Black guitarists who pioneered music genres

Music as we know it today would not exist without Black artists. Black musicians of the 20th and 21st created the genres of what we now call rock, house, country, jazz, hip-hop, R&B, blues, and more. 

While musicians like Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, and the Beatles are acknowledged as rock pioneers, their musical inspirations – African-American rock and blues artists – are all-too often left out of the conversation. But without the creativity of guitarists like Chuck Berry, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and Robert Johnson, there would be no Led Zeppelin, no Cream, no Rolling Stones. 

Black musicians created ragtime (which gave way to jazz), blues, and gospel music – the foundations for rock music. The banjo, a signature of American country music to this day, was created by enslaved Africans and their descendants. Many early country hits were taken from the melodies of hymns performed by Black preachers in the Southern United States. 

Here are just a few of the Black guitarists who pioneered music genres as we know them today. 

 

Robert Johnson 

Few figures in American musical history have inspired more mystique than Delta bluesman Robert Johnson. Born in Mississippi in 1911, not many details are known of Johnson’s early life. He recorded just 29 songs in his short life, but that body of work proved to be a powerful influence on musicians who followed, including Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, and Keith Richards.

Johnson perfected a method of sounding like two guitar players at once. He played rhythm on the lower strings and melodies on the higher strings, while singing. He pioneered the boogie bass pattern, which was later used by artists like Chuck Berry. Johnson has been described as “an orchestra all by himself” (by Richards). Most famously, the lore around Johnson is that he “sold his soul to the devil” at a crossroads in exchange for legendary talent, a story he recounted in his song “Crossroads”. Johnson died at the age of 27. The definite cause of his death is unknown, but legend says that he was poisoned by the jealous husband of a woman he had flirted with. 

 

                              Chuck Berry 

 

With songs like “Roll Over Beethoven” and “Johnny B. Goode”, Chuck Berry earned the nickname “Father of Rock and Roll”. His lyrics spoke to a generation of teens in a way that hadn’t been done before – “He lit up our teenage years, and blew life into our dreams of being musicians and performers,” tweeted Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger. “His lyrics shone above others & threw a strange light on the American dream.”

Berry pioneered rock star swagger before the term “rock star” was a thing, with his signature “duck walk”, punchy solos, and signature guitar (a hollow body Gibson ES-350T). His guitar playing welded together country, blues, and R&B to create the distinct “rock & roll” style we know today. 

 

 

 

 

Freddie King 

Blues legend Freddie King combined Texas and Chicago blues styles – from Texas, the open string style, and from Chicago, the bellowing tones he used.  He incorporated both thumb and fingerpicking in his style. A singer who often recorded instrumental tracks, King’s playing often included vocal nuances, as if the guitar was doing the singing. His attack style and explosive onstage presence – plus his 6’5” frame – earned King the nickname “Texas Cannonball”. 

King provided inspiration for generations of blues and rock guitarists, including Mick Taylor, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Lonnie Mack. He was one of the first blues artists to employ a racially integrated group onstage with him. 

 

Elizabeth Cotten 

Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten, born in North Carolina in 1895, was a master of American folk music, although didn’t record her first album until she was 62 – more than half a century after she taught herself to play guitar and banjo. She would secretly borrow her brother’s instruments when she could, flipping them to play left-handed. Cotten created a unique style of playing – simultaneously plucking the bass line while playing the melody on the higher strings. The technique later became known as “Cotten style”. Her song “Freight Train” – which she wrote when she was 11 or 12 – was one of the blueprints for “open tuning” in American folk guitar.

Cotten’s music – including her song “Freight Train”, which she wrote before her teenage years, was beloved by the folk revival moment in the 1960s, and she toured and performed up until her death in 1987. She won a Grammy for her live album in 1985, and her songs have been covered by Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead, among many other artists.

 

Jimi Hendrix 

“Jimi Hendrix 1967-cropped waist” by A. Vente is licensed under CC BY 3.0.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame named Jimi Hendrix the “greatest instrumentalist in the history of rock music”. Hendrix was of the pioneers of utilizing guitar amplifier feedback artistically, and helped to popularize tone-altering pedals like fuzz distortion, wah-wah, and Uni-Vibe.

Rather than using standard barre chords, Hendrix fretted notes on the 6th string with his thumb. The technique let him to sustain the chord’s root notes while playing the melody, a method sometimes called “piano style”. Hendrix drew from diverse genres including blues, jazz, American folk music, 1950s rock and roll, and soul to create his trademark style, and his music has helped shape the development of heavy metal, hard rock, post-punk, hip-hop and grunge music.

