When it comes to the blues, ask any aficionado for advice on essential listening and you’ll get answers as diverse as the variety of musical genres. The term “blues” itself has become a kind of umbrella term that encompasses many different genres, sub-genres, and styles. There’s Chicago blues, Delta blues, Texas blues, and the list just goes on and on from there.
Despite such diversity, there’s one trait that binds all of these sub-genres together (besides cool pseudonyms adopted by the artists): their influence on modern music. The blues, in all its varied forms, is the foundation for many other styles of music, including jazz and rock ‘n’ roll. Just listen to any early Led Zeppelin album and you’ll hear juiced-up interpretations of classic tunes from blues masters like Howlin’ Wolf and Willie Dixon. Every musician should have, at the very least, a basic understanding of the blues. Here’s a blues primer listing examples that best exemplify the blues for guitar, bass, drums, piano, vocals, and harmonica.
Stevie Ray Vaughan: Texas Flood put Texas blues on the map, and Vaughan’s band, featuring drummer Chris Layton and bassist Tommy Shannon, lay into some of the best examples of Texas shuffle that modern blues has to offer. If you want to dig a little deeper, check out Vaughan’s influences: T-Bone Walker, Freddie King, Albert Collins, and Lightnin’ Hopkins, whose New York Times obituary called him “perhaps the greatest single influence on rock guitar players.”
Magic Sam Blues Band: Black Magic is the embodiment of Chicago blues. Samuel “Magic Sam” Maghett was known for a distinctive tremolo style, and his influence was widely acknowledged (and ultimately embedded into the annals of pop culture) when Jake Blues dedicated “Sweet Home Chicago” to him in the movie The Blues Brothers. Originally produced by Willie Dixon, Magic Sam learned to play the blues by listening to players like Muddy Waters and Little Walter.
Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings is the definitive collection. Known as the “King of the Delta Blues,” Johnson is arguably the most oft-mentioned progenitor of the blues for both his singing and guitar playing. He has become a mythical figure who reportedly sold his soul to the devil in exchange for otherworldly talent. Adding to the myth, only two pictures of him are known to exist.
Sonny Terry: This blind blues harp (harmonica) player came from a sub-genre known as Piedmont blues, which primarily refers to a style of guitar playing and its ragtime based rhythms. Check out Whoopin’, the 1984 release featuring Johnny Winter and Willie Dixon.
Steve Jordan: He’s played with Keith Richards and the X-pensive Winos, John Mayer Trio, and was the original drummer in the World’s Most Dangerous Band, the live studio band for the show Late Night with David Letterman on NBC. He became the drummer for The Blues Brothers in the early ’80s, and though he didn’t appear in the film of the same name, he did appear on their live Made in America record, which followed the hit movie. Featuring legendary Stax Records session players, guitarist Steve Cropper, and bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn, it’s worth digging into for some serious Memphis-style R&B grooves.
Fred Below: Credited with laying down the archetypal backbeat of the Chicago blues style, Below is considered by many to have been the finest blues drummer ever. He played with Little Walter and did numerous sessions for Chess Records. Below is the drummer on most of Chuck Berry’s early classics, including “Roll Over Beethoven” and“Johnny B. Goode,” making him a great example of the crossover between the blues and rock ’n’ roll.
Jerry Jemmott: He’s played with Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, B.B. King, Freddie King, King Curtis, and just about every other blues icon you can think of. Check out B.B. King’s Completely Well for some of the grooviest Memphis blues style playing on the planet. Bass Player magazine once said, “There’s a problem with analyzing Jerry Jemmott’s transcendent, funk/blues grooves with B.B. King: It’s tough to maintain focus while you’re shaking your butt.”
Willie Dixon: The mere fact that Led Zeppelin achieved an enormous amount of success pilfering songs like “Bring It on Home” and “Whole Lotta Love” from Dixon is a clear indication of his skills as a composer. His bass playing was equally wicked. As a producer, songwriter, bassist, and singer, he helped Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, and others find their voices and subsequent success. Check outWillie’s Blues for a taste of Dixon’s mastery.
Classic female blues (or vaudeville blues) was a popular 1920s genre initiated by vocalists Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Ethel Waters, to name but a few. These women were among the first artists ever to be recorded and their influence on rock singers like Janis Joplin is irrefutable.
Memphis Slim: This jump blues pianist’s 1947 recording“Every Day I Have the Blues” has become a blues standard. Jump blues evolved from big band style music and generally has an up-tempo feel to it. Check out Memphis Slim and the Real Boogie-Woogie.
This article originally appeared in our November-December 2011 issue of Making Music magazine. Order here!