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Music

Six legendary guitarists directly influenced by Robert Johnson

Robert Johnson is possibly the most significant musician of the modern era. Without the work of the first inductee of the infamous ’27 club’ and master of the Delta blues style, it is safe to say the world would not be the same. It’s not a mistake that icons such as Eric Clapton, The Rolling Stones and Fleetwood Mac all cite him as the key influence behind their work.

Clapton is perhaps the most notable disciple of Johnson, and throughout his career, he has consistently paid homage to the Mississippi native, discussing his transformative impact on the British blues movement of the 1960s. Once when speaking of his hero, Clapton labelled him “the most important blues singer that ever lived.” It is a testament to his skill and legacy that so many of the world’s most iconic musicians owe so much to his work. 

Born in 1911, Johnson spent his career as a travelling performer who mostly played on street corners, barrelhouses and at Saturday night dances. This humble circuit culminated in the limited commercial success and public recognition he experienced in his lifetime. Reflecting these unassuming roots is the fact that he only participated in two recording sessions in his lifetime — both of which took place in San Antonio in 1936 and in Dallas in 1937. 

These two sessions produced only 29 songs, with 13 surviving “alternate takes”. These were recorded by legendary producer and Country Music Hall of Fame member Don Law, who would later go on to produce other legends such as Johnny Cash. These songs, the totality of his recorded output, are in incredibly low fidelity. Most of them were released as 10-inch singles between 1937 and 1938, with very few released posthumously. 

Apart from these recordings, much about Johnson remains unknown. It’s this sense of mystery combined with his undoubted genius that made him so influential on an entire generation of guitarists. There was no one quite like him, and there never will be, and he is more than deserving of his status as the progenitor of all things rock and roll. 

Whether he sold his soul to the Devil or not, you cannot doubt that his licks are timeless. As he is so influential, we’ve listed six legendary guitarists who Robert Johnson directly influenced. Expect to see some familiar faces.

Six guitarists influenced by Robert Johnson:

Eric Clapton

Where else to start than with Johnson’s most prominent fan? Clapton is the modern master of the Blues, and Johnson’s licks permeate his work. Clapton has been so enamoured with the Delta blues hero’s work his whole life that in 2004 he released his 15th album, Me and Mr. Johnson, which consists entirely of covers of Johnson’s work. 

When interviewed about the record, Clapton said: “It is a remarkable thing to have been driven and influenced all of my life by the work of one man.” It says it all, really. Without Robert Johnson, there would be no Eric Clapton. 

Keith Richards

The Rolling Stones’ plucky guitar hero is another lifelong proponent of the blues, and he owes everything to the genre. Know for his fast fingerstyle, Richards learnt much of what are now regarded as the vital facets of his playing from bluesmen such as Johnson. Speaking to The Guardian in 2009, Richards explained that his love for the rock ‘n’ roll of Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters led him on a quest to find what was behind it, and of course, it was the blues.

He explained: “I loved rock ‘n’ roll but there’s got to be something behind the rock ‘n’ roll. There had to be. We found, of course, that it was the blues. And, therefore, if you really want to learn the basics, then you’ve got to do some homework. We all felt there was a certain gap in our education, so we all scrambled back to the 20s and 30s to figure out how Charlie Patton did this, or Robert Johnson, who, after all, was and still probably is the supremo.”

Jimmy Page

Whilst Robert Johnson is not the principal figure who influenced Led Zeppelin’s guitar hero, Jimmy Page, he is certainly one of the main ones. Page’s work, be it in Led Zeppelin, The Yardbirds or otherwise, has always had one finger on the blues, which in turn inspired many of the band’s fans to immerse themselves in the worlds of figures such as Robert Johnson. 

Whether it be the fact that Led Zeppelin’s ‘Trampled Under Foot’ was partially inspired by Johnson’s ‘Terraplane Blues’ or the that Page and Robert Plant once covered ‘Crossroads’ on Top of the Pops, the impact Johnson had on Page is clear. 

Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan is another artist who is somewhat steeped in mystery, with some of his fans even believing that he too sold his soul to the Devil. Dylan thrives off the kind of mystique that Johnson is immersed in, and it has helped to elevate his status as one of the true cultural greats. Like the other entries on this list, Dylan is an accomplished guitarist who also took cues from Robert Johnson. But for him, it wasn’t just Johnson’s guitar playing that struck a chord, it was everything.

Of hearing Johnson for the first time, Dylan said in Chronicles: Volume One: “From the first note the vibrations from the loudspeaker made my hair stand up. The stabbing sounds from the guitar could almost break a window. When Johnson started singing, he seemed like a guy who could have sprung from the head of Zeus in full armour. I immediately differentiated between him and anyone else I had ever heard. The songs weren’t customary blues songs. They were perfected pieces–each song contained four or five verses, every couplet intertwined with the next, but in no obvious way.”

Dylan concluded: “If I hadn’t heard the Robert Johnson record when I did, there probably would have been hundreds of lines of mine that would have been shut down.”

Peter Green

Fleetwood Mac founding member Peter Green is one of the all-time British blues greats. Inspired as much by Johnson as he was by the likes of B.B. King and Muddy Waters, it was the feeling and attitude that Green imbued in his playing that can be attributed to the influence of the ‘Crossroads’ mastermind. 

Indicating just how indebted to Johnson Peter Green was, in 1998, he and The Peter Green Splinter Group released The Robert Johnson Songbook, which consists of solely Robert Johnson’s compositions. 

Jack White

Jack White needs no real introduction. The creative driving force behind The White Stripes and head honcho of Third Man Records, he is one of the 21 Century’s definitive guitarists giving us stellar cuts that range from ‘Hotel Yorba’ to ‘Icky Thump’. He’s a dab hand on the six-string and is by far the youngest disciple of Robert Johnson on the list. 

Asked by Rolling Stone in 2003 about when he discovered the blues, White said: “I didn’t get into it deep until around eighteen. I dabbled in things like Howlin’ Wolf, Cream and Led Zeppelin, but when I heard Son House and Robert Johnson, it blew my mind. It was something I’d been missing my whole life. That music made me discard everything else and just get down to the soul and honesty of the blues.”

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