My Favorite Blues Records

I fell in love with the blues in the early-mid 90s, when a friend turned me on to Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Texas Flood.” Before then, I was really only into metal and classic rock. If it didn’t have pointy guitars and Marshall stacks, I wasn’t particularly interested… outside of a few bands like Pink Floyd and Hendrix, etc. I was aware of blues – through classic rock & radio – but not an active listener. In college my tastes expanded a little, but it was still more interested in the metal side of music. As I started to really get into guitar, my ears expanded, and “Texas Flood” hit me hard. What struck me was that it was so powerful, but not about doom and gloom. It was human, it was real life, it covered a range of emotion. It never connected with me that music could be so powerful and positive at the same time. So, that was my gateway. After that, I moved pretty quickly into blues and only blues, which also took years to get out of… but it was life changing. Blues is still at the core of my playing in part because I fell so hard for it right when I was developing as a player.

Here are some of my favorite and most impactful blues records… some are albums everyone (hopefully) has, some might be a bit off the beaten path. What are your favorites?

Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown – Pressure Cooker

I love this record because Gatemouth is such an eclectic player, and such a melting pot. He mixes up blues, jazz and country into his own unique style. Interestingly, I picked up a compilation of his earlier works and it’s very much in the style of T-Bone Walker. I was fortunate enough to get to see Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown do a live acoustic show in New Orleans at the LMNOP music conference around 1999. He was as great acoustic as he was electric, and it’s side of him I’d never heard before.

I also recommend “Blackjack.” If you want a bit more of his Louisiana style (and fiddle playing), check out “Gate’s On the Heat.”

BB King – Live In Japan

While BB is my favorite of the 3 Kings, and my favorite blues musician. Across his wide catalog of stutio and live albums, Live in Japan is my favorite. Perhaps my love of it is fueled in part by a memorable late nigh drive from Buffalo to Chicago in a snowstorm, BB’s incredible voice coming through the car stereo, the band cooking, pure love radiating out of our van’s speakers. I also love the adventurous nature of the record, with jams like “Hiraki #88” and “Jammin’ at Saneki hall” spicing things up from the array of hits and classics. His “Hummingbird” on this album also blows me away. If you’re only familiar with Completely Well or Live at the Regal, give this a serious listen.

Freddie King – Live at the Electric Ballroom

What is there to say about Freddie King, the Texas Cannonball, other than he’s one of the Three Kings. His tone is incredible, his phrasing is incredible, his voice is incredible. He’s pure blues, but funky and soulful. “Ain’t Nobody’s Business” is one of my all-time favorite blues songs. It’s a great overview of Freddie King, and an album everyone should have.

http://www.alltime-records.com/01-albums-0002/0002126.php

Muddy Waters – The Best of Muddy Waters

While I love pretty much everything Muddy has ever done, this was the album that opened my ears to acoustic blues, despite coming into the genre via electric guitar. Of course, Muddy was the guy that built that bridge across the country and blew the genre wide open. The Best of Muddy Waters is where you can hear the ache and cry of humanity, and for a suburban white kid from Wisconsin, get a glimpse into a completely different side of America. It’s a slice of history. It was raw, dirty, and dangerous… but also tender, loving, and soulful. This is the record that helped me understand where the music came from, and started my journey digging backwards in time.

Buddy Guy Live – The Real Deal with GE Smith and the SNL Band

Buddy Guy had quite a run of great albums in the 90s. This live album, captured at his club Legends, is a highlight to me. The interplay he has with the band is fantastic, and it’s fun to hear him go back and forth with GE Smith and Johnnie Johnson. He’s one of those performers who makes great records, but really shines live. The stories, the interaction with the audience… it all adds up to a great listen. His tone is classic 90s Buddy Guy and the band sounds fantastic. Their version of “My Time After A While” is the highlight.

Stevie Ray Vaughan – Texas Flood

For me, the record that started it all. This was the album that showed me powerful music didn’t have to be about demons and warfare. It could be about humanity, positivity, real life. It opened my eyes not just to blues, but to the rest of the world of music.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Texas_Flood

Robert Johnson – The Complete Recordings


There’s probably not much to say about this incredible compilation, other than everyone should own it. I learned so many of these songs. I want to call out that to me it’s not his amazing guitar playing, it’s his voice. That’s what’s so haunting. The edgy, provocative lyrics were also pretty mind-blowing. To think these were performed in the 1930s! That takes guts. Its’ a lot more risque than some guy dorpping F-bombs nowadays.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Complete_Recordings_(Robert_Johnson_album)

Why I Dig Classic Rock – And Why It Rocks!

