Blues has a storied heritage, originating in the Deep South of the 1860s, where it originated as an elegy, a solemn plea, and a tempered celebration of life’s small victories.
Though its origins were steeped in an ecosystem of oppression and injustice, blues called on the perseverance and strength embodied in the tradition of spiritual odes and work-line chants.
When approached at a surface level, blues as a genre is warm, inviting, and rousing.
But at its heart, it is subversive, a stylistic medley that vindicates the soul of the downtrodden and glances fearlessly at the debased status quo.
It blends pathos and poetry and provokes introspection, activism, and an alchemical transmutation; an ability to peer beyond the “way things are” and envision a different sort of life.
The twenty best blues guitarists of the twentieth century embody the fervent roots of the tradition, marrying its potency to new sensibilities like rock, psychedelic, and soul.
These musicians were not merely catalysts of raw new sounds – they formed the very texture of America’s musical corpus.
Enjoy our list of the best blue guitarist of all time!
1. Muddy Waters
It is believed that the term “blues” originated from the phrase “blue devils,” meaning a melancholy and disconsolate state, but Muddy Waters was never strictly beholden to the solemn side of Blues.
Born McKinley Morganfield, he was a giant figure in the post-war blues community, blending the warmth of Delta blues, the shimmering resplendence of the harmonica, and the catharsis of an urgently-played guitar.
Upon migrating to Chicago during the Great Migration, he became one of the exponents of the Chicago style that would sweep the nation in the forties and fifties.
Jimi Hendrix once said, “I first heard him as a little boy and it scared me to death.”
The Rolling Stones named themselves after one of his most enduring, twangy fifties ditties, “Rollin’ Stone.”
Give “Good Morning Little School Girl” and “Got My Mojo Working” a spin for a twangy taste of the unrivaled baron of Blues.
2. B.B. King
One of the three Kings of Blues (you’ll meet the other two below), B.B. is worshipped today for his generosity of spirit, honey vocals, and mid-century crossover impact, particularly in rock n’ roll and jazz.
Indeed, one can almost hear the birth of rock and roll in “When Love Comes to Town” and
all of your favorite strapping rockers from the Deep South to Britain and beyond owe a princely debt to B.B.
Recognized as the preeminent savant of the electric guitar, he has an unflappable sophistication and a self-assurance that manifested in his experimental techniques like staccato picking and string bending.
Born on a cotton plantation in Mississippi, he lived a long and storied life, getting his start at rural juke joints and eventually performing a mind-bending 200 shows a year later in his career.
3. Buddy Guy
The leading maestro of the Chicago blues ethos, with its emboldened sophistication and urbane experimentation, Guy was the eternal flame that lit up the genre and was a vanguard of early rock and roll.
He pioneered the electric blues style that came to define the Chicago mode of blues, and while wisps of the South can be felt in his textured compositions, he was also unabashedly radical, riveting, and avant-garde.
At 86, his legacy continues to inform the complex canvas of blues as it continues to enchant and empower in the 21st century.
His poignant, affecting vocal tenor will stop you in your tracks in ballads like “Feels Like Rain,” while his lightning-hot electric riffs in “Damn Right, I’ve Got the Blues” will have you kneeling at his altar.
4. Albert King
From the first enticing, rollicking notes of “Born Under A Bad Sign,” it is unequivocal: you are in the presence of a master, a veritable Dionysus on the guitar, shredding conventions and seducing spectators.
Low-down Delta blues staples like “Crosscut Saw” and “Blues At Sunrise” are saturated with the warm-edged electricity of a sensual Mississippi night.
Known endearingly as the “Velvet Bulldozer” because of his intimidating stature and satin vocals, his gregarious approach influenced later greats like Clapton and Hendrix, and Stevie Ray Vaughan cited him as his most salient influence.
5. Robert Johnson
An early-twentieth-century legend, Johnson comes to us now as a phantom of sorts, but even during his day, his life (and death at 27) were shrouded in mystery and rumor.
His recording career spanned a paltry seven months in the mid-thirties, but his preternatural gift for storytelling enraptured his contemporaries and generations of blues artists to follow.
His life and times encapsulate the roots of blues and mirror its founding principles: an unpolished, spontaneous display of creative vision and verve, unmediated by self-consciousness.
Indeed, he performed much of his best work straight from the street corner or juke joint, the haunts of the blues ethos in its purest, sparsest, least commercialized form.
6. Johnny Winter
The spirited, unruly, charismatic Texan Johhny Winter brought a fervency and carnality to blues, marrying it to the swagger of Deep South rock.
He blended blues with a fiery brand of cocksure theatricality, and his slide guitar dominated the genre from the late sixties onwards.
