The 1950s was a time of upheaval in the music world with the development of electric blues leading to the birth of rock ‘n’ roll, groundbreaking recording techniques, studio equipment and effects pedals and the like. This blog post aims to briefly examine just some of the guitarists whose work made a large impression on other musicians, and in turn, popular culture.
No examination of guitarists in the 1950s can ignore the plethora of talented blues guitarists. Although Muddy Waters first began recording in the 1940s it is his work when joining the Chess record label in Chicago in 1950 for which he is most remembered. His use of amplification was also said to be hugely influential on other guitarists and was essential in the development of rock ‘n’ roll. His band members have included a variety of famous bluesmen particularly during his time with Chess.
Choice Pick: check out his “Rollin’ Stone” from February 1950
Les was a guitarist capable of playing jazz, blues, country and rock ‘n’ roll. He was also an inventor, songwriter and an innovator in studio techniques such as overdubbing, multitrack recording and the use of phasing effects.
Choice Pick: His work with Mary Ford is a career highlight particularly “How High The Moon” from January 1951.
Chet Atkins is a key proponent of the fingerpicking guitar style and his work has influenced many, most notably Mark Knopfler. His music played an important part in developing a smoother country style that came to be known as the Nashville sound and helped bring country music to a wider pop audience.
Choice Pick: “Galloping On The Guitar” released in January 1953 is a good place to start.
Scotty Moore made a name for himself as part of Elvis Presley’s band for many years was a key player in his sound. His pioneering rockabilly style was a key influence on musicians such as Bruce Springsteen, Keith Richards and Jimmy Page, to name just a few.
Choice Pick: It’s hard to go past their Sun debut together on the Presley version of “That’s All Right” released in July 1954.
Chuck Berry chalked up numerous hit singles all of which feature his signature guitar style. However, upon closer examination you could almost credit pianist Johnnie Johnson for his sound, as Chuck’s licks appear to mimic Johnnie’s piano lines.
Choice Pick: The debut single “Maybellene“, originally released in July 1955, is a classic example of the style Chuck would use throughout his entire career.
Bo Diddley not only created his first guitar himself out of an old cigar box, but he also designed numerous others throughout his career. He also developed a signature beat and used it often in his songs, which in turn has also been used often in other people’s songs.
Choice Pick: One of my favourite tracks from Bo, and a good one for any casual fan to start with, would have to be “Who Do You Love?” released in March 1956.
Hubert’s guitar prowess quickly earned him a place in Howlin’ Wolf’s band after Wolf convinced him to move from Memphis to Chicago in 1954. He remained in his band for the majority of his career from that time on.
Choice Pick: If you haven’t heard it before get hold of the definitive Howlin’ Wolf track “Smokestack Lightnin’” to demonstrate Sumlin’s skills.
Riley “Blues Boy” King was fortunate enough to have Bukka White as a second cousin, who no doubt taught King a thing or two and is alleged to have given him his first guitar. No one plays like B.B. and he never taught himself chords. Yet he still managed to have a career that spanned six decades.
Choice Pick: There are so many to choose from, but his treatment of “Sweet Little Angel” from August 1956 is well worth tracking down.
Link’s work was built around his distorted guitar sounds and he is credited with the popularisation of the power chord. He is often credited with paving the way for punk and hard rock due to the sounds he was able to wrangle out of his guitar and amp.
Choice Pick: His debut single with his Ray Men, “Rumble“, released in April 1958, changed the musical landscape forever!
Eddy developed a “twangy” sound by playing on his guitar’s bass strings to produce a low, reverberant sound. This became his signature sound and was used throughout his career. Check out his album discography and you will find the word “twang”, or its derivatives feature most prominently in many of the titles.
Choice Pick: His second single, and one of his biggest hits, “Rebel Rouser” from May 1958, is an excellent example of his “twangy” sound.