10 Chicago Blues Greats
Guitar Techniques|February 2022
Inject some authenticity into your blues playing as we turn back the clock in the Windy City, and check out the styles of 10 of the Chicago blues greats. Andy Saphir is your guide.
By Andy Saphir. Photographs by M.O.A, Ebet Roberts, Ed Perlstein, Paul Natkin and Getty Images

Chicago is synonymous with legendary blues names such as Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. These, and many more would make a name for themselves in the clubs and juke joints of the South and West sides of the city after migrating from southern states like Mississippi in the 1940s, 50s and 60s. At a time when electrifying guitars was new, drums and amplification were being used in the clubs to create a sound that was louder, and a far cry from the acoustic sound of the South. Pioneers like Waters, Elmore James, Little Walter and Jimmy Rogers would go on to influence many aspiring musicians who themselves would sign with Chicago record labels like Chess, Cobra, Chief and Delmark. Later, world famous names like The Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton would be influenced by these other artists, so their affect on the world of music has been far reaching indeed.

We’re going to look at 10 pioneering Chicago blues guitarists. Some may be more ‘household names’ than others, but each had his own approach and sound, and all used the notes that are the bedrock of the blues - root, b3rd, 4th 5th and b7th, or Minor Pentatonic scale. With the often added Major 2nd, 3rd and 6th from the Major Pentatonic and using approaches like ‘curling’ the b3rd, string bends and slides, an almost inexhaustible vocabulary was created and used by all of them.

I have written and recorded 10 separate 12-bar blues in the style of these players, in a variety of keys, tempos and technical difficulty. I strongly suggest that, as well as going through these, you also investigate recorded material from these great players.

ELMORE JAMES

Elmore James (1918-1963) was a singer and guitarist known for his slide playing. His guitar was tuned to open D (D-A-D-F#A-D) to achieve his ‘signature’ triplet slide lick. Classic Elmore tracks include Dust My Broom and The Sky Is Crying.

McKINLEY MORGANFIELD

Morganfield (1913-1983), aka, Muddy Waters, was a pioneer of Chicago blues. With songs like Hoochie Coochie Man, Rollin Stone, and Mannish Boy, his band was among the first to electrify the blues. Waters had lead guitarists in his band, like Jimmy Rogers, but did play himself, with a slide, playing in open E or G. Often seen with a Telecaster, and favouring a raw, bridge pickup sound, he picked using thumb and first finger.

MAGIC SAM

Magic Sam, (Sam Maghett 1937-1969) had a tragically short career as he passed away at just 32. He had been recording and playing in Chicago since the late 50s with tunes like All Your Love and Everything Gonna Be Alright, which featured his use of the tremolo effect. He was another player who favoured a fingerstyle approach, and used this to great effect with great solos and intricate and exciting rhythm chops too, as can be heard in the track, Sam’s Boogie.

HUBERT SUMLIN

Guitarist Sumlin (1931-2011) is best known for his work with Howlin’ Wolf. Sumlin played in his band from the mid 50s to the untilWolf’s death in 1976). He can be heard on classics such as Smokestack Lightning, Killing Floor, and Spoonful. He recorded and gigged up to his death in 2011, including at Eric Clapton’s Crossroads festivals, using a distinctive fingerstyle approach and playing a Gibson Les Paul.

JOSEPH YOUNG JN

Joseph Young Jn (1927-1999), known as Mighty Joe Young, was another singerguitarist who moved to Chicago to pursue his musical career. He was a sideman for various artists including Magic Sam and Otis Rush, but also recorded solo albums in the 1970s and later.

OTIS RUSH

Rush (1934-2018) was another influential guitarist-singer whose records have inspired future generations. A left-handed, self-taught musician he played the guitar ‘upside down’, with the first string at the top and the sixth string at the bottom (like Albert King and later Eric Gales). He played with a wide vibrato and preferred a pick.

JIMMY DAWKINS

Dawkins (1936-2013) was another guitarist-singer who migrated to Chicago in the 1950s where he gained the nickname ‘Fast Fingers’. He recorded a host of albums and as well as playing the clubs of Chicago, he also toured in Europe and Japan. Maybe not as well known his counterparts, he was nevertheless a fine and influential player.

MAGIC SLIM

Magic Slim (Morris Holt, 1937-2013), was a school friend of Magic Sam who also moved up from Mississippi to make it as a blues artist. He returned home for a while to hone his guitar skills, then came back to Chicago in 1965. He formed The Teardrops and stayed with them throughout his career. Slim used a Fender Jazzmaster or Gibson Les Paul through a Fender Super Reverb amp. He played fingerstyle, but using thumb and finger picks.

BUDDY GUY

George ‘Buddy’ Guy (b.1936) still performs at age 85, and is a legend of the Chicago blues era. Born in Louisiana, like many he moved to Chicago in the 50s to pursue his musical ambitions. As well as working as a session player with established artists such as Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, he also recorded his own albums. Often seen with his famous polka dot Fender Stratocaster, Guy is a real showman and has an intense, ‘explosive’ style. His playing is instantly recognisable and very difficult to imitate! His high ‘scream’ vocal style is equally intense, and with these two elements combined, he has a fantastic and unique sound. He plays with a pick, but also uses fingers too.

MICHAEL BLOOMFIELD

Unlike the earlier players who migrated there, Mike Bloomfield (1943-1981) was a native of Chicago. Visiting the clubs on the South side of the city he became a recognised talent in the early 60s by sitting in with established blues acts. He was however perhaps best known for playing with The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, and working with Bob Dylan on Highway 61 Revisited. Bloomfield moved to San Francisco in the late 60s to continue his career, but died tragically young at the age of only 37. Playing a Telecaster and Gibson Les Paul he had a raw, exciting sound. As well as blues he also experimented with improvising modal jazz lines too.

ELMORE JAMES

This 12-bar blues in E incorporates Elmore James-style slide throughout. Your guitar should be tuned to open E (E-B-E-G#-B-E). Ensure accuracy with the slide placement, and if possible, use a guitar with heavy-ish strings or a higher than normal action to avoid pressing the slide onto the frets (I place the slide on my third finger, but fourth finger is common too). I used my electro-acoustic Eastman E10 OOSS/V steel-string acoustic for the track, which I amped.

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