations with four wins in Best New Artist, Best Female Pop Vocal Performance, Best Contemporary Folk Recording, and Best Rock Song. She would go on to release her second album which garnered another Grammy nomination, and her fifth album which was certified five-times platinum and earned her the Grammy Award for Best Rock Song with Give Me A Reason.
4. B.B. King
Some of the best artists come from the humblest of beginnings. B.B. King was born on a cotton plantation to sharecropping parents and would go on to work in a cotton gin before picking up the guitar and taking up music. King is best known for his work introducing a style of soloing that influenced blues guitar players forever more. He was one of the best electric guitar players ever to pick the strings and arguably the most influential blues musician of all time. In 1987, King was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
5. Charlie Christian
Charlie Christian was one of the most influential guitar players in jazz music and was one of the key players in bringing the guitar out of the rhythm section and into the limelight as a solo instrument. He developed a single-string technique to create a signature sound mirrored in other jazz, swing, and bebop circles. As one of the greatest electric guitar players, his influence went well beyond jazz music and saw him inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame in 1990 for his early influence on music.
6. Elizabeth Cotton
One of the most impressive guitar players in history has to be Elizabeth Cotton. She was self-taught and a leftie, but she played a guitar strung for right-handed players. That meant she essentially taught herself to play it upside down and picked baselines with her fingers, the opposite of natural guitar players. This style would be referred to in music circles as “Cotten picking” and gave her blues and folk music a signature sound that could not be copied.
7. Robert Johnson
Despite only having a recording career spanning seven months, the work of Robert Johnson would go on to influence generations of musicians. He was a master of every kind of blues music but specialized in Delta blues and is described as the first rock star by the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
While very little about his life is known, the significance of his talent has been recognized by numerous authorities, including the Rock & Roll, Blues, and Grammy Hall of Fame. Because of how successful he was in such a short time, legends sprung up that he sold his soul to achieve success, but those only exist due to the lack of personal history available to the public regarding him.
8. Hubert Sumlin
As a member of Howlin’ Wolf’s band, Hubert Sumlin was one of the most daring Chicago blues guitarists. His style featured gut-wrenching bursts of notes broken up by hanging silences and pushed electric guitars beyond the boundaries most musicians played within.
Rolling Stone would go on to rank him as the 43rd best guitar player of all time and in 2008 he was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame. During his life, Sumlin was nominated for four Grammy Awards and won multiple Blues Music Awards.
You might not think of Prince as an instrumentalist, but Prince was a virtuoso with almost anything he picked up. He played all or most of the instruments used in his recordings in addition to being a singer/songwriter and crossed into a wide variety of styles like funk, pop, rock, hip hop, and R&B. With over 100 million worldwide record sales and numerous awards from Billboard, the Grammys, the Academy of Music, and Golden Globes. Prince is one of the biggest and most influential musicians of all time. He was inducted into the Rock & Roll, UK Music, and Rhythm and Blues Music Halls of Fame, as well as twice into the Black Music & Entertainment Walk of Fame.
10. Albert King
Alongside B.B. King and Freddie King, Albert King was one of the 3 Kings of Blues. He is easily one of the best and most influential blues guitarists of all time, known best for his album Born Under A Bad Sign. Of the three kings, he was the only left-handed player, and his style was widely studied in both blues and rock music circles. In 1983, Albert King was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame, and in 2013 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time listed him at number 13.
11. Freddie King
The third and final of the 3 Kings of Blues, Freddie King was known for his powerful singing voice and signature guitar-playing. Alongside the other two kings, he was one of the most influential guitarists in electric blues music with a style that crossed over to both R&B and rock music and he was one of the first blues artists to use a multiracial backing at performances. In 1982 he was honored as an inductee to the Blues Hall of Fame and in 2012 he was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Freddie King’s Hide Away was on the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame’s list of 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and he was listed by Rolling Stone twice on lists of the greatest guitarists of all time, 25th in 2003 and 15th in 2011.
12. Elmore James
Elmore James developed a signature technique on the slide guitar and started his career as a sideman for Sonny Boy Williamson II. Eventually, he would strike out on his own and record music as an independent artist. The single-string playing style he used was an influence on major blues artists like B.B. King and Chuck Berry, while Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa, and other rock artists gained inspiration from his work. In 1992 he was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in the Early Influence category.
13. Christone Ingram
Ingram started out his music career singing and performing in church and was influenced by attending gospel performances in his youth. His nickname “Kingfish” was derived from the sitcom The Amos ‘n’ Andy Show. Influenced by Muddy Waters to get into blues music, Christone Ingram is one of the more recent great guitarists on the list. His music career began in 2014 after learning from the work of greats like Jimi Hendrix, Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Prince, and Lightnin’ Hopkins. He began playing gigs in the seventh grade and is widely regarded as one of the greatest young talents in music today.
14. Magic Sam
Magic Sam had a relatively successful career, but his 1963 single I Feel So Good (I Wanna Boogie) recognition and sent him touring the US, UK, and Germany. He had a distinctive way of playing the guitar through a type of tremolo playing and was a major influence in music outside of the Chicago Blues he was best known for.
Magic Sam’s recordings with Otis Rush and Buddy Guy became the foundation for a new style of blues music. He would eventually tour with blues harp player Charles Musselwhite, and his performance at the Ann Arbor Blues Festival was one of his most important performances. He was most notable for working outside of the standard 12-bar blues style.
15. Bo Diddley
The use of African rhythms, simple five-accent hambone, and signature beats made Bo Diddley one of the most influential musicians of all time. He was a key contributor during the transition period from blues to rock music, and elements of his style are the foundation of the hip hop, rock, and pop music of today.
