In the October of 1923, Sylvester Weaver became the first man to play guitar on record in the style we know today as Country Blues and opened the floodgates for a new style of Blues which within a few years would replace the female vocal, Vaudeville style, that was predominant in the genre’s fledgling years.
Country Blues guitarists of the 1920s such as Blind Lemon Jefferson, Charley Patton, Lonnie Johnson, Blind Willie McTell, Tommy Johnson, Son House, Blind Blake, Big Bill Broonzy, Tampa Red, and Charlie McCoy, would become stars on the back of their guitar playing and were hugely influential on those guitarists that followed not long after such as Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, T-Bone Walker, John Lee Hooker, Robert Nighthawk, and Lightnin’ Hopkins. These musicians would, in tiurn, provide inspiration for the likes of Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page and other artists of the 1960s who embodied the concept of the ‘Guitar God’. Blues had a close musical sibling in the form of sanctified music and this gave rise to the ‘guitar evangelist’ with Blind Willie Johnson and Blind Gary Davis being two of the most recognisable and influential musicians in that world.
There were many important guitarists in Old- Timey music in the mid-1920s but it was the recordings of the Carter Family that really gave the guitar a voice in white Folk music and essentially marked the stylistic change that saw Old-Timey become Country music. Maybelle Carter’s guitar work provided the blueprint for the picking-style of guitar playing that would become such an important part of Country music’s sound in those early days.
Country guitarists weren’t limited to the finger-picking style, however, with many displaying more Blues-based playing such as Cliff Carlisle, whose ‘Guitar Blues’ is one of the finest examples of this stylistic cross-over. Five years later Leon McAuliffe proved that Blues and Country were still influencing each other when he updated Sylvester Weaver’s ‘Guitar Rag’ with his ‘Steel Guitar Rag’, within which he laid down the blueprint for how the steel guitar could and should be played.
The late 1930s saw the introduction of the electric guitar into Blues recordings but it didn’t make a massive impact until the early 1940s, when T-Bone Walker’s Lonnie Johnson influenced playing really opened up the possibilities of what the electric guitar was capable of. He popularised the modern guitar solo and also brought in guitar lick introductions and his pioneering work altered the face of not just Blues guitar but also gave birth to the Chuck Berry-style of playing that would go on to become such an important part of 1950s Rock ‘n’ Roll and influence so many of the big guitar players of the 1960s.
Later in the 1940s Muddy Waters would catch a Greyhound bus to Chicago and start playing his own electrified brand of Delta Blues. The Windy City would become the epicentre for a whole new Blues movement which would find its way out of Chicago’s black neighbourhoods, over the Atlantic and into white middle-class suburban homes of the south of England where it would become a vital part of what was to happen with Rock music in the 1960s and 1970s.
Around the same time that the electric guitar began its ascent in Blues music it was also taken up by Country musicians with Milton Brown featuring electric guitar in a live setting in his groundbreaking Western swing bands as early as 1935. The addition quickly caught on and many other Western Swing bands soon featured an electric guitar player in the line-up with Milton’s old band the Light Crust Dough Boys being one of first to utilise the electric guitar in the studio as can be evidenced by their seminal version of Ted Daffan’s ‘Truck Driver’s Blues’.
Electrified lap steel and pedal steel guitars would go on to become a massive part of the sound of Country music throughout the 1940s and 1950s but the genesis of that style can be traced back to the early decades of the 20th century when Hawaiian guitar techniques were picked up by American musicians. Guitarists such as Casey Bill Weldon and Roy Smeck, helped to popularise Hawaiian-style guitar playing in Blues, Pop, Country, and almost all types of guitar-based American music, although the impact on Country music was the most prominent with the lap steel and pedal steel guitar becoming an integral part of the sound of Country for many years.
By the mid-1940s a new breed of Country guitar player would come to the fore; the session guitar player. One of the most prominent was Hank Garland who played on hundreds of Nashville recordings in the 1950s and 1960s and in doing so influenced many of the artists that followed in his wake, not just in Country but all avenues of American Popular music. Not all of Country music’s big acts utilised studio musicians as many of them already had musicians amongst their ranks that could go toe-to-toe with Nashville’s finest as can be heard in the playing of the likes of Smitty Smith, Porky Freeman, Junior Barnard, and Little Roy Wiggins, all of whom greately contributed to the development of guitar playing in Country music.
Although electric guitar had become a major part of Country music in the 1940s the acoustic guitar still had plenty of life left in it as guitarists, such as Merle Travis and the Delmore Brothers, served up numbers that were in a more traditional vein, with Travis’ revolutionary style owing a great debt to Maybelle Carter’s style. Pioneering Bluegrass guitarists such as Charlie Monroe and Lester Flatt altered the way people approached guitar playing within the stringband context, with their energetic and muscular rhythm styles becoming a very important part of the adrenalin-fuelled Bluegrass sound that rose to prominence in the 40s and which remains to this day a very popular sub-genre of Country music.
At the same time the electric guitar entered the worlds of Blues and Country music it also began to feature in Jazz. In the late 1930s Charlie Christian pioneered the use of electric guitar in Jazz music and although he was by no means the first Jazz guitarist to record with an electric – there were a few that preceded him such as Leonard Ware, George Barnes, and Eddie Durham – he was the first one to really capture the Jazz fans’ imaginations and his innovations on the guitar not only made waves in the Jazz world but also spilled over into Blues and, by extension, Rock ‘n’ Roll of both the 1950s and 1960s varieties.
By the mid-1940s the music that was being made in Blues, Country, and Gospel, began to including small musical ideas and developments that would slowly start to feed into the subconscious of those younger musicians that would become the leading lights of Rock ‘n’ Roll a decade later. The guitar work of artists such as Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Arthur Smith, Goree Carter, Joe Hill Louis, and Jerry Byrd, would all contain elements that pointed to the sound of what was to come.
Cousins Floyd and Moody Jones were amongst the first Chicago Blues musicians to play electric guitar and the songs included here by those artists are some of the first ever recordings of Chicago guitarists plugged in. By 1951, when Elmore James cut his epochmaking ‘Dust My Broom’, the electric guitar ruled Chicago and a whole new wave of important guitarists came to the fore, all of which would prove to be massively influential on the Rock acts of the 1960s, 1970s, and beyond. All of these guitarists, as well as those that were pulling up trees in the worlds of Country, Jazz, R & B, Rock ‘n’ Roll, Surf, Soul, and more, are featured in ‘Hot Fingers: History of American Guitar Vol. 2 - 1951-1962’.