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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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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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