Whether you think of blues-rock as “blues played with a rock edge” or “rock played with a blues edge,” one thing can’t be denied: This style is one of electric guitar’s most influential and enduring movements.
For many decades, the high-energy efforts of blues rockers from Texas to Britain have helped shape the way that the guitar played. Many of these artists perform in a trio setting with the guitarist also functioning as vocalist/frontman, helping to pioneer a successful model for rock-band instrumentation.
Here, we present 10 of the best examples of the blues-rock tradition as demonstrated by rock guitar–based acts.
“Sunshine of Your Love”
In June 1966, Eric Clapton opted out of John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers to form what is widely regarded as the first “power trio.” Cream, with bassist Jack Bruce and drummer Ginger Baker, released their debut, Fresh Cream, that December. But it was Disraeli Gears, released in November 1967, that won the band critical and popular acclaim. Today, several of the album’s tracks—particularly “Sunshine of Your Love”—are considered classic-rock standards. Written by Bruce as a tribute to Jimi Hendrix, the tune opens with an instantly recognizable single-note riff played on Clapton’s Gibson SG.
A quartet comprised of former Vagrants’ guitarist Leslie West, bassist and Cream producer Felix Pappalardi, drummer N.D. Smart and organist Steve Knight, Mountain was formed in New York in 1969, just as Cream were leaving the limelight. (The band’s name came from West’s first solo album, which was itself inspired by the guitarist’s then-enormous girth.)
Released in March 1970, Mountain’s debut, Mountain Climbing, went Gold, driven largely by the success of the album’s opening track, “Mississippi Queen.” As a point of interest, West recorded the hit with a set of Sunn amps given to him by Jimi Hendrix. West’s primary guitar was a Gibson Les Paul Junior.
The James Gang, 1970
In 1969, a Les Paul–wielding guitarist named Joe Walsh replaced Glen Schwartz in the James Gang. Walsh’s heavy rock edge provided a much-needed shot in the arm for the Cleveland-Based trio, which also included bassist Tom Kriss and drummer Jim Fox, as the release Yer’ Album proved later that same year.
However, it’s the band’s July 1970 effort, Rides Again, that is regarded as its most successful album, owing mainly to the opening track, “Funk #49.” A sequel of sorts to “Funk #48” (from Yer’ Album), “Funk #49” has been a bar-band classic ever since. The song is characterized by Walsh’s super-funky superimposition of triads over Dale Peters’ A bass note (Peters replaced Kriss prior to the album’s recording).
“Rock Me Baby”
Johnny Winter, 1973
After early stints playing clarinet and ukulele, Johnny Winter finally found his calling when he picked up the six-string at age 11. By age 14, the legendary albino Texan led his own band, Johnny and the Jammers.
In 1967, after years spent touring as a sideman and band leader, the Gibson Firebird–toting Winter formed a trio with drummer Uncle John Turner and future Stevie Ray Vaughan bassist Tommy Shannon. The outfit’s debut, The Progressive Blues Experiment, garnered so much attention that it led to Winter’s signing with Columbia Records the following year. A string of burning blues-rock solo albums ensued, and in 1973 Still Alive and Well, Winter’s breakthrough album, was released, featuring “Rock Me Baby” as its opening track.
“Too Rolling Stoned”
Robin Trower, 1974
London-based guitarist Robin Trower actually received his first big break in 1962, when the Rolling Stones invited his group, the Paramounts, to participate in their first “package” shows. By 1968, Trower’s guitar abilities—which often drew comparisons to Clapton and Hendrix—led him to a three-year stint with Procol Harum. Trower left the group after the band’s Broken Barricades album and formed his own group, featuring bassist Jim Dewar and drummer Reg Isadore, in 1973.
The trio’s first album, Twice Removed from Yesterday, marked the beginning of a decade’s worth of records on the Chrysalis label. When Trower’s sophomore effort, Bridge of Sighs—a record ripe with the guitarist’s unique Strat/Marshall/Uni-Vibe textures—hit the streets in April 1974, Trower achieved his first taste of large-scale success in the United States.
