Electric Blues is a style of the blues music distinguished by the amplification of the guitar, bass guitar, drums, and often the harmonica. Pioneered in the 1930s, it emerged as a genre in Chicago in the 1940s. It was taken up in many areas of America leading to the development of regional subgenres such as electric Detroit Blues and Texas Blues. It was adopted in the British blues boom of the 1960s, leading to the development of blues rock. It was a foundation of rock music. It continues to be a major style of blues music and has enjoyed a revival in popularity since the 1990s.
The first star of the electric blues is generally recognized as being T-Bone Walker, born in Texas, but moving to Los Angeles to record in the early 1940s, he combined blues with elements of R&B and jazz. After World War II amplified blues music became popular in American cities that had seen widespread African American migration, such as Detroit, Memphis, St. Louis, and Chicago. The initial impulse was to be heard above the noise of lively Rent Parties. Playing in small venues electric blues bands tended to remain modest in size compared with larger jazz bands providing the template for blues and later rock groups. In its early stages electric blues typically used amplified electric guitars, double bass, drums, and a harmonica played through a microphone and a PA system or a guitar amplifier.
The format was perfected by Muddy Waters who utilized various small groups that provided a strong rhythm section and powerful harmonica. His “I Can’t Be Satisfied” (1948) was followed by a series of ground breaking recordings. Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon and Jimmy Reed were all born in Mississippi and moved to Chicago during the Great Migration. Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller) and Big Walter Horton were among the best known harp players of the early Chicago blues scene and the sound of electric instruments and harmonica is often seen as characteristic of electric Chicago blues.
In the late 1950s the West Side style blues emerged in Chicago with major figures including Magic Sam, Jimmy Dawkins, Magic Slim and Otis Rush. West side clubs were more accessible to white audiences, but performers were mainly black or part of mixed combos. West side blues incorporated elements of blues rock but with a greater emphasis on standards and traditional blues song forms. Albert King, Buddy Guy, and Luther Allison had a West Side style that was dominated by amplified electric lead guitar.
Memphis with its flourishing acoustic blues scene based in Beale Street, also developed an electric blues sound during the early 1950s. Sam Phillips’ Sun Records company recorded musicians such as Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Nix, Ike Turner, and B.B.King. Other Memphis blues musicians involved with Sun Records included Joe Hill Louis, Willie Johnson and Pat Hare who introduced electric guitar techniques such as distorted and power chords, anticipating elements of heavy metal music. These players had a strong influence on later musicians in these styles, notably the early rock & rollers and rockabillies, many of whom also recorded for Sun Records. After Phillips discovered Elvis Presley in 1954, the Sun label turned to the rapidly expanding white audience and started recording mostly rock ‘n’ roll. Booker T. & the M.G.’s carried the electric blues style into the 1960s.
Detroit based John Lee Hooker pursued a unique brand of electric blues based on his deep rough voice accompanied by a single electric guitar. John Lee Hooker created his own blues style and renewed it several times during his long career. Though not directly influenced by boogie woogie, his “groovy” style is sometimes called “guitar boogie”. His first hit, “Boogie Chillen”, reached #1 on the R&B charts in 1949. He continued to play and record until his death in 2001.
The New Orleans blues musician Guitar Slim recorded “The Things That I Used to Do” (1953), which featured an electric guitar solo with distorted overtones and became a major R&B hit in 1954. It is regarded as one of The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll and contributed to the development of soul music.