Lil’ Ed Williams

“I once saw my uncle J.B. Hutto fall flat on his back at the Wise Fools Pub,” remembers Lil’ Ed Williams. “I ran over to help him, and he looked at me and said, ‘Don’t do it. Let me lay right here for a minute.’ He just kept playing, and he never missed a note. I knew he was hurting, but he was smiling the whole time.”

The musical descendant of slide legends Hutto, Hound Dog Taylor, and Elmore James, Edward Louis Williams was born in Chicago on April 4, 1955. Both he and his half-brother, bassist James “Pookie” Young, were instructed by Hutto, and formed the Blues Imperials together in 1975. A year later, Bruce Iglauer of Alligator Records was seeking new talent for Chicago: The New Bluebloods, and the Imperials were summoned to the studio. Ten years of duking it out on the merciless Chicago scene had turned the band into a snarling boogie-blues machine, and they blew down the studio walls. The Imperials debut, Roughhousin’, compelled delirious fans to call themselves “Ed Heads,” as Williams—who wore a fez during performances just like Hutto—bullied his strings while duck walking and strutting on his toes. Succumbing to road fatigue and substance abuse in the early ’90s, Williams broke up the band. After recovering, he reformed the Blues Imperials in 1999. The band’s latest release is Rattleshake [Alligator].

Williams mostly slides in open D [D, A, D, F#, A, D, low to high] on the top three strings, saving his fourth string for bass notes. The approach makes for tight runs in a register higher than that used by Imperials rhythm guitarist Michael Garrett, as heard on “Tired of Crying” [from Rattleshake]. For “You Just Weren’t There,” Williams plays in a D minor tuning, with the F# lowered to F.

Williams favors small slides, because they’re “built for speed,” and he specifically likes the Mudslide 464 because it’s the right height and weight and fits his pinky. But while electric slide guitar naturally produces a screaming wail, Williams has a secret weapon that yields a growl grittier than most.

“I made my main slide from an aluminum pipe,” he reveals. “It grabs the string for a more guttural sound. You get faster friction with the aluminum, as opposed to brass or steel slides. Thin glass slides sound good, too, because they are smooth, and you can apply some weight to the strings without burning them out.”

Williams picks using the fleshy tip of his index finger—plucking upward to produce a sharp attack that emphasizes the treble strings—though he also plays downstrokes with his thumb for bass runs and boogie patterns.

“Hutto would use picks, bare fingers, or a fingernail to strike the strings,” he says. “But I think the bare finger is best, because bare fingers will go where you tell them!”