He embodied the unpolished, rebellious tenor of the South, and one can even hear the cadence of the frontier in his exhilarating melodies.
You can taste the hazy, sultry barroom air of a Southern dive in the vitalizing electric riffs of “Be Careful With a Fool” and “Rock Me Baby.”
7. Freddie King
The third King of Blues, Freddie’s zinging electric approach was distinctive, untamed, and enticing; a hearty medley of open-stringed Texan traditions and grittier Chicago stylistic conventions.
Ranked 15th in Rolling Stone Magazine’s list of the best guitarists, his instrumentals curiously became an engine of the surf-rock mania of the early sixties.
Like Muddy Waters, King brought the magic of electric blues, melodic hooks, and a distinctive treble tone to Britain and elevated the Gibson Les Paul to icon status.
Freddie’s sound is rich with a soulful, almost baleful, intimacy, and he weaves tales that provoke the senses with a frank sincerity and gentle gravity.
“Help Me Through The Day” is unblinking in its tenderly rendered pathos.
8. Sister Rosetta Tharpe
Sister Rosetta is a singular talent, the pioneer of a surreal and astonishing marriage between spiritual gospel content and electric guitar delivery.
She is revered today as the first acclaimed gospel recording artist, and those who worship at her altar refer to her as the “Godmother of rock and roll.”
Her heavily distorted brand of electric blues was pivotal in establishing the animated, potent sixties style of the 1960s.
When asked about rock and roll greats like Elvis, the Godmother herself responded slyly, “Oh, these kids and rock and roll — this is just sped up rhythm and blues. I’ve been doing that forever.” Legendary.
9. Eric Clapton
Lauded by most as one of the most peerless guitarists in history, Clapton constructed wildly sumptuous, challenging, expansive chords at the nexus of blues, psychedelic, and pure classic rock.
Clapton builds momentum and sustains delightful tension like no other, rendering listeners slack-jawed and enchanted.
In Clapton’s soulful, penetrative sound, we can feel the echoes of Muddy Waters’s early voyage to Britain, where he established the popularity of the electric guitar in blues.
His disruptive, fleshed-out style inspired what would become a distinctly British take on a Deep South genre, best personified in the long and formidable career of Clapton, Britain’s patron saint of the guitar.
10. Howlin’ Wolf
Howlin’ Wolf took the raw material of his rough and lonesome Mississippi upbringing and channeled it into the heartening, plaintive songs that spoke to the lived experiences of so many.
Recording in blues, rock n’ roll, and even psychedelic, he blended the disparate tendencies of electric Chicago blues and rural, acoustic Delta blues, elevating the genre and expanding its terrain in the postwar years.
Getting his start in the 1930s juke joints, the veritable staging grounds of the genre, Howlin’ Wolf was an itinerant, romantic figure, voyaging throughout the country and sharing the gospel of his twang-heavy, swamp-bitten sound.
Feel the brazen majesty in “Spoonful” and “Smokestack Lightnin.’”
11. Joe Bonamassa
Here is a bit of unbelievable lore for you: the child prodigy Joe Bonamassa got his start in 1989 at twelve, opening for B.B. King. Let that sink in.
Bonamassa is one of the most prolific and maddeningly talented blues artists of the modern age.
In 2020, he founded Keeping the Blues Alive Records, which does essentially what it says on the label.
Bonamassa has been Grammy-nominated, but he is one of the rare masters who doesn’t need commercial or mainstream acclaim to nourish his spirit.
12. Robert Cray
Five-time Grammy winner Robert Cray has kept an intriguingly low profile throughout his multi-decade career and has worked tirelessly to perfect his delightful synthesis of blues, rock, and soul.
His recording career began in the late seventies, and you can certainly feel a certain modernity in his cashmere-textured melodies.
But listen closely, and you can also hear the ghosts of post-war Chicago and Delta greats in his masterful, intricate compositions.
The satisfactory melodies and sultry, elusive riffs of “Right Next Door (Because Of Me)” will mow you down – exaggeration intended.
A longtime acolyte of the Telecaster and Stratocaster Fenders, he is now the namesake of two Fender models for all you guitar enthusiasts on the market for your new instrumental obsession.
13. Stevie Ray Vaughan
The tragically short-lived Vaughan married the propulsive verve of blues with the untamed vigor of Southern rock, producing a catalog of music enriched with the most disarming tendencies of both.
Worshipped among guitar purists as the founder of the blues-rock band Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble, he brought the charisma and charming intransigence of his Texan upbringing to his singular sound.
His 1983 album Texas Flood is a veritable masterpiece of late-twentieth-century Blues and offered an eloquent, rootsy alternative vision for an age obsessed with the promises of bubblegum MTV superficiality.
