Lightning Red and his series on the origins of the modern electric
Part Two: The Beginnings of the Chicago Sound
and the techniques and hardware used by the legends to get their
Many young players have asked me how I'm able to reproduce or generally
simulate the sounds of such blues guitar legends as B.B.King
Albert King, Freddie King, Albert Collins, John Lee Hooker
or Stevie Ray Vaughan.
As I've learned by watching and listening to these and countless
other great blues guitarists, I may be able to shed some light on a few of
the mysteries surrounding the execution of this uniquely American art form.
Since I am most knowledgeable of modern electric guitar, this will be our
primary focus. Future topics will cover modern player techniques, axes
and equipment, blues tunings, string gauges, fingering techniques, string
bending, new amplifier combinations, and whatever topics that may be of
I welcome any input, suggestions, comments, etc. If you note an inaccuracy
in anything you read, please let me know. All of us are continually learning.
Contents © 1997 Lightning Red
Those who I would call the founders of the Chicago or Texas ensemble
style electric or modern blues guitar each had a more-or-less favorite
brand of guitar that they preferred. Each guitarist, no matter what
instrument they chose for a particular recording session or performance,
had a distinctive sound.
In some cases their unique audio imprint was due to the guitar/amplifier
combination used, while in other instances the playing style was sufficient
to determine their unique sound. Although I'm certainly not an expert on
these matters, perhaps I can assist the beginning or intermediate-level
blues guitarist to capture the sounds that form the foundation of modern
Muddy Waters and the Fender Sound:
I believe it's now time to introduce the Fender solid-body line of guitars.
When Muddy Waters (McKinley Morganfield) began his stint as king of the
Southside Chicago blues scene, he hadn't yet discovered the Fender Telecaster
guitar. An early publicity shot shows a Gibson Les Paul solid-body guitar
very similar to Freddie King's hanging in front of him. But it was not very
long before he nearly exclusively worked his slide (something else we'll
investigate at a later time) up and down the neck of his beloved Telecasters.
The Telecaster was the first successful line of guitars that Leo Fender
marketed (the prototype being the Broadcaster, which is usually impractical
for performing because of it's tendency to excessively feedback and squeal).
It is basically a slab of wood and sports two single-coil pickups, the one
toward the bridge having a very high-pitched, "slicing" quality that many
players have taken full advantage of, especially Albert "The Iceman" Collins
and Roy Buchanan. Single coil pickups have a more biting, immediate sound
than do the "fatter" mid-ranged double-coil Humbuckers.
Muddy was a slide player extraordinaire. He would use a bottle-neck on his
little finger and play electrifying runs and melodies sometimes on only one
string. His licks often coincided perfectly with his vocals and he liked
to quickly switch from the "treble," bridge pickup to the "mellow" one
located near the end of the fretboard. The Telecaster sports only one volume
and one tone control which effect both pickups equally, and many players
revere it for its simplicity.
Muddy found out early that the hollow-bodied guitars, which have holes
cut out off the front of the body, "f-holes," would feedback through the
amplifier when he tried to play over the noisy crowds in the Southside blues
clubs of Chicago. So he moved to solid-bodies, and experimented with Les
Pauls and maybe other types before settling on the Telecaster. Now he could
crank up the amp loud enough to be easily heard. And throughout his career he
used that volume intensity when it was needed.
I've heard him play very softly in a high school gymnasium when the horrible
acoustics would have been a nightmare at higher volume. Many times he
would crank that Fender amplifier until his slide screamed and my hair would
stand on end. And it's usually a sure bet that when the "bright," treble
pickup is blasted through a Fender amplifier, the sound will slice right
through you. But Muddy Waters also knew how to use the mellower "neck" pickup
to its full advantage. He could get a very deep delta-like moan that was
straight from Mississippi.
