Known for finessing a handful of chords on his Gibson J-50 into a career’s worth of gritty, powerful blues tunes, Lightnin’ Hopkins occupies a unique space within the context of 20th century blues, thanks to his economical guitar style and gift for haunting storytelling. With an overwhelming discography that includes hundreds of sides, he is easily one of the most prolific, widely recorded bluesmen in history.

Lightnin’ Hopkins - 1912

Though Lightnin’ Hopkins walked among a select group of blues musicians whose careers began well before the dawn of rock and roll, he approached the guitar differently than his contemporaries. Most began their recording careers playing country blues on acoustic guitars, eventually moving to electric instruments. But even Hopkins’ earliest sides included his brand of gritty, amplified Texas country blues—his reverberating, sustained notes giving the music a new sonic dimension.

Born in Centerville, Texas in 1912, Lightnin’ Hopkins took to music early in life. He made his own guitar and learned to play from his older brother Joel, and is said to have dazzled none other than Texas legend Blind Lemon Jefferson before he even turned nine years old.

“[Lemon] had a crowd of people around him,” Hopkins once recalled. “I was standing there looking at him play, and I just went to playing my guitar, just what he was playing.” Lemon, as the story goes, encouraged Hopkins, and the young musician never looked back.

In the mid-1930s Hopkins moved to Houston. Though he continued to travel, mainly throughout Texas, his many roads always brought him back there. He was a well-known fixture in Houston when, in 1946, a talent scout invited him to journey to Los Angeles to record his first sides, waxed in November of that year. Those cuts featured pianist Wilson Smith—from whom Hopkins took his nickname, “Lightnin’,” as a convenient complement to Smith’s nickname, “Thunder”—and included the likes of “Katie Mae Blues,” “Feel So Bad,” “Rocky Mountain Blues,” and the rollicking “That Mean Old Twister.”

Hopkins continued to record prolifically in the ensuing years, generating a remarkable output rivaled only by contemporary John Lee Hooker. But by 1955, as rock and roll began to enter the popular American consciousness, Hopkins drifted into obscurity. Reportedly living in a one-room apartment, he was rediscovered in the late 1950s, and at the urging of blues journalist Sam Charters, recorded a set of songs using a borrowed guitar. He had pawned his own guitar. The Roots of Lightnin’ Hopkins—a stark, spare, and simple recording—was released in January of 1959. The album, an instant success, fueled Lightnin’s stalled career and is said to have restored his confidence.

Lightnin’ Hopkins - 1912

Lightnin’ Hopkins died in 1982, just short of his 70th birthday. His legacy lives on in the choices made by the young white musicians who’ve followed in his footsteps. Today, the tradition and tone of Gibson’s round-shouldered flattops are favored by artists like Jefferson Airplane guitarist Jorma Kaukonen, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen, among many others, all who owe a debt to Hopkins’ soulful playing and poetic lyrics.

“Lightnin’ Hopkins may not have known many notes,” B.B. King wrote in his 1996 autobiography, Blues All Around Me, “but he knew the right ones, and he knew where to put ’em. Some genius with four Ph.D.s in music theory might never be able to do in a lifetime what Lightnin’ did in a minute—tell the truth.”