100 Greatest Guitarists: David Fricke's Picks

From Jerry Garcia and Joan Jett to B.B. King and Jimi Hendrix, Rolling Stone critic chooses the best and most influential guitarists in rock

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Robert Johnson
Courtesy of the Robert Johnson Estate5/100

5. Robert Johnson

Johnson is the undisputed king of the Mississippi Delta blues singers and one of the most original and influential voices in American music. He was a virtuoso player whose spiritual descendants include Eric Clapton, Keith Richards and Jack White. Johnson's recorded legacy — a mere twenty-nine songs cut in 1936 and '37 — is the foundation of all modern blues and rock. He either wrote or adapted from traditional sources many of the most popular blues songs of all time, including "Cross Road Blues," "Sweet Home Chicago" and "I Believe I'll Dust My Broom." Johnson, the illegitimate son of a Mississippi sharecropper, poured every ounce of his own poverty, wandering and womanizing into his work — documenting black life in the Deep South beneath the long shadow of slavery with haunted intensity. "It was almost as if he felt things so acutely he found it almost unbearable," Clapton said of Johnson's music. Legend has it that Johnson made a deal with the devil to acquire his guitar gifts. There was certainly a lot of daredevilry in his flouting of standard tempos and harmonics; his records are breathtaking displays of melodic development and acute brawn. Johnson died in 1938 at twenty-seven, poisoned by a jealous husband. Fifty-eight years later, a box set of his recordings was certified platinum. "Hell Hound on My Trail," Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings (1990)

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