Chatter: Dean Alger - Remembering Lonnie Johnson

IN THE GUITAR PLAYER BOOK [Backbeat], there is a chapter on “The 50 Greatest Guitar Tones of All Time.
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Lonnie Johnson in 1941.

IN THE GUITAR PLAYER BOOK [Backbeat], there is a chapter on “The 50 Greatest Guitar Tones of All Time.” Great idea. But there’s a huge omission. Left off the GP list was the original developer of superb tone on the guitar—and, in truth, this player was also the founding father of many of the key elements of virtuoso lead guitar playing in blues and jazz, and, ultimately, for all of popular music. He’s not well known today, but he should be.

The “forgotten legend” is Lonnie Johnson (1894-1970). In addition to developing groundbreaking and seminal guitar tone, Johnson also had superb touch, vibrato, and sublime powers of musical expression. In February 2014, two anniversaries offer an appropriate opportunity to recognize this critically important guitarist: February 8 is the 120th anniversary of Johnson’s birth in New Orleans, and February 21 marks the 86th anniversary of the recording of his instrumental masterpiece, “Away Down in the Alley Blues.”

Guitar expert Lenny Carlson assessed “Away Down in the Alley Blues” this way: “This is a virtuoso improvisation based on the 12-bar blues, and like the classic ‘West End Blues’ of Louis Armstrong [June 1928], it represents the pinnacle of musical thought and solo technique on a particular instrument at that point in history.” Indeed.

Johnson began by playing the violin. He learned the expressive tradition of that instrument—including the vibrato—and then transferred it to guitar playing. That, and how he drew on the lyrically expressive French and Spanish music traditions of New Orleans, led to his remarkable, pioneering guitar work.

As Bill Wyman, former Rolling Stones bassman, said in Bill Wyman’s Blues Odyssey: “Lonnie was a guitar legend before we knew what they were. You can trace his playing style in a direct line through T-Bone Walker and B.B. King to Eric Clapton.”

Ry Cooder said, “Lonnie Johnson was one of the transcendent people who influenced everybody,” and B.B. King, who was profoundly influenced by Johnson, put it simply and powerfully: “Lonnie Johnson was the most influential guitarist of the century.”

The ten, guitar-duet recordings Johnson did in 1929 with the other guitar master of the time, Eddie Lang, were historic accomplishments in popular guitar. In my favorite duet, “Midnight Call Blues,” Johnson takes tone and musical texture to a whole new level. At the beginning of the track, he uses his 12-string to create an exotic, zither-like sound, and, later, when Lang takes a rare one-chorus lead, Johnson uses the 12-string to strum rich chords that sound like a combination harp-zither-guitar. In the aptly titled “Hot Fingers” and “Handful of Riffs,” Johnson blazes away with more inventive lead lines, as Lang provides his usual superb harmonic and rhythmic foundation.

Speaking of lists, I was also interested in the Rolling Stone “100 Greatest Guitarists” lists of 2003 and 2011. Despite the inclusion of older blues guys such as Robert Johnson, Lightnin’ Hopkins, John Lee Hooker, and T-Bone Walker, Lonnie Johnson was not there. These guys do not know their guitar history. Don’t duplicate such an egregious error. All guitarists should study Johnson’s music.

Dean Alger is a writer on popular music, a singer, and a guitarist. His book, The Original Guitar Hero & the Power of Music: The Legendary Lonnie Johnson, B.B. King & Louis Armstrong, Music & Civil Rights will be released April 2014, by the University of North Texas Press in its “Lives of Musicians” series.