From Chuck Berry to Sister Rosetta Tharpe: The guitar pioneers that founded rock 'n' roll
“Rock ‘n’ Roll may not solve your problems, but it does let you dance all over them.” – Pete Townshend
In truth, that pithy little Pete Townshend quote grasps about as much all-encompassing exactness that an entire cultural movement distilled down to seventeen words can ever wish to hold. The problematic seeding ground for rock ‘n’ roll was the plantations of old. Through the oppression of slavery, it staggered and soared as the defiant voice of liberated souls. Rock ‘n’ roll crawled out of the mire and misery of one of humanity’s great atrocities and etched itself as gilded poetry written in the margins of one of the darkest pages in history.
The early pioneers of the genre are now cast in the coals of time as the diamonds who harnessed the suffering that surrounded them, absorbed the pressures of the world’s woes and transfigured it all into music that glistened with humanities inviolable spirit. It is no surprise that given the treacherous terrain from which it rose, that this early exultation from woe would still be embalmed in a hue of blue. However, the beauty of the blues – from which the whole spectrum of modern music is spun out in a kaleidoscopic tailspin of medicinal glory to life’s mechanical grind – is that it too contains the multitudes of existence. As musician Wynton Marsalis once said, “Everything comes out in the blues. Joy, pain, struggle. Blues is affirmation with absolute elegance.”
Beyond the otherworldly exultation of rock ‘n’ roll is the rockstar’s themselves, and all the early upstarts where far more of a liberated middle-finger to the bullshit bourgeoise than any snarling strummers that came thereafter. What faced them was genuine danger and they pushed through for the great good, making their own defiant triumph ours to share in and behold.
The last factor in the journey of rock ‘n’ roll stretches beyond the nebulous field of the bowed and bloodied unconquerable soul and into the rather more obvious realm of musicianship. These forebearers simply had to play. They weren’t just mainlining a movement but making it up as they went along. They had a handful of chords and six-strings to work with, and from those humble begins, they sang the unifying rally cry of rock ‘n’ roll.
Below, we’re delving into the murky depths of history to look at a few of the greatest guitarists who helped form rock ‘n’ roll. Of course, they’re myriad more artists who braved the arrows of time and fate to make their voice heard, but sadly we can’t touch on them all. Their influence will be present regardless of the melee of music collaborative soul. Without further ado, let’s take a look at where it all began…
The pioneers who founded rock ‘n’ roll:
Robert Johnson (1911 – 1938)
“You can’t listen to a Rock ‘n’ Roll song without hearing one of Johnson’s chords.” – Keb Mo
Robert Johnson is so mysterious that even the birthdate of 1911 is purely the best guess. Whilst his mystic origins echo a shady history, it is perhaps fitting that the birth of rock ‘n’ roll is founded in the drowned depths of fate and mystery.
From humble beginnings, Johnson persevered his way to the top of the Delta Blues, with the help of the Devil at a crossroads, if you believe the tale of old. When he returned from a year in exile, practising day and night, he had an extra string to his guitar and played all seven in a way that nobody had heard before. As it is recalled in Robert Santelli in the novel A Century of the Blues, “Listening to Johnson you often swear two guitarists are playing, not one. His long fingers reached for notes other guitarists can only dream of, while his penchant for slide guitar and walking bass riffs gave his style a remarkably rich language of notes, tones and sounds.”
Aside from his playing style, it is also his Promethean Rockstar-like ways that catapult him beyond his peers in the eyes of many. He was a sauntering bluesman who truly couldn’t give one God damn. The origins of that attitude may be rooted in tragedy, but along with his chords, it has been propagated in rock ‘n’ roll forevermore.
Lightnin’ Hopkins (1912 – 1982)
“People have learned how to strum a guitar, but they don’t have the soul. They don’t feel it from the heart. It hurts me. I’m killing myself to tell them how it is.” – Lightnin’ Hopkins
Staying with the idea of a rock ‘n’ roll attitude is perhaps the best place to start with Hopkins. He might not have been the crispest blues there is, but he helped to sow the seeds of rock ‘n’ roll with his carefree attitude, rambling ways, and readiness to cast the ripe fruits of his soul. He careened through Texas with a guitar under his arm, in an equanimous musical stroll.
When we think of musical pioneers, we may well think of virtuosos of unparalleled skill and originality. However, rock ‘n’ roll, by its very nature, didn’t reinvent any wheels. No, it simply took what was already there and ran with it. Nobody in early blues and roots music embodied this notion quite as much as Hopkins.
He was a star who blended the influences of blues, folk and other roots music into the simple expression of his soul. Just as clarinet sales in the ’70s may have spiked because of Bowie, part of the power of music is encouraging others to join you and enter the fold; Hopkins playing may not have been as revolutionary as Robert Johnson’s, but when it comes to those he inspired it’s hard to deny the influence he holds.
