T-BONE WALKER STRUCK THE STORMY world of the blues like a lightning bolt from the heavens. Infusing the blues with a sophisticated, uptown flavor, Walker helped redirect the course of the music, taking it from juke joints and roadhouses to swank nightclubs and large theaters. Favoring swing rhythms and big band accompaniment, Walker blended jazz and blues and became a seminal figure in the development of urban blues and early rock and roll.
T-Bone was a flamboyant entertainer whose wild stage antics were in sharp contrast to the more conservative sitdown performances of most of the country blues musicians who preceded him. Dancing, doing splits, and playing the guitar behind his head, T-Bone whipped audiences into a frenzy. Countless guitarists imitated his stage moves, including Chuck Berry, Guitar Slim, Buddy Guy, Jimi Hendrix, and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
But T-Bone’s most lasting contribution was his pioneering electric guitar style. Walker was one of the first musicians to embrace the electric guitar (a Gibson ES-250), and his horn-inspired single-note lines helped establish the guitar as a featured solo instrument. His licks have become standard fixtures in the rock and blues guitarist’s vocabulary and have influenced a wide range of guitarists, including Albert, B.B., and Freddie King, Otis Rush, Albert Collins, Billy Gibbons, Michael Bloomfield, Duane Allman, and Eric Clapton.
John Lee Hooker, who became close friends with T-Bone, said, “He was the first man that made the electric guitar popular. Everybody was trying to sound like T-Bone Walker. The guitar players, you’d hear that fancy electric style. It’s very up-to-date. That sound he was doin’ then would be up-to-date right now in these late years.”
In 1933, Walker ran into Charlie Christian in Oklahoma City. The two were taking guitar lessons from Chuck Richardson, who helped shape both musicians’ chord vocabularies. Walker and Christian started performing together. “We’d go dance and pass the hat and make money,” Walker told Living Blues. “We had a little routine of dancing that we did. Charlie would play guitar while I would play bass, and then we’d change, and he’d play bass and I’d play guitar. And then we’d go into our little dance.”
“When they inducted my dad into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in ’87, Chuck Berry was there also,” his daughter Bernita Walker-Moss reminisces. “After they presented me with my dad’s trophy, he came over to me and said, ‘Baby, I want you to know something. Your dad is the greatest musician that ever lived. All the things that people see me do on the stage, I got that from your daddy.’” —Excerpted from Chris Gill’s piece in the August 1995 Guitar Player