Robert Johnson (May 8, 1911 – August 16, 1938), one of the all-time guitar greats, the bluesman to top all bluesmen might be the most influential guitarist in music history. Seemingly all players praise this king of the six-string, whose amazingly complex technique and soulful delivery continue to amaze more than 70 years after his death.
When Rolling Stones axeman Keith Richards was first introduced to the long-gone musician’s recordings, he reportedly asked, “Who is the other guy playing with him?” Of course, it was just Johnson on the recording. “I was hearing two guitars, and it took a long time to actually realize he was doing it all by himself,” Richards said.
But Johnson was just as admired by his contemporaries, who marveled at not just his skill, but his versatility to play country, jazz and slide guitar. Johnson was so good, a rumor developed that he sold his soul to Satan in exchange for his musical prowess. How many guitarists can claim a legend like that?
The Robert Johnson Influence
Robert Johnson spent most of his time playing juke joints and street corners and never received much recognition during his lifetime.
It wasn’t until a 1961 reissue of his music, decades after his death, that the Robert Johnson name received a widespread audience. Johnson is now considered a master of the blues, particularly of the Mississippi Delta blues style. He is credited by many rock musicians as an important influence.
“(Robert Johnson is) the most important blues singer that ever lived”. -Eric Clapton
The boogie bass line he fashioned for “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom” has now passed into the standard guitar repertoire. At the time it was completely new, a guitarist’s version of something people would otherwise have heard only from a piano.
Robert Johnson is ranked fifth in Rolling Stone magazine’s “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time”.