Muddy Waters (1913 – 1983)
“The blues had a baby and they called it Rock and Roll.” – Muddy Waters
In many peoples books, the birth of rock ‘n’ roll stems from Robert Johnson’s record leaving the delta and ending up with Muddy Waters, who turned it into rock ‘n’ roll. He was playing in the blues bars of Chicago’s South Side and assembled what many consider the first rock band, as Hunter S. Thompson might describe it, “One of God’s own prototypes. A high-powered mutant never considered for mass production. Too weird to live, and too rare to die.”
The only area in which Muddy Waters defies that quote is that the high-powered blues he created, like some bowl-cut Dr Frankenstein, was not only considered for mass production – it’s still being cloned into new moulds.
The crowds that Muddy played, too, were often so raucous that he found himself drowned out in a melee of Friday night noise. His answer was to go electric, start simply shouting and get a bunch of guys to help the racket get louder. In short, without even going into the musicology, that’s pretty much the invention of rock ‘n’ roll as we know it.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe (1915 – 1973)
“My whole career has been one long Sister Rosetta Tharpe impersonation.” – Chuck Berry
Before Patti Smith became the Godmother of Punk, there was first the Godmother of rock and roll. This Godmother dabbled in the soul of gospel, danced into R&B, threw in the off-kilter rhythms of swing, tossed it all together with an almost careless amount of no-fucks, and just about spawned the stylings of guitar rock ‘n’ roll.
Her fast hammer-clawed guitar plucking may well be her most obvious gift to the inception of rock ‘n’ roll, but once more, it is the attitude with which she propagated her Promethean guitar playing that helped it conquer the world. She left her gospel troupe behind to go off travelling on her own, she was pretty much openly bi-sexual in a pre-secularised world, and she shredded the guitar as nobody had before while dancing in heels – how’s that for a rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle.
“Can’t no man play like me,” was her motto as she entreated the lord to watch her play as she stared heavenward during blistering solo’s, very much the first of their kind. But perhaps the most prophetic move in her playing style was to enlist The Jordanaires as her backing singers. The notion of white male musicians being the ‘backing’ singers for a black female was incredulous, and it was this poignant show of liberty and union that brought her to the attention of a man who would be king, a young Elvis Presley. Whether it be her hammering style or her attitude of liberty and the power of her soul, she is a sister who formed rock ‘n’ roll.
Chuck Berry (1926 – 2017)
“If you tried to give rock ‘n’ roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry’.” – John Lennon
Chuck Berry seemed to see where rock ‘n’ roll was headed in a prophetic sense. He steered the raw product that he met with and polished off the hue of raw material without losing any of the visceral miasmas that first gave the blues soul.
It is this polishing that Roy Orbison spoke of when he said, “Well, Chuck Berry is the first singer-songwriter I know of.” And this notion of turning blues into the eponymous epitome of rock ‘n’ roll was elucidated further by Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones, “To me, Chuck Berry always was the epitome of rhythm and blues playing, rock and roll playing. It was beautiful, effortless, and his timing was perfection. He is rhythm supreme. He plays that lovely double-string stuff, which I got down a long time ago, but I’m still getting the hang of. Later I realised why he played that way–because of the sheer physical size of the guy. I mean, he makes one of those big Gibsons look like a ukulele!”
His gargantuan on-stage presence permeates onto his records, and his subtle honing of Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s guitar playing into something a little bit more poppy was the palatable twist of lime that rock ‘n’ roll needed to catapult it into the celestial realm. Far from an arbitrary nod on the anniversary of his death, Chuck Berry and Little Richard are the two guitarists who’s numen presence is still most notable in modern music. Chuck Berry was a music luminary ahead of his time, who still sometimes sounds like the future.
Link Wray (1929 – 2005)
“Link Wray and Gene Vincent… two of the great unknowns of rock ‘n’ roll.” – John Lennon
While the aforementioned Little Richard and a multitude of others may have not made this list, there is a call to champion the lesser-knowns in the music world who stole the thunder from the God’s without many noticing, bar the peers that they inspired and the scene that they helped shape.
Link Wray is one of rock ‘n’ roll guitars most influential players whose seismic impact is sadly not matched by public opinion. His song ‘Rumble,’ released in 1958, swallowed up the sauntering journey of rock ‘n’ roll and spat it out at a furious pace on a new path that lay ahead. In the process, he helped inspire Jimi Hendrix, Iggy Pop and basically everyone else who took up rock ‘n’ roll.
To all the above and the millions of others who have helped shape the world great cultural boon, we thank you. In the words of Link Wray, “God is playing my guitar, I am with God when I play,” in that case, I suppose, thank God for rock ‘n’ roll.