High-profile artists like Buddy Holly, The Beatles, The Clash, The Rolling Stones, and Elvis Presley were all influenced by Diddley’s music. He received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation and the Grammy Awards, and was inducted into the Rock & Roll, Blues, and Rhythm and Blues Halls of Fame.
16. Muddy Waters
Muddy Waters was one of the most important figures in blues after World War II and were an integral player in the development of the Chicago blues style. His influence was as widespread as it possibly could have been, with many artists on this list having named him as one of their biggest inspirations.
His song Rollin’ Stone was the inspiration for the Rolling Stones when they named their band, Led Zeppelin used his lyrics as an influence in their songs, and AC/DC’s song, You Shook Me All Night Long, was directly influenced by Waters’ song, You Shook Me. His other influences on musicians are too numerous to list in the scope of this article, though he has been inducted into the Blues and Rock & Roll Halls of Fame, won numerous awards and helped shape American music into what it is today.
17. John Lee Hooker
Borrowing from the 1930s and 40s boogie-woogie, John Lee Hooker adapted the style to create his own way of playing the electric guitar and played a unique-sounding type of Delta blues. His best-known songs are Boogie Chillen and Crawling King Snake. Hooker released multiple albums that charted well in both the US and UK, winning him four Grammy Awards and their Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2015, Rolling Stone magazine ranked him at number 35 on their list of the 100 Greatest Guitar Players of All Time.
18. Blind Willie Johnson
It only took Blind Willie Johnson five recording sessions to become one of the most celebrated gospel blues musicians in American history. His powerful voice and skills with the slide guitar would go on to influence musicians well after he stopped recording music in 1930, His most famous single, Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground, was one of the 27 songs selected to go on the Voyager Golden Record as a representative of humanity to any extraterrestrial life that may find it. Much of his life remains a mystery, though a revival of interest in his music in the 60s helped uncover much of what was lost and preserve his music for future generations to enjoy.
19. Sister Rosetta Tharpe
One of the first artists to mix spiritual lyrics with the electric guitar, Sister Rosetta Tharpe was also the first great recording star of gospel music. Her work appealed to wide audiences of blues, and rock and roll enthusiasts, with many of the earliest rock and roll musicians being directly influenced by her. Tharpe would tour Europe alongside Muddy Waters and influenced artists like Johnny Cash, Eric Clapton, Chuck Berry, and Little Richard. Depending on who you ask, her recording was either the first rock and roll record or a precursor to rock and roll. Either way, Tharpe was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2018 in the Early Influences Category.
20. Charley Pride
Charley Pride was one of the few African American musicians to work in country music during and after the Civil Rights Movement. During the mid-70s, he found his greatest success and was the best-selling artist RCA records had worked with since their time with Elvis Presley. From 1966 until 1987, Pride racked up 52 top 10 hits on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart with 30 of them making it to the number one spot. The Country Music Association Awards granted him the Entertainer of the Year Award in 1971, and he won a Grammy in 1972 for Best Country Vocal Performance. His guitar playing and vocals made him one of only three African-American members of the Grand Ole Opry, and he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2000.
21. Lightnin’ Hopkins
Hopkins was one of the most influential country blues singers and guitarists in music. He inspired an entire generation of musicians, including Hank Williams Jr. and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Vaughan used one of Hopkins’ songs as inspiration for their Grammy-nominated song Rude Mood. Hopkins used a specific style of playing that allowed him to play bass, rhythm, lead, and percussion all at the same time while slapping his guitar to keep time and add his own accompaniment.
Most of his music dealt with good-natured jokes and talked about bad luck in love, problems in the segregated south, and other common blues themes. Rolling Stone listed Lightnin’ Hopkins at number 71 on their 2010 list of the 100 Greatest Guitar Players of All Time.
22. Memphis Minnie
Lizzie Douglas was one of the most prolific blues recording artists during her 30-year career. Her initial start in the music industry included numerous cutting contests in nightclubs and recording sessions for the Columbia label. She recorded over 200 songs after establishing herself in Chicago during the 1930s. Her most popular songs include Bumble Bee, When The Levee Breaks, and Me and My Chauffeur Blues. Minnie is described as one of the most popular female blues singers of all time. In 1980, she was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame and was honored with a marker on the Mississippi Blues Trail. Her influence on later artists extended to big names like Big Mama Thornton, Jo Ann Kelly, and Erin Harpe.
23. Jimmy Reed
Jimmy Reed was one of the earliest blues artists to use an electric blues style that appealed to blues lovers and people who preferred other genres. He may have been one of the most influential bluesmen of all time because his style was one of the easiest to study and replicate. His 1961 song, Bright Lights, Big City, was charted on Billboard Rhythm and Blues chart and the Hot 100 Singles chart. Reed’s music was a huge influence on other artists like The Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds, and Elvis Presley. In 1968, Reed would tour Europe with the American Folk Blues Festival. He was inducted into both the Blues, and Rock and Roll Halls of Fame posthumously.
24. Robert Cray
After seeing Albert Collins, Freddie King, and Muddy Waters in concert, Robert Cray decided to form his own band. Cray would go on to form the Robert Cray Band and collaborate with Curtis Salgado in the Crayhawks. His blues bands have won five Grammy Awards and use some unorthodox instruments to produce a unique sound that adds depth to their performances. In 2005, Cray was inducted into Hollywood’s RockWalk at Guitar Center. In 2011, he was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame. To this day, Robert Cray still tours and performs music.
25. Tosin Abasi
Tosin Abasi is the founder and lead guitarist for Animals As Leaders, a progressive metal band that has released five albums, including a self-titled debut, Weightless, The Joy of Motion, The Madness of Many, and Parrhesia. His work has gained him the 97th rank on the Guitar World list of 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time. He is the founder of Abasi Concepts, an instrument company that designs and sells a variety of six, seven, and eight-string instruments.
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