Blues guitar is a discipline that’s perhaps easy to bluff, but extraordinarily hard to master – even more so given that you need your own unique six-string voice and style to stand out from the crowd. From Delta-dwelling trailblazers to masters of electric mayhem, these 10 legends of blues guitar can all lay claim to being the Greatest Ever. Here’s just this writer’s picks and the reasons why: you, of course, may think different...

Robert Johnson

When it comes to sheer mystique, Johnson has the whole hoodoo-voodoo devil-at-the-crossroads mojo workin’ ramblin’ man hoopla all on his side. But ignore the mythology. Just listen to his playing. Johnson dexterity is still astonishing 80 years on for just one pair of hands, and coupled with the songs he made popular (even if he didn’t necessarily write them) such as “Cross Road Blues”, “Dust My Broom”, “Sweet Home Chicago”, “Love in Vain” and you have a solid root of all modern blues in his modest 29 recordings. “You want to know how good the blues can get?” asks Keith Richards. “Well, this is it.”

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T-Bone Walker

In the jump from jazz comping to electric blues soloing, there was no-one more crucial than Aaron Thibeaux “T-Bone” Walker. Between 1945 and ‘55, he cut over 100 sides (his most famous song, the much-covered “Call It Stormy Monday,” made him a household name) and his single-note, horn-type soloing - “I played sweet blues” he emphasised - soon became standard guitar vocab. Yet it was the showmanship as much as his licks that followers devoured. The splits, the duck walk, the guitar behind the head? T-Bone brought it to the masses, and it all adds up to an early, but huge influence on everybody from Chuck Berry to “the three Kings”, from Hendrix to Gary Moore. “When I heard T-Bone Walker play the electric guitar I had to have one,” saluted B.B. King. “He was my teacher.” King also added, “If T-Bone Walker had been a woman, I would have asked him to marry me.”

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Joe Bonamassa

Is Bonamassa still too young to be called a “great”? Some may say yes, and his debt to the three Kings and the Brit Blues Explosion is also mighty clear. But in the here-and-now of electric blues, Joe Bonamassa has become a beacon. Joe is nothing if not a scholar and a genuine one at the that: you don’t get invited onstage by B.B. King aged 12 unless you’ve got something inherently special. For now – especially on his new release with Black Country Communion – Bonamassa often plays hard and heavy like the blues-rock titans he adores, but he’s maturing and like a fine wine will get even better with age. JB’s patron of the Keeping the Blues Alive Foundation, motto: “Passing the Torch.” Yep, Bonamassa is a shining light.

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Freddie King

Freddie King

Of “The Three Kings”, Freddie is probably the most often ignored. His album cover inspired Eric Clapton to buy a Les Paul, and his instrumental songs were heavenly manna to EC, Peter Green and Gary Moore. Freddie was a superbly melodic and lyrical player. Face it: some blues solos can sometimes descend into tedium: Freddie could cut whole instrumental tracks that never get tired, never get old.

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Hubert Sumlin

As sideman to both Muddy Waters and then Howlin’ Wolf, Hubert Sumlin was the man in the Chicago blues shadows with the killer licks. But his fingertips playing also revealed his rural roots: legend has it that Wolf forbid Sumlin to use a pick during their early years together, because when he did so and the resultant guitar frenzy crashed all over the Wolf’s vocals. Sumlin’s subtle and snaky lead lines are legendary in the blues, and they were never-better delivered than on the ‘50s Les Paul Goldtop that Wolf bought him as a gift.

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Johnny Winter

Johnny Winter

If you hear a fellow player tell you “Gibson Firebirds are great for blues”, Johnny Winter is the reason why. Winter played quicksilver fast, precise blues licks, and in many ways his playing was a precursor to Stevie Ray Vaughan... even if he got nowhere near the same acclaim. But Muddy Waters knew: he bagged Winter to produce his four Grammy-winning LPs, Hard Again, I’m Ready, Muddy “Mississippi” Waters Live and King Bee. Unusually, Winter played with a thumbpick for hybrid picking (he was a Chet Atkins and Merle Travis fan), he could play fingerstyle blues, soaring slide (he figured out all his tunings from listening to Son House and Elmore James records), and boasted a fierce vibrato. But even in a high amp’d blues-rock setting, Winter never lost his links to the delta and Chicago masters.

