ERIC JOHNSON The acclaimed Austinite rose to prominence with the Grammy-winning instrumental “Cliffs of Dover,” on which his ’54 Strat and ’60s 335 sing like a violin. Eschewing the image of “Texas guitarslinger,” he’s adept at blues but can readily render sounds influenced by Wes Montgomery, Jerry Reed, or Lenny Breau. Introspective and mild-mannered, he cares deeply about every facet of his music, and his impact is today reflected in the work of a generation of players including Eric Gales and Joe Bonamassa.
Danny Gatton His uncategorizable playing style meshed country, rockabilly, and jazz. Dubbed “The Humbler,” he honed his chops in clubs in his hometown Washington, D.C. area (including in his own Redneck Jazz Explosion band, where he traded licks with steel-guitar legend Buddy Emmons) before being noticed by bigger names in the business including Les Paul and Eric Clapton. In 1990, he was nominated for a Grammy for Best Rock Instrumental Performance for the song “Elmira Street Boogie.”
Allan Holdsworth Emerging in the late ’70s, his genius was revealed via stints in Tempest, then deepened in the bands Bruford and U.K. In the early ’80s, he launched a solo career and created his own improvisational language exhibited on a series of albums that became the stuff of fusion legend and proved hugely influtential on players including Eddie Van Halen, Frank Zappa, and Rush’s Alex Lifeson. An artist to a fault, Holdsworth was sensitive and savagely critical of his own work despite the fact he existed within his own creative universe and cared little about commercial success.
Rory Gallagher Grounded in the blues but informed by jazz, the Irish-born guitar hero was accomplished on acoustic, electric, and slide guitar as well as mandolin (along with a handful of non-stringed instruments). His very worn trademark late-’50s Strat was plugged into a vintage Fender, Vox, or occasional Marshall, with nothing but a cord connecting them. Renowned for their authenticity, his albums have sold in quantities numbering 30 million.
Freddie King The Blues Hall of Fame and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee is a Texas native who spent a few formative years in Chicago. Eventually favoring a Les Paul and ES-345, he recorded blues tunes that had immeasurable impact on a generation that included Eric Clapton. Skipping the blues revival wave of the late ’60s/early ’70s like peers B.B. and Albert King, his renowned instrumentals reached the ears of a young, white audience alongside those of the Ventures and Fireballs. He even scored a hit with “Hide Away,” which made the Billboard Top 40 in 1961.
Albert King A singular influence on generations of players including Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimi Hendrix, and Eric Clapton, King was born on a plantation in Mississippi and grew up immersed in gospel. He made a guitar from a cigar box, piece of a bush, and strand of broom wire before buying one for $1.25. Being left-handed, he learned by playing a righty guitar upside-down and used his fingers and thumb to pluck strings. Signing with Stax in 1965, he recorded a string of hits beginning with “Laundromat Blues,” “Crosscut Saw,” “Born Under a Bad Sign,” and others featuring his widely imitated guitar work on his famed Gibson Flying V. He’s in the Blues Hall of Fame, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and Memphis Music Hall of Fame.
Jerry Garcia He grew up in the San Fransico Bay area hearing country rock, blues, and R&B thanks to his older brother. After playing piano as a child, he took up banjo then, in high school, grabbed a guitar as he became increasingly interested in blues. Heavily influenced by Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley, he began performing at local clubs. In ’65, he formed the Grateful Dead, where he played a variety of instruments including guitar and pedal-steel during long, improvisational jams. He was inducted to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1994.
Joe Pass Given his first guitar at age nine, he taught himself to play and by 14 was performing with bands in Pennsylvania. After high school, he traveled with jazz groups and moved to New York City. Heroin addiction set him back a decade, but he cleaned up and in the early ’60s recorded a series of albums that led to tours, TV and recording sessions, solo recordings, and work in the Grammy-winning The Trio. With the Pablo label, Pass’ lightning-quick chordal work and solos dressed albums by Benny Carter, Milt Jackson, Herb Ellis, Zoot Sims, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie, and six albums with Ella Fitzgerald.