The Axe Factor

For nearly a century the guitar has enabled modern music to exist in a permanent state of change. And from Stevie Ray Vaughan and Duane Allman to Hendrix and Marr, there has been no shortage of revolutionaries.

Stevie Ray Vaughan performs in New York in 1983. (Photo by Ebet Roberts/Redferns)

Before the guitar hero, before even the concept of ‘lead guitar’, there was Robert Johnson. To say his playing is underestimated would be a stretch — this is, after all, the man who was said to have sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads in exchange for his talent. But what Johnson played was truly remarkable, even without considering that he did it first. For historians, he was the pioneer of the boogie shuffle, the blues pattern that led directly to rock ’n’ roll, but that doesn’t really matter. Listen to a collection of his very few recordings from the 1930s and you hear an incredible range of tone, played with perfect accomplishment and feeling: the exuberant vamping of Sweet Home Chicago, the shivering bottleneck plucking of Crossroad Blues, the tender melodiousness of Come On in My Kitchen. Perhaps the defining comment on his virtuosity is from Keith Richards, who asked on first hearing Johnson, “Who’s the other guy playing with him?”

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James Medd

Published

May 2022

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