The recent passing of the legendary B.B. King – one of my greatest musical influences, by a long shot – inspired me to go back (“way down an alley” as B.B. liked to say in Live at the Regal) and revisit the blues recordings that shaped me as a guitarist.
To this day, some 30 years later, I quote licks and ideas that I learned while sitting at my record player and painstakingly transcribing what I could discern from that spinning vinyl. And I continue to teach them to my lead guitar students, so that, by extension, they will be shaped by this great material as well.
My essential blues recordings are listed in no particular order and I’ve added a few “quick takes” on each one – personal highlights, fun trivia, and a link for listening. Of course there are lots of great blues tracks that I’ve left out, so please feel free to add your faves in the comments section.
1 – Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton by John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers
Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton, known by its famous cover photo of a young Eric Clapton. reading a Beano comic book, is one of the touchstone recordings for guitarists coming of age in the 70’s and early-80’s. Its influence on my playing is immense.
HIGHLIGHTS: As a connoisseur of American blues music, Eric was heavily influenced by a number of the greats. Two, in particular, make their presence known as he covers their most famous tunes: “All Your Love” by Otis Rush and “Hideaway” by Freddie King. Eric’s other influences, such as the other two Kings (B.B. and Albert), can be heard throughout as well. “Steppin’ Out” was always my favorite track, and when I listened back, I could immediately hear the Clapton influence on my own phrasing and blues style.
TRIVIA: EC’s cover of Robert Johnson’s “Ramblin’ On My Mind” was his first recorded lead vocal.
2 – “Strange Brew” by Cream (from Disraeli Gears)
The influence of Cream on my musical development can’t be overstated. By my late teens, Clapton was my most significant guitar hero and the band’s various covers of classic blues introduced me to artists I hadn’t heard before.
Disraeli Gears features “Sunshine of Your Love”, one of the all-time great tracks in classic rock history. But for me, the real gem was “Strange Brew”, one of the most influential single tracks on my lead guitar approach. Along with the band’s cover of “Born Under a Bad Sign”, it introduced me to the Albert King style.
HIGHLIGHTS: Almost as an homage to the master, Eric quotes some Albert licks directly, especially in the intro solo and in the huge bend to start the middle break. Most importantly for me at the time, Clapton’s solos and fill licks were accessible to a developing player – not so fast that I couldn’t keep up, but certainly legit-sounding with strong vibrato and classic moves.
TRIVIA: The lead vocal by Clapton is somewhat rare for Cream at that time; bassist Jack Bruce usually handled those chores.
LISTEN: “Strange Brew”
3 – “Crossroads” by Cream (from Wheels of Fire)
The double-album Wheels of Fire delivered another all-time classic rock staple with the psychedelic “White Room”. But it also featured three terrific blues covers in “Spoonful” (live), Albert King’s “Born Under a Bad Sign”, and an uptempo version of the Robert Johnson tune, “Crossroads”.
HIGHLIGHTS: Clapton is absolutely on fire on “Crossroads”; you can feel the energy in his guitar tone as much as in his phrasing. He takes two awesome lead breaks: the middle solo is a touch more restrained and has a hybrid major and minor pentatonic approach, while the ending solo simply blazes through minor pentatonic ideas. The ideas seem to flow effortlessly.
TRIVIA: Cream’s recording of “Crossroads” brought the music of Robert Johnson to the attention of mainstream music audiences; reissues of his original recordings have sold in excess of one million copies as a result.
4 – Texas Flood by Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble
You could pick virtually any SRV album to be on a “greatest blues recordings” list, but for my money, his 1983 debut album, Texas Flood, is still his best. It’s a blues masterpiece.
Texas Flood is often credited with saving the blues genre from falling into obscurity and it’s hard to argue the point. Stevie Ray Vaughan single-handedly brought blues back into the mainstream with his fierce, Hendrix-meets-Albert King style. He had the ability to sound unique and at the same time pay homage to his greatest musical influences – the three Kings, Hendrix, Lonnie Mack, Otis Rush and Buddy Guy, to name a few.
HIGHLIGHTS: Every track is a gem, but my faves have always been the uptempo shuffle of “Pride and Joy”, the epic slows blues of “Texas Flood”, the funky vibe of Buddy Guy’s “Mary Had a Little Lamb”, and the Hendrix-inspired instrumental, “Lenny”. The energy on these tracks is so strong that it virtually jumps out of the speakers and the fat Stratocaster tone is instantly recognizable; it has tons of vibe and girth.
This is arguably the greatest blues album ever recorded, front to back, and certainly the finest one produced in a studio environment. Stellar rhythm section: check. Killer vocals: check. World-class, unique, intense playing dripping with Strat vibe throughout: check.
LISTEN: “Texas Flood”
5 – Live at the Regal by B.B. King
Often regarded as the most influential live blues album ever recorded, Live at the Regal represents the great B.B. King at the height of his powers. B.B. was the blues’ greatest ambassador and pretty much the standard by which classic blues was performed. His storytelling and rapport with the crowd on this 1965 recording is a great addition to the music itself. And I’m not sure there was ever a greater blues singer – his range of tone and pitch was just awesome.
