From blues to pop music, we’ve seen many different guitarists incorporate new stylings and techniques in their songs that revolutionized music. Black musicians have been at the forefront of this revolution in sound since the beginning.
From Jimi Hendrix to Tracy Chapman, there have been so many black guitarists making waves, and in this post, we’re going to take a look at 16 of the greatest and most and famous black guitar players in history. Let’s get started.
Related: For more, check out our list of best guitarists of all time here.
1. Jimi Hendrix
While his mainstream music career lasted only four years, Jimi Hendrix is often noted as one of the most influential and greatest guitarists in the history of rock music.
A true pioneer, Hendrix was one of the first guitarists to utilize overdriven amplifiers, guitar amp feedback loops, and fuzz distortion effects during his performances. These effects combined with his masterful playing to create a sound that was brand new and unique.
His most iconic performance may be his guitar-solo rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Woodstock. This became a defining moment of the 60s for rock and its fans.
Along with his band, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Hendrix’s albums, and live performances place him as one of the greatest guitarists of all time.
2. Chuck Berry
We can all thank Chuck Berry for being a pioneer of rock music. Chuck Berry took rhythm and blues and added a new style of showmanship and guitar playing to create the first rock songs.
Hits like “Maybellene,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” and “Johnny B. Goode” were the first stand-out sounds of the rock and roll revolution.
Nicknamed “The Godfather of Rock,” Berry went on to record 20 studio albums in his career and hit the Billboard charts over 25 times. He was also one of the first musicians inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1985.
Chuck Berry’s musical style was innovative and has had a major impact on some of the most important musicians in history.
Everyone from Elvis to the Rolling Stones has cited Berry as one of the most influential musicians and guitarists of all time.
3. B.B. King
B.B King is an iconic blues guitarist that is best known for his guitar solos. While he played a wide range of guitars over the years, King was best known for utilizing a Gibson ES-355 guitar which he would name Lucille.
Starting his career in the late 1940s, B.B. King went on to become one of the most decorated guitarists of all time, winning 15 Grammy awards.
In the 1950s, King’s signature guitar solos could be heard hits like “You Know I Love You,” “Whole Lotta Love,” and “Every Day I Have the Blues.”
Related: See more in our post on the best blues guitarists of all time here.
4. Tracy Chapman
Tracy Chapman dominated the 1980s with her acoustic guitar performances and haunting vocals.
During a time of hard rock and hip hop, her debut album “Tracy Chapman” showed that singer/songwriters still had a place in rock music.
1988 was the year of Tracy Chapman. Her first album was critically acclaimed and went on to win three major Grammy Awards, including Best New Artist, Best Female Pop Vocal Performance, and Best Contemporary Folk Album.
Chapman continues to release studio albums and tours while concentrating on social activism. From human rights to promoting education, Tracy Chapman has been one of the most outspoken activists of our time.
5. Robert Johnson
While Robert Johnson had little commercial success, he inspired countless musicians over the years.
Johnson was a pioneer of the Delta Blues style of music that made slide guitar and harmonica popular. The sound was passionate and soulful, and each note was carefully played for its impact on the track.
Johnson is most remembered for two recording sessions. Here he produced 29 songs that went on to inspire guitarists of the 1960s, including Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, and Keith Richards.
These artists adopted the blues guitar stylings of Robert Johnson and gave the world a soundtrack to the 1960s.
6. Charlie Christian
One of the first guitarists to use electric amplification, famous jazz guitarist Charlie Christian had a major impact on bebop and cool jazz.
His single-string play style allowed the guitar to stand out in a performance. Instead of playing rhythm, Christian’s guitar skills made the guitar the focal point of the song.
A session musician, Christian never recorded an album of his own and instead performed on compilations and with other musicians including Benny Goodman and Lionel Hampton.
Still, his guitar skills were easily noticed on these recordings and were the inspiration for many future famous guitarists and musicians.
From Blues to rock, you can still hear Charlie Christian’s signature playing technique in performances today.
7. Elizabeth Cotten
Elizabeth Cotten was a folk singer/songwriter who pioneered a new way of playing guitar.
Cotten was left-handed but played a guitar that was strung for a right-handed player. She would play the instrument upside down. This unique playstyle later became known as “Cotten Picking.”
The musician would use their fingers to play the bass line while the thumb was used to play the melody.
Cotten had a relatively quiet musical career until the late 1950s when she began recording and performing with Mike Seger, Muddy Waters, and John Hurt.
Today, her signature blues sound and play style are still practiced by many musicians.
8. Albert King
Albert King was one of the most influential blues guitarists of his time and was known as “King of the Blues” along with B.B. King and Freddie King.