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Peter Green

When producer Mike Vernon met up up with Brit Blues bandleader John Mayall in 1966, he was shocked: “Where’s Eric Clapton?” Vernon panicked before Mayall explained that Clapton had “left us a few weeks ago” to form Cream. Vernon remembered, “I was in a shock of state [sic] but Mayall said, ‘Don’t worry, we got someone better.’ I said, ‘Wait a minute... this is ridiculous. You've got someone better? Than Eric Clapton?’ John said, ‘He might not be better now, but you wait... in a couple of years he's going to be the best’. Then he introduced me to Peter Green.”

It’s a measure of the respect for Peter Green that Mick Fleetwood is publishing his mammoth band biography Love That Burns: A Chronicle Of Fleetwood Mac, focussing solely on the band’s Green-led years. The Londoner’s fabled “Greeny” Les Paul (later bought by Gary Moore, now with Kirk Hammett) is grail-like, yet no-one else has got the sound out of it that Green did. Aerosmith’s Joe Perry will talk endlessly about Green: although Joe’s well-schooled in blues, Green’s the one player who still has him smitten.

Even B.B. King famously noted, “He has the sweetest tone I ever heard; he was the only one who gave me the cold sweats.” Green’s shivering vibrato, clean cutting tones and impeccable touch was/is unique. And then there were Green’s songs. At his best – “Oh Well”, “Green Manalishi (With the Two Pronged Crown)” and the devastating “Man Of The World” for Fleetwood Mac – Green is a songwriter way beyond just the scope of “blues”.

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Eric Clapton

As a “trustee” of the blues, Eric Clapton cannot be faulted. His best playing is right-up there, too – be it his tone-seeking (the Les Paul + Marshall combo of the Blues Breakers’ “Beano” LP) reverent covers (his Me and Mr Johnson album) or acid blues excursions with Cream.

Clapton’s style has its roots in his beloved “three Kings”: “If I’m building a solo, I’ll start with a line that I know is definitely a Freddie King line,” he told Guitar Player magazine, “and then I’ll – I’m not saying this happens consciously – go on to a BB King line.’ But the graceful fluidity of his playing, and the creaminess of his Gibson SG-driven “Woman Tone” has been a massive influence on players of all stripes. His mixing of major and minor pentatonic scales in soloing (on “Crossroads”), plus that aggressive tone, was a guitar milestone in the mid ‘60s. And when he sets his mind to it, EC’s still one of the greatest electric blues players you’ll ever hear.

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Albert King

Standing somewhere between 6ft 4 and 6ft 7 (maybe people were too scared to measure him?), “The Velvet Bulldozer” was an utterly unique player, whether in the blues idiom or not. He played his Gibson Flying V (known as Lucy) left-handed and upside down, with the treble strings up towards his chin. Such unorthodoxy helped him achieve those titanic, expressive bends and while he wasn’t the fastest geetarman in town, the sheer emotion of Albert’s playing – coupled with that superb voice – make him one of the blues key artists. He was never truly a household name and is still underrated, despite those immense soul-blues LPs for Stax. Albert’s disciples include Rolling Stone Mick Taylor, Eric Clapton, Joe Walsh, Michael Bloomfield, Gary Moore, Derek Trucks, SRV and many more. Blues power.

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B.B. King

Sometimes, being The Greatest is a combination of all sorts of things. The late Riley “B.B.” King would come nowhere in a fastest/trickiest/most dextrous lick contest, yet he epitomises the blues in a way other simply can’t touch. Perhaps that’s the thing: everyone else here has been copied (or did copy) to a degree – but that’s not so easy to say of B.B. He’s simply a true original – you just know when you hear him.

B.B was well aware his polished soul-blues weren’t for everyone, but the urban sophistication King brought to the blues is one of the main reasons the artform still survives. “He is, without a doubt, the most important artist the blues has ever produced,” wrote Eric Clapton in his own autobiography of 2008, “and the most humble and genuine man you would ever wish to meet. In terms of scale or stature, I believe that if Robert Johnson was reincarnated, he is probably B.B. King.” Chairman of the Board. Still the King.

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B.B. King