At the age of 80 years old legendary blues guitarist Hubert Sumlin has died. Best known for being Howlin' Wolf's right-hand man, delivering the sting while the Wolf delivered the punch, Sumlin has had a long, distinguished career. We wish him well in his new career in Blues Heaven, where he will meet up with many of the people on this list.
Ranking guitar players is a silly but moderately enjoyable task. I've ranked them in a random-precise order, giving points to more than guitar notes, but to artistry as well. This shouldn't be confused with the 10 Greatest Bluesmen, but there is some overlap. I'm attracted to many originators as well, which may be why Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Mike Bloomfield are not on this list. Lead Belly should be, but the list is already set in stone (or whatever the internet is made out of.)
But rather than focus on what is not, let us focus on what is.
10) Skip James: While the blues as a form is a distinctive, repetitive task, the great players find ways to subvert the form in their subtle ways. Listening to Skip James, it isn't unusual to wonder what has just happened. His open D-minor tunings lend an eerie vibe to all that he touched. Welcome to hell!
Check out: "Devil Got My Woman"
9) Muddy Waters: The Father of Chicago Blues, Mud became one of the major influences on the British blues boom of the 1960s. His loud, rude style made him a natural hero to young men who wished they had his soul.
Check out: "I Feel Like Going Home," "Mannish Boy"
8) T-Bone Walker: Considered by some to be the first bluesman to use the electric guitar (can anyone really claim to know the first bluesman who picked up an electric guitar?), Walker was also a grand showman, playing guitar between his legs and behind his back. These days, people just wince.
Check out: "Call It Stormy Monday," "T-Bone's Blues"
7) Jimmy Reed: Hugely influential on the Rolling Stones, Jimmy Reed had a fascinating sound that evoked a world where the night never ended. His boogie rhythms and garbled drawl made his music a mystery to all who listened.
Check out: "Baby, What You Want Me To Do," "Bright Lights, Big City"
6) Lightnin' Hopkins: Though Sam Hopkins was arguably best known for his witty lyrics and his ability to improvise hilarious sketches on the spot, he was also a formidable guitar player who wasn't afraid to show it off when the mood suited him. He liked to be paid before he recorded and didn't like to do a second take. Nothing like an all-cash business.
Check out: "Short Haired Woman," "Lightnin's Boogie"
5) B.B. King: Called "The King of the Blues" and "Ambassador of the Blues," Riley "B.B." King is one of the best-known bluesman of all-time. He brought the blues to mainstream attention with a style that insists on bending the notes until they cry and moan. He named his guitar "Lucille" and considers much of his playing to be a dialogue between him and his woman.
Check out: "Rock Me Baby," "The Thrill Is Gone"
4) Charley Patton: Patton played slide guitar like the devil skating over the water. The Mississippi bluesman is one of the earliest and best known of the Delta blues singers. His life could be considered the basis for many a blues legend, much like that of Robert Johnson, who came after.
Check out: "High Water Blues"
3) Otis Rush: Along with Buddy Guy and Magic Sam, Rush recorded with Cobra Records in the 1950s and played like he was looking to do serious damage. "Double Trouble" is even more notable as it features Ike Turner's Kings of Rhythm. To his credit, Rush plays left-handed.
Check out: "Double Trouble," "She's A Good 'Un"
2) Hubert Sumlin: While Howlin' Wolf also had used Willie Johnson and Jody Williams, it was Hubert Sumlin who sprung forth a demanding human tone on Wolf's music and stuck around to be remembered. His playing is brutal.
Check out: "Killing Floor," "Wang Dang Doodle"
1) Robert Johnson: There are plenty of apples to oranges to clementines to peaches arguments here. But the erratic, impulsive nature of Robert Johnson's blues playing proves that comparisons are silly. Let's let everyone exist in their own world. Johnson's world is doom and paranoia and a guitar that often sounds like more than one moving at once. He makes it rain.
Check out: "Hellhound On My Trail," "C'mon In My Kitchen"