Since then Albert King’s influence can be heard in the stylings of Jimi Hendrix, Mick Taylor, Joe Walsh, and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
King was greatly inspired by Elizabeth Cotten’s technique and also would play right-handed guitars upside down during his performances.
Recording over 14 studio albums and spending his life performing around the world, King has been highly praised as a pioneer of guitar performances.
In 1983 he was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame, and in 2013 was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
9. Buddy Guy
Buddy Guy’s impact on guitarists and Chicago Blues has been monumental. Everyone from Jimi Hendrix to Eric Clapton cites Guy as one of their greatest influences.
Guy was one of the first blues musicians to incorporate flamboyant performances.
Distortion, huge pitch bends, and other techniques were employed to give Guy’s guitar emotion and a new sound that was never heard before.
Guy’s solos were also electrifying and put his skills front and center on stage.
10. Bo Diddley
Bo Diddly’s signature sound can still be heard in today’s pop records and has had a major impact on rock and roll music.
Diddley uses a West African rhythm and groove that is captivating and engaging. Its simplicity led to many future artists incorporating the same groove into their music.
From punk to hip hop, you can still hear the” Bo Diddley Beat” in your favorite modern records.
As one of the founding fathers of rock and roll, Bo Diddley has accumulated countless accolades over the years including a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
11. Sister Rosetta Tharpe
If Chuck Berry is the “Godfather of Rock,” Sister Rosetta Tharpe would be its “Godmother.”
Sister Tharpe gained popularity with her unique blend of gospel music with electric guitars. This sound was influential, and you can still hear her style in recordings from Elvis, Chuck Berry, and Johnny Cash.
Her use of electric amps and distortion was unheard of and heavily influenced electric blues and the development of the British Blues scene.
Surprisingly her mix of spiritual music and guitar worked well in nightclubs and churches. This gave her sound a wide audience that left a lasting impression on rock music.
12. Muddy Waters
Muddy Waters and his signature style have had a lasting impact on the history of blues and rock music.
Without Waters, artists like The Rolling Stones, Cream, and Bob Dylan may have never had successful careers.
Four of Water’s singles are listed on the “500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll” list compiled by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
His blue stylings converted exceptionally well to rock. Waters was known for his deep and soulful solos and his deep and engaging slide guitar play style.
Using a call and response musical technique, Waters would use his guitar to match his soulful vocal performances.
13. Nile Rodgers
The sound of disco has had an enormous impact on modern pop music. Along with his band Chic, Nile Rodgers was at the forefront of the disco revolution in the 1970s.
Since then, he has gone on to sell over 500 million records and spread the sound of disco worldwide.
In the 70s, Nile’s signature guitar sounds could be heard in every nightclub and on every radio station.
Chic has numerous top ten hits and their track “Good Times” made it to number 1 on the Billboard charts in the 170s.
In the 80s, Niles went on to record with some of the biggest names in music, working with Diana Ross, David Bowie, Madonna, and Duran Duran.
14. Albert Collins
Albert Collins was a master of altered guitar tunings and using a capo during a performance.
His guitar stylings have been praised by other musicians, including Stever Ray Vaughan and Jimmie Vaughan.
Known as “The Master of the Telecaster,” Collins played a style of electric blues that was unique and inspiring.
Instead of using a pick, Collins would play his guitar with his forefinger and thumb. This allowed him to play fluidly. You can always pick out an Albert Collins solo on any track.
Collins also was an engaging performer and would employ extended guitar cords so he could interact with the audience at his live performances.
Highly celebrated throughout his career, Collins finally won a Grammy Award in 1986 for Best Traditional Blues Recording.
15. Elmore James
Elmore James pioneered slide guitar and had a unique tone to his blues music.
The tone of his guitar was achieved through the use of a hollow-body acoustic guitar combined with distorted amplification. This gave his sounds a strong and piercing effect that was expressive and captivating.
Many slide guitarists will cite Elmore James as a major influence. His sound can be heard in songs by The Rolling Stones, Fleetwood Mac, and Frank Zappa.
16. Wes Montgomery
Wes Montgomery stood out as a guitarist by employing a three-tiered solo progression.
His solos would progress from single notes to octaves and finally block chords. This playing technique used his thumb instead of a guitar pick.
Montgomery saw limited success in the 1950s but gained notoriety in the 60s, when he pioneered a jazz fusion sound with his guitar expertise.
Wes Montgomery enjoyed a successful recording career and won three Grammy Awards.
Summing up our List of the Greatest Black Guitarists
As you can see, black guitarists and musicians have had a monumental impact on music.
From Hendrix to Montgomery, this list showcased some of history’s best black guitar players.
These men and women transformed music and have paved the way for today’s guitarists.