In his early days Muddy was the "Man" on the Chicago Southside. As he
matured, he took his place as the Father of modern Chicago blues and became
a legend throughout the world. He also created the standard blues band
ensemble, drums, bass guitar, piano, blues harp (harmonica) and guitars. His
easy loping rhythm and frantic moanful slide work have inspired blues
guitarists everywhere. I strongly suggest you spend some time with his
early Chess recordings and his better later work. It may seem challenging
at first listen, but a few attempts to reproduce his sound will quickly prove
Buddy Guy and Luther Allison: The Later Disciples (PHOTO)
Buddy Guy and Luther Allison, disciples of Muddy's, were the next performers
I saw using Fender guitars, but they had discovered the more "sexy"
streamlined Stratocaster. In those days a Strat could be had for $225
dollars. It was dwarfed in price by the company's Jaguar and Jazzmaster
models. (I traded my first guitar, a Sears and Roebuck fiberglass body and
metal-neck Dan Electro for a gorgeous sunburst Jazzmaster and quickly had the
bridge pickup sent to Nashville and over-wound to sound more like a
Telecaster.) Although both of them preferred to play their Gibson slim-line
hollow-bodied 335's, Luther told me he played the Stratocaster because the
audience liked it.
Buddy and Luther were like brothers. To me they looked and sounded extremely
alike. Buddy was playing his Strat exclusively early on. It was even used
when he was a session player at Chess Records in the early sixties. Luther
always rehearsed with his beloved Gibson and played it as much as he felt the
crowd would allow. Even today you can occasionally see a Gibson hanging from
his neck, and although me plays a myriad of different axes, you seldom see
him burdened with a Fender Stratocaster. I am extremely happy for Luther
Allison's recent success. He is a fine father and a great person.
Buddy Guy on the other hand has a Fender Stratocaster line of guitars made in
his honor. Although he prefers the dotted black and white one with the
standard single-coil pickups, he is often seen playing the hell out of his
custom-made cream model with the red pickguard and Fender Lace Sensor
pickups. We will talk more in-depth about pickups in upcoming articles, but I
just want to note that the highly overdriven sound he gets when playing
furious lead lines suggests he's using the hotter versions of the Fender Lace
Sensors. Maybe a red at the bridge and possibly middle position, and a
blue in the middle and/or neck position.
The traditional single-coil pickup Stratocaster has three pickups: One near
the bridge, one near the end of the fretboard, and one in the middle. The
older models have a switch that allows you to choose one of these three
pickups. Newer models allow five choices, bridge pickup, bridge and middle
pickups, middle pickup, middle and neck (end of fretboard) pickups, and neck
In the older models one can get the five choices mentioned by gingerly
placing the pickup selector switch between two of its three normal
positions. Doing this correctly allows two pickups to be used simultaneously.
The sound produced in this way causes the pickups to be out of phase (more
on this later) and a thinner, more tinny sound is produced. A lot of C&W
players used to do this.
As I recall Buddy Guy has said he preferred the sound he got when using the
neck and middle pickups simultaneously. If you listen to early records with
Jr. Wells, I think you'll hear it, especially when he strums some chords.
Remember the song "Shaft"? I believe the Chicago Soul sound utilized a
Fender Strat in this way. It has a truly funky sound and I like to use it on
"Snatch It Back And Hold It" in live performance and in a lot of rhythm
guitar tracks in the studio. And listen to Buddy's first Silvertone Records
release. I think you'll hear it there as well.
Well, we've moved from hollow body electrics to solid-body Fenders. Please
check out my next article for information on many more great guitar players
and the techniques and guitars they love.
Best Blues to ya',
Back To Top
Lightning Red has been playing blues guitar for over 40 years.
Although he credits Luther Allison with showing him some "serious licks", he also cites B.B.King and
Buddy Guy as major influences. After moving from the Chicago area to Austin, Texas in the mid-seventies,
Red began absorbing the state's rich blues heritage and was a favorite of Houston legends Joe ‘Guitar’
Hughes and Milton Hopkins. When Jimmie Lee, Kim Wilson and Stevie Ray Vaughan were unknown club
performers honing their craft, Red was there listening closely and witnessed their rocky rise to stardom.
He also performed locally and played on stage with W.C. Clark, Omar, and "little" Charlie Sexton,
Marcia Ball, Willie Nelson and a host of legends. His music has an original sound and is a blend
of Chicago and Texas – Texicago blues. Red tours the world with the acclaimed acoustic
duo LZ Love & Lightning Red, and with his own electric band. Often seen performing at blues festivals,
he gets accolades and widespread airplay for his songs and legendary guitar skills.
Continue to Next Article
Back To Index of Articles