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How 10 Guitar Gods Got Started

Chuck Berry, Jimi Hendrix and more all had humble beginnings

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Berry was married with a kid and held a succession of joe jobs before his gigs playing the blues in local St. Louis bands turned into anything more than a hobby. Credit pianist Johnnie Johnson for the push: Berry started playing with Johnson's trio in 1953 after the group's regular guitarist fell ill. Thanks to Berry's knack for showmanship and his fast-improving guitar skills, the sideman soon became the bandleader, and signed to Chess Records in 1955. That's Johnson playing piano on Berry's first single, "Maybellene," which topped the R&B chart the same year.

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Joe Bonamassa

There was no escaping the guitar for Bonamassa: his parents owned a guitar store and he started playing when he was just four. A brief mentorship at age 11 with the ace player Danny Gatton set Bonamassa on his current path, which included a stint in the blues-rock band Bloodline with the sons of Miles Davis, Robby Krieger and Berry Oakley in the Nineties before he launched a long-running solo career with his 2000 release A New Day Yesterday.

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Eric Clapton

Before Clapton became a God, he was a just 13-year-old with a beater guitar that was so hard to play he put it aside for awhile. Yet the instrument proved irresistible, and when Clapton resumed playing at 15, he taped himself on a reel-to-reel recorder as he played along to blues records. It worked: Clapton was just 18 when he joined the Yardbirds in 1963, launching one of the most storied careers in popular music, with a dazzling array of collaborations and a spectacular tally of albums sold.

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Dan Auerbach

Although Auerbach grew up listening to his parents' vintage blues LPs, the future Black Keys singer didn't get serious about music until college – specifically, when he dropped out to focus on playing guitar after falling under the rough-edged spell of Mississippi bluesman Junior Kimbrough. Though the Keys forged their own bluesy rock & roll sound, Auerbach's fascination with Kimbrough resurfaced on the duo's 2006 EP Chulahoma: The Songs of Junior Kimbrough.

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Pete Townshend

Though his father played saxophone in England's Royal Air Force band, American rock & roll, particularly Bill Haley and the Comets, exerted the most influence on young Pete Townshend. He first saw the 1956 movie Rock Around the Clock when he was 11 – and watched it over and over again until his grandmother bought Townshend his first guitar. Soon enough, he was playing in bands with John Entwistle, and it wasn't long before they joined forces with singer Roger Daltrey, and later drummer Keith Moon.

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John Mayer

After giving the Berklee College of Music a try for two semesters, Mayer moved to Atlanta to play with a friend in the duo LoFi Masters. When the band broke up, Mayer self-released a solo EP Inside Wants Out, which launched his upward trajectory: the track list included "No Such Thing" – the song became the singer and guitarist's first hit when he included it on his debut LP, Room for Squares, peaking at Number 13 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart – and led in short course to a record deal with Columbia.

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Jimi Hendrix

Although Hendrix started playing professionally as a teen and spent years cutting his teeth as a hired guitarist backing the likes of Wilson Pickett, Sam Cooke and Little Richard, it wasn't until he moved to London in 1966 that he truly came into his own. Manager Chas Chandler enlisted Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell to play with Hendrix in a trio that broke through when they performed a club gig for an audience that included members of the Beatles, Rolling Stones, the Who and Eric Clapton. Six months later, Hendrix released Are You Experienced, the first of just four albums he'd released before his death in 1970.

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Gary Clark, Jr.

Clark was just a teenager playing small gigs when he met Phil Antone, the proprietor of Austin's venerable club Antone's. Impressed by Clark's chops, Antone introduced him to Jimmie Vaughan and put him onstage with the likes of James Cotton and Hubert Sumlin. It wasn't long before Eric Clapton came calling, who invited Clark to play his Crossroads Guitar Festival in 2010 and later brought the up-and-comer along to open his Brazilian tour in 2011.

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