Classic rock gets a lot of flack these days, especially from the guitar community. To me it’s more of an era than a specific style. I consider classic rock to be rock music from the 60s through early-to-mid-80s. The thing that makes it so hard to pin down is exactly what I love about it: the diversity… the variety! I love classic rock because it isn’t just one thing. It’s more of a label than a genre, and the lines are blurred. It grew from the seeds of blues and early rock and roll to incorporate country, folk and jazz. It began sprouting branches into prog and metal. Yet all of these styles blend together into what we now consider “classic rock.” The blues had a baby and they called it Rock & Roll, and classic rock often keeps one foot in the blues. It’s a key influence, even if masked by others. I think that’s something you can hear as a dividing line between rock & metal, and between classic rock and 90s & 00s modern rock. Bands like Yes might not have much blues in them, there’s no hard and fast rule, but classic rock usually has a pretty clear connection to its roots. Distinct genres have tend to severed more ties with their past.

This diversity the reason I put on classic rock so often. If I’m in a laid back mood, it’s there. If I need a bolt of energy during a workout, there’s a ton of classic rock that fits the bill. If I’m trying to focus and think, I can get something more spacey and ambient. If I want to sit and listen deeply, there’s plenty. I often pick music to listen to based on what I want to get from it, and what I want to match to my current mood. Classic rock is so broad, there’s always something to fit. I love metal, but I’m not always in the mood for that. Same for country, jazz, blues… Because classic rock incorporates all of that, I can always find something to fit.

Lasting Appeal

The great classic rock bands endure because they wrote, recorded and performed great songs, for sure, but I don’t discount the nostalgia factor. Those were very relevant decades for a lot of us in and above our 40s. We grew up with those songs. Still, there was a lot of other music made in those decades that hasn’t endured, and hasn’t made the impact on our lives. I still see kids walking around with Hendrix and Zeppelin t-shirts. The songs resonate. The musicianship resonates. And no matter how your tastes lean, or when you were born, you’re likely to find a top-shelf band or two that appeals to you.

What Makes The Music Compelling

The melting pot mentality added a depth to the music. Guitar players didn’t just chug out 8th note barre chords for a rhythm part like you hear so often these days. The rhythm part had riffs, it swung… it had some garlic on it! You had bands comprised of blues guitarists, jazz drummers, rock bassists and classical keyboard players. The bands themselves were stylistic melting pots. That diversity manifested into interesting and diverse music. These days – as much variety as there is in music overall – it seems that individual bands seem to be a bit more compartmentalized. Bands need to be “one thing” to market themselves. I do think jam bands are a big exception, which is why I love them as well, but that’s another post.

It also has an organic quality, regardless whether it was leaning towards metal or prog or country. It wasn’t over processed, although that’s probably a result of the era in which it was recorded. Some classic rock might sound like it’s from outer space (Yes, Hendrix, etc) but it still sounds human.

Classic Rock Guitar

Let’s be honest, it was the era of the “guitar god,” and the guitar heroes of classic rock bands made a big impression on a lot of people. I must admit that as a guitar player, I also love the edge of a lot of classic rock. The rhythm gets me, but also the attack for the notes, the often overdriven tone, the wide vibrato and soaring, searing solos. They spent the time to make solo that endure and that were miniature compositions in and of themselves. They displayed the full range of the instrument, which is incredible. Acoustic, electric, clean, dirty, laid back, energetic. Even within a single band guitar players of classic rock bands ran the gamut. That’s what I aspire to. The music doesn’t get boring to me because it’s so broad.

Old, But New To Me

Another great thing about this period is that so much music was made, I’ve been just discovering bands and albums from half a century ago that blow me away. There are a lot of treasures to unearth! My recent infatuation with Soft Machine is a great example. About ten years ago I was reading a funny Cracked article on prog and it sparked an interest in Uriah Heep. I knew a couple of their hits from the radio (Easy Livin’, etc) but never dug deep. What a great band! I bought my son a drum magazine a couple of years ago, which had an article about the band Coliseum, who I had never heard of before. There’s just so much out there to discover. Keep your eyes and ears open, and you’ll surely find a ton of A+ music that connects with you regardless how many decades have passed since it was recorded. I love finding music that’s “new to me.”

