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Music

A timeline of Black guitarists who saved rock and roll

@TylerGolsen

Rock and roll is a black art form. Cropping up from the blues in the 1940s, rhythms from jazz, R&B, and even country music, were adopted into a new genre that still honed in on the unique experiences of being black in America during a time when segregation and disenfranchisement were still standards of the day. Whether it was through rebellious political anthems or raucous party music, rock and roll was only possible thanks to its establishment from black writers and performers.

But rock and roll wasn’t just created by black musicians: it was continuously reinvented decade after decade, and always at the forefront of these reinventions were black musicians. From classic riffs to cosmic effects and revolutionary techniques, guitarists from all different backgrounds and circumstances took the established formula and shook it up to create fresh sounds and entirely new kinds of music.

But as it always does, whitewashing swiftly came it to sweep up a lot of the credit. Every generation has a Pat Boone or a Fred Durst that takes a uniquely black sound, polishes it, makes it less scary for white audiences, and profits off of it. There were plenty of white guitarists who were innovating on the instrument, but the difference is that they almost always got credit for it. Figures like Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton were routinely heralded for their innovations when, in reality, they were just playing licks that they heard black blues and rock musicians play before them.

There was an uninterrupted stream of innovation going on from black guitarists since the early days of recorded music, and so we’ve collected one guitarist from each decade since the 1930s who took rock music into the future. These were the players who were not-so-quietly forcing guitar music to change and evolve with every note played.

A history of Black guitarists saving rock and roll:

The 1930s: Robert Johnson

Blues was folk music before Robert Johnson came along. The guitar could be used as an accompanying instrument, but rarely was the star itself. But Johnson was so adept at making his Gibson L-1 sing and cry that all of a sudden the guitar had a magnetic power to it.

Utilising bottleneck slides, string bends, licks, riffs, and any number of techniques that soon became intrinsic to the style of rock music, Johnson managed to create an entire orchestra with only six strings. If anyone wants to know when the guitar became the dominant instrument in popular music, all they have to do is revisit Johnson’s tragically small but massively influential catalogue of songs.

The 1940s: Sister Rosetta Tharpe

Rock music wasn’t a well-known or well-formed genre in the 1940s. Instead, scores of musicians were innovating through other genres. The excitement of gospel was soon becoming too infectious to be contained to churches, while the exploratory nature of jazz was connecting with more people than ever before. R&B was also coming into its own, but someone had to link them all together with the torrid history of the blues. That figure was Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

One of the few non-secular artists who were willing to entertain in sinful places like nightclubs and speakeasies, Tharpe began to transform traditional gospel songs into new compositions that freely mingled with the more lascivious side of life. Armed with an electric guitar and early experiments with distortion, Tharpe was one of the first figures to push rock and roll into the limelight, and a direct line can be drawn between Tharpe’s driving guitar music and the later innovations from Little Richard and Elvis Presley.

The 1950s: Chuck Berry

Any number of great blues players could have been credited here, from the impassioned soul of B.B. King to the unhinged excitement of Buddy Guy or the pure top-shelf blues of Freddie King and Muddy Waters. But pound for pound, only one man can truly claim to have invented what we commonly associate with today as “rock and roll music”: the one and only Chuck Berry.

Berry was such a force unto himself that he was instantly recognisable – the three-chord blues progressions, the opening licks, the lyrics about cars and girls, and wild showmanship. While other players added bits and pieces to the style of rock and roll, most of the best players simply stole from Berry wholesale. He had the entire package, and there’s not a single rock guitar player today who doesn’t owe every last lick to Chuck Berry.

The 1960s: Jimi Hendrix

Rock and roll was already a game-changer by the mid-1960s, but there was an important element to rock music’s sound that was quickly invading all of its records: distortion. Bands like The Beatles and The Kinks led the charge, but nobody took fuzz to its height the way that Jimi Hendrix did. There was simply nothing like him before: he played louder, more sexually, and more excitingly than anyone before him.

