Monday, May 18, 2009

Top Guitarists of the 1950's: Five Categories

By the early 1950's as smaller combos became more popular the guitar had assumed prominence as the lead instrument of choice among rockabilly and rock n' roll groups. With the advent of amplification that became widespread in the 1940's, the guitar also assumed a featured roll in blues and country combos, and an increase in the number of jazz guitarists was also seen. In this post I will list my top choices for guitarists in five distinct categories: jazz, blues, country, rockabilly and the emerging new genre, "rock and roll." Obviously, since these selections are subjective they are open to discussion and criticism. That said, many would be hard to argue with.

JAZZ: I didn't include two incredible players, Wes Montgomery and Kenny Burrell because much of their work appears after 1960. Also, George Barnes would have been in the running if he had not assumed a more pop direction in the 1950's.

Les Paul: Even though Les had moved into more pop oriented material by the 1950's with Mary Ford, he can still lay down some viscious chops , seen here on "How High the Moon" from 1953.

Tiny Grimes: Grimes could swing with the best of them. Check out his nifty solo on "One is Never to Old to Swing" from 1945. Also, reputedly he soloed on "Gee," (1953) by the rock pioneers The Crows, a song considered to be one of the first rock n' roll recordings, heard here.

Oscar Moore: Playing for Nat King Cole must have been a supreme privilege. Listen to Oscar smoke here on "Little Girl."

Charlie Byrd: Byrd's incursions into Samba and Flamenco make him a distinct voice among jazz guitarists from the 1950's. Check out his "At Seventeen," probably recorded in the early 1960's.

Herb Ellis: Any player chosen by Oscar Peterson to be his guitarist in the 1950's deserves consideration. Listen to Herb showcase his talent here on "A Gal in Gallico" from 1958.

BLUES: Would have loved to include Eddie Jones aka "Guitar Slim" here, but no recordings available. Also I excluded B.B. and Albert King since much of their work comes out in the 1960's. Also, my apologies to Lowell Fulson, Pee Wee Crayton and Magic Sam.

T-Bone Walker: T-Bone was probably the leading forerunner to electric blues guitar in the 1940's. Listen to how out in front he was in 1942 with "I Got a Break Baby." Chuck Berry listened very closely.

Johnny Guitar Watson: Any player who influenced Jimi Hendrix and inspired Frank Zappa to take up the guitar deserves to be looked at. Watson was already a prodigious talent in the mid- 1950's. Check out his remarkable "Three Hours Past Midnight" from 1956.

Otis Rush: This live recording of "I Can't Quir You Baby" from the early 1960's demonstrates just why Rush is in this group.

Hubert Sumlin: It's really hard to keep Hubert off this list due his incredible influence on later players and his contemporaries. Check out his work with Howlin' Wolf on Smokestack Lightning, originally recorded in the 1950's.

Freddie King: Hugely influential, his 1961 hit Hideaway becomes a blues standard that everyone covers.

COUNTRY: Roy Nichols not included due the fact his best work with Merle Haggard comes during the 1960s. The rest, well, listen for yourself.

Chet Atkins: Virtually redefined the parameters of the guitar. Check out these versions of "Villa" and "Say Si Si" from 1958.

Jimmy Bryant: Jimmy could have also been included among the jazz guitarists, his style is really jazzy country swing. Listen to Jimmy smoke here with Speedy West.

Phil Baugh: A consummate session player, Baugh could play virtually anything, as evidenced here on this nifty medley of styles.

Joe Maphis: Maphis played several instruments, but his guitar work was exceptional, as heard on "Town Hall Boogie."

Hank Garland: A legend among country guitarists primarily due to the success of "Sugarfoot Rag," heard here. Just incredible playing.

ROCKABILLY: Carl Perkins could have easily been included.

Scotty Moore: I chose Scotty instead of Carl because his early work with Elvis really helps to crystallize the rockabilly guitar style. Uses a finger-picking approach on the solo, common in rockabilly guitar. Mystery Train is a prime example.

James Burton: A genuine 1950's legend who played with Ricky Nelson, Roy Orbison, Bob Luman and Billy Lee Riley as a teenager. Listen to James showcase his skills on this later video. Very tasty playing.

Cliff Gallup: Truly one of the hottest rockabilly players who starred as Gene Vincent's guitar ace with The Blue Caps. Check out Cliff here on "Race With the Devil."

Grady Martin: I really don't want to weigh in on the controversy concerning the Johnny Burnette recordings and Paul Burlison, discussed here. Martin was a super session player who according to many played on a good deal of the Johnny Burnette Trio recordings. If this is so, he belongs here. Check out "All By Myself". Whether it's Grady or Paul, it's incredible playing.

Al Casey: Another great session player who is best known for his work with Sanford Clark. Listen to Al's great work here on "If I told You Baby" from 1956.

ROCK N' ROLL: Like Rockabilly, this is a category that emerged in the 1950's. Here is a short list of the top players.

Link Wray: Wray revolutionized 1950's guitar and sets up the huge changes to come in the 1960s. Check out "Run Boy Run. "

Dan Cedrone: Will always be remembered for his innovative solo on "Rock Around the Clock" with Bill Haley and the Comets. An entirely new sound for 1956.

Chuck Berry: Chuck's guitar style derives from R&B Blues and Rockabilly. Also a truly hybrid sound. Listen to his chording and leads on the original 1956 version, unbelievable.

Duane Eddy: Not as flashy as the others on the list, but had a remarkably clean tone and phrasing. Check out his signature piece "Rebel Rouser" from the late 1950's.

Bo Diddley: When Bo passed away last year, the list of covers and "loans" from his songs and style was astonishing. Listen to his unique style live from 1960 on the classic "Roadrunner."


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. That's quite a list. thank you for taking the time to post it, now I think I will start a download of each one of these. Now, I just wish that here in the viagra online office my boss would let me download music.

  3. Thankfully you stopped blogging in 2012. Your list, although filled with great guitarists is not catergorized well at leave out BB King because he has not enough 50s output - are you mad? Freddie King has almost none, BB started in the late 40's..WTF? Scotty over Carl - are you kidding - Carl was a far superior guitarist than Scotty - Scotty was effective, little else. No Hal Harris, but you have Al Casey? I could go on...just make sure you really dig into the era's output before you blog..its a good start, just not very thorough...too pedestrian and high-level.

  4. Jazz guitarist Barney Kessel was a poll winner a fair number of times in the 50s.