11 Must-Have Blues Guitar Albums
Enrich your listening life with the sound of the blues. Not sure which blues-guitar recordings to begin with? Here are eleven of the greatest albums, which include a mix of artist-specific and genre recordings.
To acquire the original versions of classic blues records requires thousands of dollars and to play them requires a little thing called the turntable. But thanks to modern technology, blues recordings get recycled and reissued often, so you can find any recording on a CD or digital music file, if you look hard enough.
Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings
Columbia/Legacy, 1990. Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings is the source for Robert Johnson’s music. The sound is completely foreign and worlds away from the blues of, say, Eric Clapton or Robert Cray, but the blues doesn’t get any more real than this. In some ways, Robert Johnson is the blues of the Mississippi Delta in the 1920s and ’30s, and all the blues that followed came from here.
Blues Masters: The Very Best of Lightnin’ Hopkins
Rhino, 2000. Lightnin’ Hopkins (1912–82) was one of the originators of Texas blues, which had a more swinging, jazzier feel than the harder-edged Chicago style. This compilation highlights the best of his work, recorded early in his career, and Rhino chose well in assembling 16 tracks that show Hopkins in his prime, from 1947 to 1961. Hopkins’s long career spanned six decades, beginning in the ’20s when he served as the legendary Blind Lemon Jefferson’s guide and continuing until his death in 1982.
T-Bone Walker: Complete Capitol Black & White Recordings
Capitol, 1995. Complete Capitol Black & White Recordings is a three-CD boxed set that contains 75 tracks of vintage T-Bone Walker music, all recorded in the 1940s. This set includes Walker’s original version of “Call It Stormy Monday” (covered by The Allman Brothers on their most well-known album, At Fillmore East).
T-Bone Walker: Complete Imperial Recordings
EMI America, 1991. Walker is so important that he merits two selections here. His Imperial recordings from the 1950s are perhaps even more spectacular as the material, arrangements, and backing bands perfectly complement his mature style. “Cold, Cold Feeling,” “I Got the Blues,” and the sensational swinging shuffles in “Strollin’ with Bone,” “The Hustle Is On,” “You Don’t Love Me,” and “Party Girl” are definitive postwar electric blues.
The Best of Muddy Waters
Chess, 1975. Muddy Waters defined the Chicago sound by bringing his Delta-influenced music north from the Delta in the early 1940s. This compilation includes 12 of Waters’s best songs, including his R&B chart successes “I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man,” “Long Distance Call,” “I’m Ready,” “Honey Bee,” “I Just Wanna Make Love to You,” “Still a Fool,” and “Rollin’ Stone” — the song which inspired publisher Jann S. Wenner to name his music magazine.
B.B. King: Live at the Regal
MCA, 1965. Live at the Regal is one of the best live blues albums of all time, and it showcases B.B. King’s spectacular guitar work, piercing voice, and talent for working a live theater audience. The gems found in this treasure chest include “Every Day I Have the Blues,” “Sweet Little Angel,” “How Blue Can You Get,” “Worry, Worry,” and “You Upset Me Baby.” If you ever forget that the blues is best served up as a live listening experience, go back to this album and to King as he tears up the joint.
The Very Best of Buddy Guy
Rhino, 1992. Buddy Guy’s long career is captured well on this Rhino compilation, which includes songs from Guy’s multi-label associations — Chess and Vanguard in the 1960s and Atlantic in the ’70s. The music shows off the varied selection of the different styles that Buddy trafficked in (funk, R&B), and this album highlights Guy’s incredible range in the early and middle part of his career. Along with Otis Rush and Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy was one of the architects of the Chicago sound (and, along with Rush and Magic Sam, known as a leader of the “West Side” school of blues).
Robert Cray: Bad Influence
Mercury, 1986. Robert Cray’s versatility really shines on this album, especially in the canny way he pays homage to his influences Johnnie “Guitar” Watson, Albert Collins, and Buddy Guy. Cray proved here, and in subsequent releases, to be a triple threat in songwriting, singing, and playing, and he’s in a class by himself for finding the right formula to bring the traditional blues into the modern era.
Masters of the Delta Blues: Friends of Charlie Patton
Yazoo, 1991. This album is named for Charlie Patton — one of the earliest and most influential acoustic country blues figures, known as “The Father of Delta Blues.” Featured performers on this album include Bukka White, House, and Tommy Johnson. Especially interesting are the six cuts of House from 1930. It was these very recordings that Alan Lomax heard, and that inspired the archivist to seek out and record the powerhouse for the Library of Congress in the early 1940s.
Mean Old World: The Blues from 1940 to 1994
Smithsonian, 1996. This four-CD, 80-song boxed set covers more than 50 years of the blues and is a great introduction to the major blues guitar figures, especially in the period between 1940 and 1970. Mean Old World is a good single-source reference for the many styles and personalities that make up guitar-based blues.
Chicago: The Blues Today
Vanguard, 1999. This anthology has been remastered with improved fidelity. A great encapsulation of the vibrant mid-’60s blues scene as it was in Chicago, this set is noteworthy because it isn’t a mere compilation of unrelated tracks but a series of closely spaced sessions produced by blues scholar and producer Samuel Charters.