Vaughan’s unruly, dizzying skill helped propel the Fender Stratocaster to soaring heights in the eyes of the world’s instrumental obsessives.
14. Lightnin’ Hopkins
Straight out of Centerville, Texas, Lightnin’ is the reigning king of the country-blues nexus, and his lyrical output is akin to swift, luminous poetry.
His fingerstyle and plucking technique are unadulterated and organic, and his imaginative, DIY ethos still feels arresting and unprecedented.
Chromatic turnarounds and the accompaniment of tapping and guitar slapping fostered a wild and densely-textured soundscape.
His voice is disarmingly intimate, and his pace is intentionally languid and slow-moving, like a calm and collected stretch of the Mississippi River.
15. Jimi Hendrix
Although Jimi needs no introduction as one of the foremost guitarists in the classic and psychedelic rock canons, he never veered far from his foundation, which was blues through and through.
Hendrix elevated electric blues into the stratosphere, experimenting with assertive overdriven riffs and intoxicatingly distorted feedback.
Hendrix and the Fender Stratocaster’s stars rose together, and he is foundational to the elevation of the guitar as an instrument worthy of the most careful, solemn worship.
Hendrix always conveyed the debt he owed to post-war electric blues pioneers like Muddy Waters, Chicago heavyweights like B.B. King, and Southern staples like Albert King.
16. T-Bone Walker
When you think T-Bone, you think innovation, charming intransigence, and expansive experimentation of form.
A pioneer of jump blues and West Coast blues, Walker emigrated from small-town Texas to the bright, urgent lights of Depression-era Los Angeles.
No lightweight himself, B.B. King said of Walker that it was like “Jesus Himself had returned to earth playing electric guitar.”
Indeed, Walker foregrounded the electric guitar in his iteration of blues, creating a tapestry of visceral textures and peppy tones.
17. Jimmy Reed
The amicable, endearing Southern charmer Jimmy Reed brought the masses an expansive and inviting electric blues sound.
Known for his delightful, uplifting, and eminently accessible compositions, Reed was something of an everyman and brought an unpretentious affability to the post-war musical culture – and all of this despite a lifelong battle with alcoholism.
He inspired the swinging early sixties sounds of The Rolling Stones and the captivating melodies of Cream and has been covered by everyone from Elvis to the Steve Miller Band, establishing his tracks as some of the most enduring of the century.
18. Otis Rush
Known and idolized for his slow-burning intentional guitar, blues was rendered a thing of meticulous, evocative beauty in Rush’s adept (left) hands.
A proponent of the breakaway microgenre of West Side Chicago blues Rush’s sound embraced the industrial, erudite textures of the city while retaining the spirited, generous melodies of his Mississippi childhood.
Steeped in the emerging flavors of R&B, he infused his brand of blues with a sweet edge and a charismatic verve.
In 2006 the Chicago mayor declared June 12 Otis Rush Day, so now blues lovers the world over can descend on the city and honor his luminous legacy.
19. Memphis Minnie
With a career spanning three decades in the early and mid-century, Memphis Minnie was a true original, a vocalist who could dish out harmonies laden with melancholy and mirth in turn.
Running away from home in 1910 at thirteen, her colorful, eccentric, oft-tragic life is the material of epic novels.
She is legendary for bridging the early, itinerant form of blues with its more polished mid-century incarnation.
Minnie was a multi-instrumentalist, experimenting with banjo, electric guitar, bass, and drums, but her most singular talent was the ability to give voice to the lonesomeness, aspirations, and quietly tended dreams of the multitudes.
20. Derek Trucks
Bringing a rootsy, unbridled Delta spirit to the nexus between blues and classic rock, Derek Trucks began his foray onto the musical stage in the early nineties and rapidly gained a critical and cult following.
Invited to be a formal member of the Allman Brothers Band (what an honor), Trucks consistently relies on his unpretentious, meticulous technique to gain and sustain a loyal following.
His sound is rich with the satisfactory pleasures of a jam session, and his expansive repertoire takes in the worldly, eclectic sounds of American Jazz, Latin soul, and Pakistani qawwali.
Best Blues Guitarists of All Time – Final Thoughts
Blues is foundational to American history’s heritage and cultural dynamism, and its journey across the pond was nothing short of revelatory.
As the wellspring of rock and roll, soul, and Southern rock, it could be considered post-war culture’s forebear.
As a subversive and candid medium for formerly enslaved peoples in the American South, it originated as an ode to freedom and a yearning for salvation, and it continues to uplift and transcend over a century after its birth.
You may also like: Best Blues Songs of All Time