HIGHLIGHTS: Everything. The songs flow so smoothly from one to the other that it feels like they should be listened to as one piece. B.B.’s signature entrance song, “Everyday I Have the Blues”, the classic “Sweet Little Angel”, “You Upset Me Baby”, It’s My Own Fault” – all gems. But my favorite individual moment is “How Blue Can You Get”: his vocal delivery, the lyrics, and the way he has the crowd eating out of his hand are every bit the match for his sublime guitar playing.
This live album is pitch perfect in every way. Make sure it’s in your collection.
LISTEN: Live at the Regal (full album) Note: Unfortunately this playlist has some advertisement breaks. Hearing it on the CD is definitely the best way to get the full concert experience.
BONUS RECORDING: Live in Cook County Jail runs a close second to Live at the Regal. His playing is effortless, with incredible call-and-response phrases, and his vocals are just as deep and soulful as can be. And just like on Regal, he’s got the crowd (er, prisoners) right in the palm of his hand.
LISTEN: Live in Cook County Jail (full album)
7 – At Fillmore East by Allman Brothers Band
The Allman Brothers Band is typically regarded as a Southern rock group and/or the godfathers of the jam band scene. But one listen to this phenomenal live album will teach you three fundamental truths about Gregg, Duane, Dickey and Co.: 1) they are one of the finest blues acts ever, 2) this recording is arguably the greatest live album – ever – in any genre, and 3) they are absolutely badass.
HIGHLIGHTS: Every track on At Fillmore East is world class, but two are particularly favorites. “Statesboro Blues” is a tour-de-force of slide guitar and features Duane Allman at the height of his incredible powers. His slide phrases drive the entire band like no one ever did before (and possibly since).
The classic T-Bone Walker tune, “Stormy Monday”, is epic in the true sense of the word – four verses in a slow burn, two fierce guitar solos bookending an organ solo in double-time, a beautifully jazzy sensibility, and the “big ending” of all big endings. Duane and Dickey Betts – the most criminally underrated guitarist of all time – take the song over the top with sublime phrasing, wicked vibrato, and fiery intensity through their choruses. Their string bending alone is a clinic in pitch control and nuance.
The brilliant musicianship of the band and the deep, soulful vocals of Gregg Allman on “Stormy Monday” add up to what may be the best 8:49 one could ever dedicate to his/her blues education.
TRIVIA: The trio of Greg Allman, Duane Allman and Dickey Betts were only 23, 24 and 27 years old respectively at the time of this live recording. Let that sink in as you listen.
LISTEN: “Stormy Monday” (harmonica solo included here is edited out on the original album)
8 – West Side Soul by Magic Sam
Samuel Maghett – known to blues fans as Magic Sam – was a terrific singer and guitarist. He definitely flies under the radar for the average blues fan, but he’s well-known among those who dig into the style a little deeper. West Side Soul is his definitive recording and one of the best in the genre.
HIGHLIGHTS: Sam’s style is almost equally rhythm and blues as it is straight blues (“That’s All I Need” could pass for a Motown track by Marvin Gaye), but his rendition of “Sweet Home Chicago” here is classic and he is the original artist on “Mama, Talk to Your Daughter” (later covered by Robben Ford, among others). “I Don’t Want No Woman” is an awesome chops fest, featuring his signature clean but fat tone, with just a little “hair” on it. Also of note is the power of his voice, as you can hear him regularly overdrive the studio mic.
An absolute classic by an under-the-radar artist.
TRIVIA: In the movie The Blues Brothers, John Belushi’s character, Jake Blues, dedicates “Sweet Home Chicago” to “the late, great Magic Sam.”
LISTEN: “I Don’t Want No Woman”
9 – Born Under a Bad Sign by Albert King
The legendary Albert King is every bit as influential as B.B., and is part of the “Three Kings” of the blues, which also includes Freddie King (“Hideaway”). Albert’s phrasing and signature licks were highly influential to Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jimi Hendrix, among many others.
HIGHLIGHTS: The title track to this album is his most famous song, and has been covered by numerous artists, including Cream on Wheels of Fire and Robben Ford on Talk to Your Daughter. But tracks like “Crosscut Saw” (Clapton’s “Strange Brew” cops the groove and some of the licks verbatim), “Personal Manager” (you can hear SRV’s “Texas Flood” in his solo), “Laundromat Blues” (listen for Hendrix’s “Red House”), “Oh Pretty Woman” (more “Strange Brew”) and “The Hunter” are also among his signature tunes. One listen and you’ll hear where some of your favorite guitarists got their blues licks.
TRIVIA: This album is a Stax record, and therefore Albert’s backing band is the cream of the Stax crop of studio musicians, including members of Booker T. and the MG’s. It’s worth noting that a number of Albert’s songs had an R&B-style backbeat – the Booker T./Stax influence – which was very different from most of his more traditional blues contemporaries.
