The 20th century could easily be considered the golden age of guitar in popular music. You can hear it in the inventive blues and jazz guitar work that seemed to reinvent the instrument every decade if not every year or so, and you can especially hear it in the invention of the guitar-centric rock genre that became a cultural behemoth in the second half of the century. Popular music today often eschews the guitar in favor of studio-based arrangements, but the guitar players who made the greatest impact in the 1900s continue to influence popular music today. To celebrate their contributions to music and music history, we’re counting off five of the most influential guitarists of the 20th century, in chronological order.
1. Robert Johnson
Little is known about Robert Johnson’s short life, though an enduring myth holds that he sold his soul to Satan at a crossroads in exchange for his extraordinary musical abilities. Now considered to be the most important of the Mississippi delta blues guitar players and a progenitor of virtually all blues and rock music that came after him, Johnson received little acclaim in his short lifetime (he died at age 27), which was mostly spent playing street corners and local juke joints.
In fact, he was more well-known for his impressive mastery of multiple guitar playing styles while alive, but in 1961, his recordings from 1936 and 1937 were rediscovered and recognized for their significance in music history. “You want to know how good the blues can get? Well, this is it,” Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones said of Johnson. His tortured vocals influenced later artists almost as much as his guitar playing itself, which was effortless but endlessly varied, as he blended multiple playing techniques into compact, versatile songs — a style that Richards said convinced him there were two guitarists playing at once.
2. Chuck Berry
Robert Johnson could have played Chicago Blues, as demonstrated in some of his recordings, but there was little demand for it in his part of the nation at the time. Johnson’s versatility with the guitar nonetheless influenced guitarists further north, which eventually gave rise to Chuck Berry, who more or less invented rock-and-roll guitar. The sound began in Berry’s early career, when he tried playing country-styled music for a black audience more accustomed to blues and R&B tunes. Before long, they were asking for his novel style of music.
Berry made music history primarily by blending influences to create something new, something that would capture the cultural imagination for years to come. He played country-fried, twangy blues riffs, but sang with the crisp melodicism of a pop crooner. He wasn’t particularly technically accomplished, and yet his electrifying but simplistic playing became part of the DNA or rock and roll, as did his stage-stealing showmanship. Even lyrically, he sang of fast cars and high school romances in songs like “Maybellene” when he wasn’t building up rock mythology with songs like “Rock and Roll Music” and “Johnny B. Goode.”
3. Jimi Hendrix
Jimi Hendrix spent only four years in the spotlight before his untimely death in 1970, but it was more than enough time to cement his place in music history. His greatest accomplishments were unquestionably in his guitar-playing, which took cues from Chicago blues and Berry’s rock and roll while adding new elements. Hendrix popularized the use of a wah-wah pedal and of amplifier feedback in his music, a technique now inseparable from post-’60s rock music.
In effect, these techniques made use of the electronic capabilities of the guitar, using them as a part of his playing rather than a simple conduit so the audience could hear him. Hendrix remains unparalleled in both his creativity in finding new ways of playing the guitar and his technical prowess, which, like Johnson before him, could fool unsuspecting listeners into thinking two people were playing. His knowledge of multiple genres and styles of playing enabled him to captivate audiences — his live shows are still described as transcendental — and explore the most far-flung corners of psychedelia. Rock music and guitar playing both might be easily split into two: before Hendrix, and after Hendrix.
4. Jimmy Page
Jimmy Page mastered the guitar first as a session musician, quickly becoming the most desirable studio guitarist in England by the mid-60s. He was briefly a member of the Yardbirds — a band that also included two other guitar greats, Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck — until 1968, when the band split and he formed Led Zeppelin, the blues-hard-rock titan that whose songs would more or less define rock music in the 1970s.
Unquestionably the mastermind behind Led Zeppelin, Page’s accomplished playing within multiple genres inspired generations of rock musicians that came afterward, including Johnny Ramone, whose punk-defining style was heavily influenced by Page’s on the rip-roaring track “Communication Breakdown.” His influence extends into virtually every rock subgenre, partially because under his leadership, Zeppelin played songs that spanned all the genres that came before — power pop, hard rock, Chicago blues, proto-punk, Eastern psychedelia, and more. No matter the genre, Page wrote irresistibly catchy and powerful riffs punctuated by thrilling solos, capturing different guitar sounds using a variety of original methods, like using a violin bow for the solo on “Dazed and Confused.”
5. Duane Allman
Like Page, Duane Allman learned the ropes of guitar playing working as a studio musician, capturing hard-edged and lovely guitar tones on classic recordings like Wilson Pickett’s cover of “Hey Jude” or Eric Clapton’s magnum opus Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. His most important contributions to guitar lore came from his namesake band, The Allman Brothers Band, often considered founders of Southern rock. Their live performances were integral to their popularity, as Duane Allman’s guitar playing and impassioned soloing entranced audiences and helped give rise to the jam band culture that continues today.
As a guitarist, he formed a bridge between the blues rock that characterized the band’s studio material and the improvisation-heavy, jazzy psychedelic playing that’s become a fixture of acclaimed live acts in the decades since his death in 1971. He was inspired by the work of Miles Davis and John Coltrane, using his guitar, his passion and his instinctively melodic and lovely guitar playing to rivet audiences who probably didn’t realize they were listening to an unprecedented hybrid of blues, rock, country, R&B, and jazz.
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