…and I bet they’re not who you think they are.
When we think of the great guitar players the names Hendrix, Clapton, Beck and Page easily fall off the tongue. If we’re into country guitar it maybe Atkins, Reed, Burton or Lee. Thinking back it could be the Kings or T Bone, for the jazzers Django, Wes, Christian, Pass or Benson. The list seems almost endless.
Let me preface this by saying that I’m talking about modern guitar playing here, I’m not talking classical guitar but the type of guitar playing that developed in the 20th century and continues on today.
When we talk about guitar as a single string solo instrument we need to look back to where it all started. The first recorded evidence of guitar as an improvising instrument is back in the 1920’s.
There were 2 great players each credited by their own supporters and advocates as being the one. I think we can dispense with the bias and say both had a huge impact on how the guitar would be seen and used from their time forward.
The 2 guitar players I’m talking about are Eddie Lang and Lonnie Johnson
Born Salvatore Massaro in 1902 Eddie was the first guitar virtuoso of jazz. His style set the tone for generations of players to come. Not just a jazz player, Eddie was one of the most popular musicians of his generation. He worked extensively as an accompanist for the great singers of his time all the while transforming the role of guitar in jazz & popular music.
A great knowledge of harmony and fine ability as an accompanist as the video above shows he also had an extraordinary right hand rhythm technique which is displayed here with violinist Joe Venuti.
Eddie’s life was tragically cut short by complications of a tonsillectomy in 1933 at the age of 31. The measure of his popularity was that the American radio networks observed a minute silence as a mark of respect on his passing.
Born in New Orleans in 1899, Lonnie was born into a family of musicians. Whilst known primarily as a blues artist, he was much more than that. He worked with artists of the calibre of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Bessie Smith. His recording in 1927 of “6/88 Glide” pioneered the guitar solo.
You can hear the sophisticated lines in his playing that were later taken on by the likes of T Bone Walker and BB King to name a couple who cite Lonnie as a major influence and many more current players who wouldn’t even know he existed.
Lonnie was not just a great guitar player but also a multi instrumentalist and singer. Bob Dylan who was lucky enough to work with Lonnie in his later years during the folk boom in New York City cites him as a major influence and even Elvis Presley was said to have been influenced by his vocal stylings.
Eddie & Lonnie
Eddie & Lonnie recorded together in the late 20’s, among the first recordings to feature black and white artists together. Because of racial tensions at the time Eddie Lang often recorded under the name of “Blind Willie Dunn”.
They brought guitar into the mainstream, replacing the banjo, mandolin & ukulele which were the popular instruments of the time. They made the instrument legit where it had previously been a bit of a novelty cowboy box.
For this alone I think they should be acknowledged. Add to that their great playing and the “licks” that have been stolen so many times over most have forgotten the source. I mean they still turn up on recordings and on concert stages all over the world.
This is why I acknowledge Eddie & Lonnie as the 2 most important guitar players of all time…not to mention 2 of the greatest.