10 – Live Wire/Blues Power by Albert King
As a young player, I wore this album out, mesmerized by Albert’s effortless command over his instrument. And just one listen to his slow blues playing here tells you exactly where Stevie Ray Vaughan got his vocabulary for songs like “Texas Flood”.
Live Wire/Blues Power is a tremendous live document of Albert’s blues mastery with a couple interesting things of note. First, the solos here are extended jams, unlike B.B. King’s more succinct solos (“Blues Power” checks in at over 9 minutes). Second, Albert’s voice is especially smooth and R&B, as opposed to the traditional gritty, blues shouters of the time. Third, Albert’s style was very efficient, purposefully using a limited number of moves repeatedly, with multiple variations.
HIGHLIGHTS: “Blues Power”. Each solo tells a short story via Albert’s fat, articulate and mid-rangey Flying V tone.
11 – Howlin’ Wolf by Howlin’ Wolf
Chester Burnette – aka, Howlin’ Wolf – was an extraordinarily powerful blues singer. His most famous recording, known as “the rocking chair album”, is a terrific collection of songs featuring Hubert Sumlin on guitar. Hubert is another guitarist who is well-known by blues aficionados, but completely off the radar to the average music fan.
Wolf and Sumlin’s tracks were highly influential, as evidenced by how often they were covered by other artists. Some notable examples are “Spoonful” (Cream, among others), “Sitting On Top of the World” (Cream), “Tell Me” (SRV), “Killing Floor” (Jimi Hendrix and appropriated as “The Lemon Song” by Led Zeppelin), and “I Ain’t Superstitious” (Jeff Beck Group).
HIGHLIGHTS: Although all the tracks are superb, the highlight for me is his oft-covered signature song, “Spoonful”. Like quite a few of Wolf’s tunes – whether written by the legendary Willie Dixon or by Wolf himself – it is not a traditional 12-bar blues. The cool, sinister vibe, enhanced by the minor key and the low, nasal quality of Wolf’s voice, really sets it apart from other blues tracks of the time.
TRIVIA: Wolf was financially successful, which was not the norm for a blues musician of his era. Therefore he attracted some of the best musicians around to his band, since he was able to pay them well (and even offer them health insurance!).
12 – “Red House” by The Jimi Hendrix Experience (from Are You Experienced)
“Red House” is an all-time Jimi Hendrix classic. It’s like Albert and B. B. King on steroids, with touches that are pure Jimi: the Fuzz Face, the echo in the middle solo, and of course the signature triad intro.
HIGHLIGHTS: The intro solo is also a terrific example of hybrid blues playing – the mix of major and minor sounds. You can hear Jimi effortlessly navigate the various pentatonic/blues patterns in his unique style, while also quoting some B.B. King, T-Bone Walker and Albert King along the way.
TRIVIA: “Red House” is the only true 12-bar blues that Jimi ever recorded.
LISTEN: “Red House”
13 – “Blues for T.J.” by Larry Carlton, featuring B.B. King (from Friends)
One of my all-time favorite players is the great Larry Carlton. As a teenager I became enthralled with Larry’s guitar work with Steely Dan (especially “Kid Charlemagne” and “Don’t Take Me Alive” on The Royal Scam) and sought out as much of his solo material as I could find. One of the first albums I bought was Friends.
HIGHLIGHTS: Although every track is stellar, the highlight for me has always been B.B. King’s guest spot on “Blues for T.J.”, a classic slow number and an absolute clinic in blues guitar.
B.B. solos first and plays impeccable phrase after impeccable phrase, punctuated with his incredible vibrato. Larry then follows and, while playing in his own way, manages to incorporate a certain amount of “B.B.-isms” to match his hero’s vibe.
TRIVIA: “T.J.” is the intials of Larry’s son, Travis James.
LISTEN: “Blues for T.J.”
14 – Talk to Your Daughter by Robben Ford
Released in 1988, Talk to Your Daughter is a “modern blues” recording in the sense that there is a certain production sheen on the songs; keyboards and horns; a fat, polished guitar tone; and the inclusion of jazz/fusion vocabulary.
Robben, much like Larry Carlton, always seems to know the perfect phrase to play at any given time. He makes every note count, feeding the listener jazz vocabulary in perfect balance with blues vocabulary.
HIGHLIGHTS: Every single note. If you’ve not heard Robben Ford, you need to immediately get the Magic Sam title track, as well as B.B. King’s “Help the Poor” and Albert King’s “Born Under a Bad Sign”, at minimum.
Blues-rock with a jazz edge played by an absolute master = my highest recommendation.
TRIVIA: Robben Ford and Larry Carlton both favor Dumble amplifiers, which were also a staple of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s rig. At the time of this recording, Robben was also playing a Fender Esprit solidbody archtop with two humbuckers – Fender’s attempt at something Gibson-like – to get his thick tone.
QUESTION: What are your favorite blues recordings? Leave me a comment below!