Lindsay Ell: My Life in Five Riffs

As a country music songwriter and frontwoman, Lindsay Ell can sing and perform with the best of them. But as a guitar player, she can mop the floor with half of Nashville. 

Ell fell in love with the blues as a teenager and toured with Buddy Guy at age 18, then spent much of the next decade honing her chops in bars across Canada and the U.S. before breaking through in Music City with 2017’s The Project and 2020’s Heart Theory (Stony Creek). Here are the top five riffs that influenced her guitar playing.  

“Mombasa” – Tommy Emmanuel

“The first time I saw him play, I was entranced. The way he moved with his guitar – and he was so flawless – I couldn’t get enough of it. The thing I love about fingerstyle guitar is the bass line and the melody happen at the same time. 

"It’s like what a piano player does with two hands, but you’re learning to do it with one hand, so you play the bass line with your thumb and the melody with your fingers. Fingerstyle guitar helped me learn how to play two things at the same time.”

“Life in the Fast Lane” – Eagles

“I was so obsessed with everything to do with the Eagles, and some riffs are really difficult to play and sing at the same time. This isn’t a hard riff to learn, but it starts at different places. It plays tricks on your mind. 

"When you need to play and sing at the same time, you need to focus on two separate things while knowing the lyrics and staying in the right key. It was a really good song for me to practice doing that.”

“Riviera Paradise” – Stevie Ray Vaughan

“All through my teens, I couldn’t get enough of the blues, and I still can’t. Stevie’s tone and the way he would approach notes was just so perfectly clean. The first time I heard ‘Riviera Paradise,’ I thought, It sounds like Stevie, but it’s different than a lot of his songs. 

"I love the juxtaposition of all those jazz chords and then being able to kick a band to the next level and dig into a solo. It taught me the magic of dynamics in guitar playing and how you can live in two different spaces.”

“Sunshine of Your Love” – Cream

“People sometimes say my vibrato reminds them of Eric Clapton because I lift my whole hand off the neck when I do it. And I guess I picked that up from watching him play for hours and hours. 

"His vibrato is so fluid, and his hand falls off the guitar, and it’s not touching anything except that note. I love in the middle of a solo being able to throw in a little ‘Sunshine of Your Love.’ Not everyone in the audience is gonna catch it, but the people who do will think it’s really cool.”

“Voodoo Chile” – Jimi Hendrix

“If I had to choose just one guitar player who has really influenced my own playing – as hard as that is – it would have to be Jimi Hendrix. So many of his songs have become staples of my set. 

"As a country singer-songwriter, I would play my own songs, and then I’d play Hendrix covers, and that was my show for many years. There was an expression in the way Hendrix played that I felt like nobody fully touched.”

  • Lindsay Ell's latest album, Heart Theory, is out now via Stoney Creek.
Jim Beaugez

Jim Beaugez has written about music for Rolling Stone, Smithsonian, Guitar World, Guitar Player and many other publications. He created My Life in Five Riffs, a multimedia documentary series for Guitar Player that traces contemporary artists back to their sources of inspiration, and previously spent a decade in the musical instruments industry.