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Artist’s Choice: Elliott Sharp on Blues Guitar Essentials

Robert Johnson, Howlin' Wolf, Skip James and more

Elliott Sharp
Elliott Sharp

In this latest edition of our regular feature Artist’s Choice, guitarist Elliott Sharp offers his take on essential blues guitar recordings. Elliott Sharp’s Terraplane will be celebrating the release of their new Enja-Yellowbird CD, Sky Road Songs, at Joe’s Pub in Manhattan this Sunday, Nov. 11. For more information on the gig, go here.

While I normally don’t like to put limits on music-listening by genre-fying it, there are still some close-to-the-core records for me that I can definitely say are “B-L-U-E-S” and must be heard in that way! I’m concentrating mostly on the guitarists here. It’s difficult to keep this list down to 10 albums, as there is so much music in this realm that absolutely must be heard. Each recording leads to someone else.

Skip James
The Complete 1931 Recordings (Body & Soul, 2004)

These performances are dark, mysterious and brooding yet also virtuosic in their own idiosyncratic tonality and rhythmic sprightliness. His high, keening voice floats perfectly over his accompaniment.

Robert Johnson
The Complete Recordings (Columbia, 1990)

The rock on which so much of modern blues (and other musics) is built. Poetic and raw, the lyrics fit with the spontaneous yet highly crafted arrangements and still carry resonance.

Howlin’ Wolf
The Chess Box (Chess, 1991)

A compendium of the Wolf’s rockin’ style, showing his roots in the Delta music of Charley Patton (also essential listening) and its transformation into the Chicago mode. Of course, Howlin’ Wolf’s music was illuminated by Hubert Sumlin’s guitar: fractured, vocal, sly, fiery, contrapuntal. Without Hubert’s playing, would there be Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Robbie Robertson … and how many more of us?

Muddy Waters
The Chess Box (Chess, 1989)

The other side of the balance to the Wolf: Muddy’s deep, knowing voice, gruff and wise, and his blistering slide guitar, one part Delta, one part wild-man voice from the Tibetan regions of the African veldt.

Albert King
Born Under a Bad Sign (Stax, 1967)

King can say more with one wailing bent note than just about anyone. The Stax-Volt rhythms bring out the best in King’s monumental delivery. This is not at all to slight the other majesties, B.B. and Freddie. I love them all!

Mississippi Fred McDowell
Delta Blues (Arhoolie, 1964)

With one foot in the ’30s and one in modern times, Fred McDowell played moaning, vocal slide guitar inseparable from his intense singing that explored timeworn but vital themes.

Otis Rush
So Many Roads: Live in Concert (Delmark, 1995)

Rush is from the next generation after Muddy and the Wolf. He hails from the rural South but came of age in Chicago and plays burning blues that also draws upon the soul music of the 1960s. His guitar style is truly electric-loud, distorted and wailing. Also required listening are his Cobra recordings, some of which feature anguished and beautiful Strat picking from Ike Turner.

Robert Pete Williams
Free Again (Prestige Bluesville, 1961)

A country-blues artist who also bridged generations, his blues are utterly personal and autobiographical. Williams’ unique guitar styling is asymmetrical and seemingly from outside the European tonal conventions. It’s mesmerizing, anything but polished, and provides a continuous commentary and crosstalk to his conversational but deeply emotional vocals.

Robert Nighthawk
Live on Maxwell Street 1964 (Rounder Select/Bullseye Blues, 2000)

Another great guitar-slinger who played both single-string lines à la Lonnie Johnson and, especially, a fluid slide style that was hot and spicy, whether accompanying Muddy Waters or his own world-weary singing. To hear these recordings is exciting not just for the passionate playing but for how it puts the blues in context, how they were the sound of everyday life.

Fife and Drum Bands From the Deep South
Traveling Through the Jungle (Testament, 1995)

This incredible music played on cane fifes and drums not only the links Africa, Europe and the American South sonically, but makes colonial and contemporary times temporally congruent.

Originally Published