New Classic Rock

Thankfully for my ears, there are bands putting out great music in the style of classic rock. One foot in the blues, but melting in other influences and still staying “rock.” It’s totally understandable that people are burned out on “the hits.” With that in mind I’ve been creating a curated playlist of new classic, full of new songs that incorporate all the elements I love about classic rock. Some are relatively new bands, some are older bands putting out new music. Take a listen!

Five New Bands Carrying The Flag

While a lot of artists who were big in the 60s, 70s and 80s are still putting out great music, it’s heartening to see newer groups carrying the stylistic flag of classic rock.

  • Black Country Communion – a supergroup of sorts, comprised of veterans Glen Hughes, Joe Bonamassa, Derek Sherinian and Jason Bonham. They lean to the heavy side, and definitely bring the rock to new classic rock.
  • The Temperance Movement – this group brings more from Americana and blues influences, but they have an edge.
  • Rival Sons – on their 7th-ish album now, Rival Sons brings more sophisticated songwriting to bluesy hard rock.
  • Greta Van Fleet – say what you will, but in my opinion Greta Van Fleet has great songs mixed with a great vibe. They’ve stayed true to their vision and every time one of their tunes comes on I turn it up. What more do you want?
  • Blackberry Smoke – if you dig southern rock at all, you’ll dig Blackberry Smoke. Period. Great band all around, and constantly on the road so go check ’em out!

There’s a lot of overlap with newer artists typically labelled blues, prog, country and jam band. In my opinion, Joe Bonamassa’s and Kenny Wayne Shepherd’s best material lean more towards classic rock than straight blues. Jam bands like Moe could fit comfortably on a classic rock station. Some alt/country acts like the Zack Brown band put out material that I would say is closer to classic rock than Hank Williams Sr. What genre is it? Hard to say, but it fits in the spirit of classic rock.

Five Older Bands With Great New Music

These artists were in it during the heyday, and they’re still bringing it. If you haven’t kept up with their career lately, it’s worth your time.

  • Billy Gibbons – I caught ZZ Top frontman BFG and his Big Bad Blues band on tour last year, and it was one of the best shows I’d seen all year. If you’re a fan of the bluesier side of classic rock (like ZZ Top) definitely check out the Reverend’s new material like his Big Bad Blues album.
  • Robin Trower – psychadelic strat master Robin Trower is still on the road, and continues to put out great bluesy rock. His new album Coming Closer To The Day is fantastic.
  • Tom Keifer – frontman for the melodic hard rock (and bluesy) band Cinderella, Tom Keifer has put together a great solo career, which includes his recent and stellar album The Way Life Goes.
  • Uriah Heep – I actually discovered Uriah Heep’s classic catalog pretty late, but what a great band. 2018’s Living the Dream was another strong effort and as of this writing they’re on a rare US tour.
  • Jimi Hendrix – I have to throw one oddball out there. It never ceases to amaze me how much new Hendrix material gets released, even after reading “Ultimate Hendrix” which chronicles every live and recording date in extensive detail (hit: it’s a great read for the Hendrix fanatic). I suspect the well is drying up, but nonetheless, some of the recent releases like People, Hell and Angels and Both Sides of the Sky are really good. Not really in the “new music” category, literally speaking, but worth a mention.

Keeping Up

You can always google around to find a myriad “best of” lists, like this: https://bestclassicbands.com/2018-best-classic-rock-albums-11-25-18/ Vintage Guitar magazine is a great source for seeing what classic rock band guitarists are up to these days, which is often releasing excellent new material. Their album reviews and artist interviews are the best in the business. You can always check out Classic Rock Magazine or Ultimate Classic Rock as well.

My Top 5 Music Books

I love books. I love music. It only stands to reason that I love books about music. While I tend to read a lot of biographies, in this list I want to tackle books that have had a big hands-on (brains-on?) impact to my making music. I’ve learned a lot from each one and many of them are almost reference material to which I come back frequently. They all get my personal stamp of approval, check them out!

5. The Art of Mixing

4. Behind The Glass

3. The War of Art

2. Modern Method for Guitar, Vol. 1

1.The Music Lesson