Greatest Guitar Players in History
The 1920s & 30s

Pioneering players and the birth of the electric guitar.

The Greatest guitar players in history

Contents

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In this series of posts, I’ll be diving into the past to reveal some most pioneering and innovative electric guitarists over the past 100 years.

Doing this can give you a fresh perspective on what is possible with the instrument. It will help you progress and play with greater creativity.

Contents

The history of the electric guitar is fascinating. Many guitarists have contributed to the instruments success throughout the years, so where do you start?

This series of posts isn’t meant as a definitive list – just a few of the greatest pioneers to whet your appetite.  As you will discover, life changing social and political changes at the time had a big impact on these guitarists.

These changes, for good or bad, inevitably inspired their playing.

Although having their own sound, many guitarists of today have spoken of “borrowing” musical phrases and riffs from the generations of players before them and incorporating them into their playing.

"Every guitarist in history has taken inspiration from earlier generations, and its part of how we grow as musicians..."

The greatest players throughout history could communicate their musical ideas to stunning effect. Regardless of genre, these pioneering players shared the ability to use the guitar as a channel for self expression.

Focusing on two decades at a time, I’ll highlight the key players for you to explore in bold text. For this post, we go back to the beginning for the electric guitar, the 1920s and 1930s.

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Trapped in the Big Bands

The 1920’s saw the evolution of the Big Band, these large ensembles of 10 to 25 members dominated popular music at the time. They played jazz during the 20’s and evolved the swing music style from the early 1930’s onwards. As part of the rhythm section, the guitarist played nothing more than a supportive role.

The horn’s took the credit for solo’s, partly enabled by their volume and tone which could cut through the busy mix.

Jimmie Lunceford and his Orchestra
Jimmie Lunceford and his Orchestra

Up to this point guitars were acoustic, their contribution blended with the other instruments and the listener would hear the sound as a whole band.

The guitarists felt increasingly trapped and were striving to gain some of the attention for themselves.

Around the same time period, RCA – an American electronics company, released the first Valve based amplifier. This proved to be hugely significant and excited many guitar players including the self taught guitarist and inventor Les Paul and jazz guitar virtuoso Salvatore Massaro (aka Eddie Lang).

They began to experiment with ways to amplify their instruments by adapting pickups from phonograph needles and telephone receivers.

Using amplified guitars would not just compete with the Sax’s and Trombones but completely blow them out of the water – there was no doubt, electrifying the guitar changed the way popular music was made forever.

"Essentially the electric guitar could replace the horn section and enabled a small trio or quartet of musicians to achieve what a whole Big Band could..."

Les Paul

Eddie Lang was one of the 1920’s most recorded guitarists and was a huge influence on the first generation of players. He was an impressive musician who could accompany blues bands, play classically and hold his own with any of the great musicians of the time.

His style was unique and showed a sophisticated approach to chord voicing and solo playing. With his playing and help from an amplified sound, he forced the banjo players – popular at the time, to switch to electric guitar.

Eddie Lang (aka Blind Willie Dunn)

You can hear his style on Bix Biederbecke’s “Singing the Blues”. He also wrote a series of guitar duets in 1929 with blues player Lonnie Johnson under the pseudonym Blind Wille Dunn.

He and Johnson would often play together under the name “Blind Willie Dunn and his Gin Bottle Four”.

The group were one of the first to include black and white musicians playing together.  The reason for using the pseudonym has been argued that either it was taken from a friend of his – but more commonly is thought that is was to try and gain some commercial success on the heels of popular African American blues players such as Blind Lemon Jefferson and Blind Willie Johnson.

"Although influenced heavily by acoustic guitarist Django Reinhardt, Les Paul's contribution to the electric guitar of today was vast..."

He was a significant inspiration to other jazz guitar players at the time which he eventually developed to include fast runs, dynamic trills, country and western licks and interesting rhythmic techniques.

He was also a key influence in inventing the solid body electric guitar which made the whole rock ‘n’ roll genre possible.  The Gibson Les Paul guitar was inspired by a prototype guitar nicknamed “The Log” which he made from a 4″ x 4″ piece of pine in 1940.

The Blues Influence

Back in 1903, a trained composer named William Christopher Handy waited for a delayed train at Tutwiler station, Mississippi one day. Whilst drifting in and out of sleep a local poor African American man played a guitar fretted with a penknife while singing of the local railroad line in a sad and mellow tone.

This sound of the knife on the strings and the haunting vocals was completely unique – traditional African music was mixing with anglo/American Folk to produce an early blues style which later became known as “Delta Blues”.

The Delta blues sound was distinguished by an emphasis on rhythm and the use of bottleneck slide. 

"Delta blues falls under the larger umbrella of country blues or rural blues which generally refers to a simple form with just a guitar for accompaniment..."

Statue to commemorate WC Handy and his part in bringing blues music to the masses
W.C Handy's memorial statue in Memphis

W.C Handy was fascinated with this music as it was unlike anything he’d ever heard before and he set out to learn all the intricacies of its form and style. In 1909 he published his first ever song “Mr Crump” inspired perhaps from his encounter back at the train platform.

"WC Handy gave delta blues a contemporary form and went on to declare himself as "the father of the blues" by bringing the genre to a wider audience..."

Using his composing skills, he is noted for giving Delta blues a contemporary form and went on to declare himself as “the father of the blues” by bringing the genre to a wider audience.

The roots of blues music were inspired from traditional African songs brought to America during the slave period. This “work” music was sung by slaves and a call and response element was used – phrases from a lead singer would be followed by others and often the songs would be sung in rhythm to the task at hand.

 

Learn more about the roots of blues music

African American music history feature image of slave breaking his chains

The roots of blues music were inspired from traditional African songs brought to America during the slave period. This "work" music was sung by slaves and a call and response elem