ZZ Top, 1975
In 1969, a trio of Texans—guitarist Billy Gibbons, bassist Dusty Hill and drummer Frank Beard—formed the future Eighties MTV staple ZZ Top. Even before they had a record out, Gibbons and company were a household name in Houston and were highly regarded among serious payers. (Jimi Hendrix cited Gibbons as “one of America’s best young guitarists: during an appearance on The Tonight Show.)
But it wasn’t until the release of Fandango! in 1975 that ZZ Top scored their first Top 20 hit. “Tush” features Gibbons wielding his priced 1959 Les Paul, affectionately referred to as Pearly Gates, under Hill’s randy lyrics: “Lord, take me downtown. I’m just looking for some tush.”
Pat Travers, 1980
A guitarist since age 12, Canadian picker Pat Travers melded his influences—Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page—and took his fledgling guitar style into the clubs while he was still in his teens. His self-titled solo debut, featuring bassit Peter “Mars” Cowling and drummer Roy Dyke, hit the bins in 1976, marking the beginning of Travers’ long relationship with Polydor Records.
By 1980, his lineup had been augmented with the addition of guitarist Pat Thrall and included legendary skins-pounder Tommy Aldridge. That year, Travers released Crash and Burn, a record the showcased not only the guitarist’s dazzling fretwork but also his keyboard and vocal prowess. One of the album’s several highlights is the Travers/Thrall–penned blues-rocker “Snortin’ Whiskey.”
Stevie Ray Vaughan, 1984
Inspired by his older brother Jimmie, Stevie Ray Vaughan picked up the guitar at an early age and was playing in bands by the time he was 12. SRV’s legend great quickly in his adopted hometown of Austin, Texas, and in 1980 he formed the trio Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble, featuring bassist Tommy Shannon and drummer Chris Layton. In December 1982, they recorded an album’s worth of Vaughan’s material, which Epic Record released in the form of Texas Flood in 1983.
By the time that Vaughan’s 1984 sophomore effort, Couldn’t Stand the Weather, hit the record racks, he was a household name. As the album’s opening track, “Scuttle Buttin’,” illustrates, SRV’s playing was simply unparalleled—the perfect combination of chops, taste, conviction and tone.
“My Little Girl”
The Jeff Healey Band, 1988
Canadian guitarist/vocalist Jeff Healy, born with cancer of the eyes, was completely blind by the age of one. When he received his first guitar at age three, unaware of “proper” playing position, he tuned his instrument to an open chord and played with the guitar resting across his lap. Though he eventually learned to play in standard tuning, Healey never was comfortable with traditional hand positioning and posture, so he maintained his “dobro-style” approach. This unique performance style became his trademark.
During residencies at local Toronto clubs in the mid Eighties, Healey attracted numerous celebrity players to his stage, prompting jam sessions with Albert Collins, Stevie Ray Vaughan and B.B. King, all while Healey was unknown abroad. That all changed with the 1989 release of the film Road House, which featured live performances by the Jeff Healey Band. As a result, their 1988 debut, See the Light, soared up the charts, and the guitarist’s passionate Strat work—as exemplified on tracks like “My Little Girl”—received worldwide recognition.
“In 2 Deep”
Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band, 1999
Hailing from Shreveport, Louisiana, guitarist/band leader Kenny Wayne Shepherd accomplished the unthinkable in 1996. He became a chart-topping bluesman while still in his teens. Influenced primarily by Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimi Hendirx, B. Bl King and Albert King, Shepherd and his 1961 Fender Strat combined to hit pay dirt with his first album, Ledbetter Heights. The album went to Number One, as have all of his albums save 2004’s The Place You’re In. “In 2 Deep,” from 1999’s Live On, is a funky blues-rock smash.