Hendrix influenced many great artists who came after him, including Prince, John Frusciante of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Robert Smith of The Cure, Black Sabbath , A Tribe Called Quest, Run-DMC, and Halsey. The Greenwich Village studio he commissioned, Electric Lady Studios, has been used by artists like U2, Kanye West, and Lady Gaga. Hendrix received many awards throughout his life and posthumously, including 1968’s “Performer of the Year” by Rolling Stone and was ranked #1 on the same publication’s list of greatest guitarists of all time. He was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1991, the Jimi Hendrix Experience was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992, and his debut album, Are You Experienced, was added to the U.S. National Recording Registry in the Library of Congress in 2005. 

 


Sister Rosetta Tharpe 

With a powerhouse voice and innovative electric guitar solos, Sister Rosetta Tharpe blazed a trail for rock music in the 1930s and 1940s. She included “shredding” in her performances before there was a word for it.  

Sometimes called the “Godmother of rock and roll”, Tharpe was one of the original great recording stars of gospel music, and one of the first recording artists to use distortion on her guitar. She was born in Arkansas in 1915 and started performing gospel music with her mother at age six. At 23, she signed with British label Decca Records and released songs like “Rock Me” and “That’s All”.  Her gospel music also was loved by rhythm and blues and rock and roll audiences, influencing Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis, Johnny Cash, and Little Richard, among many others.She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2018. 


BB King

Known as the “King of the Blues” B.B. King is acknowledged as one of the most influential blues guitarists of all time. He released over 50 albums over his long career, utilizing his trademark phrasing, use of vibrato, and incredible tone. 

Riley B. King grew up singing in the gospel choir in his Mississippi hometown. The minister there played guitar during services, and taught King his first three chords. King bought his first guitar for $15, a month of his salary at that time. He joined a gospel group to play at area churches before following Delta blues musician Bukka White to Memphis for nearly a year. He performed on local radio programs and had regular gigs at a club in West Memphis. 

King’s nickname “B.B.” came from his nickname at a radio station, where he was a DJ and singer – “Beale Street Blues Boy”, shortened to “Blues Boy” and later, “B.B.”. He was a fixture of the Beale Street blues scene by the late 1940s and 1950s, playing in a group called The Beale Streeters. He was signed to RPM records, and began touring across the U.S. with his band, The B.B. King Review. 

King became one of the biggest names in R&B in the 1950s with hits like “3 O’Clock Blues”, “You Know I Love You”, and “Every Day I Have the Blues”. He started booking major venues like New York’s Apollo Theater, and in 1956 alone, he booked 342 concerts and three recording sessions. 

King prioritized quality over quantity in his playing, using his expressive phrasing to give his guitar a voice. “When I sing, I play in my mind; the minute I stop singing orally, I start to sing by playing Lucille,” King famously said. (Lucille was the name given to all of King’s guitars). 

He utilized a style that became known as the “B.B. Box”, using a pentatonic minor shape down the neck of the guitar and focusing on ⅘ notes. He also stepped outside of the traditional minor pentatonic scale and used microtonal bending – bending notes less than a semi-tone for a subtle effect. 

King was one of the biggest influences for a crop of young musicians in the United Kingdom, including Eric Clapton, The Rolling Stones, and Led Zeppelin. King opened for the Stones’ 1969 American Tour. 

 

Prince 

Prince Rogers Nelson possibly led the most innovative musical career of the century, beginning with his debut album – which, at 19, he was able to produce himself through an almost unprecedented clause in his Warner Brothers contract. With complete creative control, Prince pioneered the “Minneapolis sound”, which is a genre of funk rock with synth-pop and new wave elements. His music spanned funk, R&B, rock, new wave, soul, synth-pop, pop, jazz, blues, and hip hop. Prince’s sixth album, Purple Rain, was also the soundtrack to the film of the same title, which he also starred in. Purple Rain also inspired the first “parental advisory” warning label for an album. 

Prince is known for his skill at the guitar, which he taught himself – but as a multi-instrumentalist (he’s estimated to have played 27 instruments) he recorded most of the instrumentals on his albums himself. 

Prince struggled against Warner Brothers to protect his artistic vision over the years, during which he changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol. After his contract ended in 2000, he went back to his old name and was one of the first artists to put his music out online. Prince established Paisley Park Studios in 1987 – a first-of-its-kind record label to allow artists creative freedom. 

 

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