The way Hendrix was able to shape noise to his advantage proved to be instrumental in changing rock music for the next six decades. Feedback could be just as tuneful as a guitar riff, and Hendrix’s blues-influenced style gave him a direct link to the past while his innovations set course for the future. Legions of imitators followed, but no one could match the effortless touch and energetic roar that Hendrix could produce with a guitar and a stack of amplifiers.

The 1970s: Nile Rodgers

The 1970s proved to be a fertile time for guitar experimentation. Funk musicians were breaking down guitar music to its most basic elements, while progressive rock musicians were blowing things out to epic proportions. Heavy metal players took Hendrix’s lead and cranked the volume to the extreme, while acoustic rockers invaded the scene in a major way. Funk and R&B were turning towards a new sound inspired by the discotheques that were popping up across America, but it took the instantly identifiable chop of Nile Rodgers to refine disco in its most pure form.

Rodgers proved that complex voicings and reedy tones could be just as exciting as distortion or power chords, and entire legions of musicians took notice. Even today, the influence of Rodgers’ influence is still being felt: any time a guitar is switched onto its bridge pickup, it’s going to inevitably sound like Nile Rodgers. That’s the kind of effect that is almost unbeatable, and Rodgers is still largely unmatched in terms of impact.

The 1980s: Prince

The ’80s was the age of the guitar hero: massive solos, complex picking patterns, wild histrionics, and insane distortion ruled the day. Guitars weren’t meant to sing – they were meant to cry and wail and even explode on command. The need was for excitement and lightning-fast chops, most of which belonged to the glam metal bands that populated the Sunset Strip. But out in Minnesota, there was no hotter guitar player than Prince.

Prince was the ungodly amalgamation of Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone, Nile Rodgers, and Jimmy Page. Able to bend further, soar higher, and scream louder than anyone else, Prince’s abilities as a songwriter, performer, and singer almost made his guitar playing an afterthought. Almost. Just when you might have forgotten about it, Prince would come crashing in with solos that seemed to be emanating from the heavens. Most guitarists had to stay in one genre during the ’80s, but Prince could live in all circles and still sit head and shoulders above his peers in terms of pure skill.

The 1990s: Slash

When minimalism took over in rock music during the ’90s, the guitar was a band’s greatest tool but also its greatest enemy. Flashy solos and complex progressions were most assuredly out, with pure impact being the flavour of the day. But these styles didn’t have to be mutually exclusive, proven by the shredding skills and wildly nasty tones of Guns ‘N Roses axeman Slash.

Slash made lead guitar cool in an era where lead guitar was seen as largely uncool. His melodic solo style and willingness to engage with the classic rock influences that all players of the time worshipped (but few would admit to in public), Slash bridged that gap between the hair metal theatrics and the grittier hard rock buzz of the time. Grunge bands attempted to wipe the earth with guitarists like Slash, but he wound up surviving and outreaching almost anyone who tried to take him down.

The 2000s: Tom Morello

By 2000, the guitar was thoroughly dissected. Most thought that there was nothing new one could do with the instrument, especially as technology evolved to the point where guitars were largely unnecessary to write or create music. The rapid days of innovation from the six-string were long gone, and the last figure who can truly lay claim to have invented his own unique style was probably Tom Morello.

Through his work with Rage Against the Machine, Morello was able to produce noises and tones from a guitar that no one had ever heard before. Simulating DJ scratches, sirens, and even gunshots, Morello was a mad scientist creating brand new sounds, establishing himself as a modern guitar hero in the process. But it was his work with Audioslave and The Nightwatchman that proved Morello was more than just funny sounds. He had chops too, and was more than willing to bust them out when the time was right.

The 2010s: Gary Clark Jr.

It seemed almost inevitable that guitar music would eventually return to its roots in the blues. As the 2000s transitioned into the 2010s, guitar music was more scarce than ever. Music needed a solid shot of no-frills, no-bullshit style, and Gary Clark Jr. was the man to make it happen.

Combining all the best styles from all the previous guitar players on this list, Clark Jr. is a walking encyclopedia of music who still creates his own distinct sound. This is especially apparent when he breaks out a solo, hopping strings and forming melodies that prove guitar music is still progressing into the future. Whoever takes the reigns now is anyone’s guess, but whoever it is has 90 years of innovation to take notes from.