Wesman Todd Shaw started playing the guitar when he was 12 years old. He loves nothing more than to pick one up and pluck some strings.
Welcome to Texas
Texas is the second-largest state in the United States, it covers 268,596 square miles, and it has a population of roughly 29 million people. To put this into a bit of perspective, though Texas is much smaller in size than the nation of Australia, it has around 5 million more humans. Only California has a larger population than the great state of Texas within the United States.
The Lone Star State was once proudly its own republic, and you had better believe a lot of us, myself included, think of ourselves not as US citizens, but Texans, first and foremost. Just to illustrate our state pride, our state capital building is, in fact, quite a lot larger, and better looking than the US capital building in Washington D.C.
Texas is a land of grasslands, prairies, coastal lands, forests, piney woods, swamps, and deserts. We've got roughly 40% white non Hispanics, 40% Hispanics, 10% Blacks, and 10% various and sundry persons of other ethnic groups.
Texas Music and Texas Guitarists
So with all the people, landscapes, history, and Texas pride, it's easy to see why Texas is one of the nation's leading centers for musical arts. Texas is famous for Rock, Outlaw Country, Blues, Psychedelic Rock, Tejano, Conjunto, Jazz, and more still.
This article, however, is about 10 of the greatest guitarists from the great state of Texas. There are much more than 10 fantastic guitarists from my state, and there is no intention to insult anyone by omission. I am painfully omitting some individuals here in order to provide what I think of as a wider array of musical styles.
I also want to say this list has some true virtuoso guitarists, but this list not about playing virtuosity. It's about being well known for being a guitar player, and one from Texas. That said, if you've never heard of someone listed, then it is merely for you not being so familiar with the player's particular genre of music.
This list is not ranked in any way. I did, however, put a lot of thought into who should go where on the list and why.
Guitar music in the United States has forever primarily been something which originated with Black, or African American blues, and also Jazz and traditional folk music brought over by immigrants from Europe, and by this I mean Country and Bluegrass.
It could be there are some fantastic Hispanic guitarists playing in Hispanic genres of music, and I've never heard of them simply because I do not speak Spanish. If I am leaving out a great Texas Hispanic guitarist, it is only because I usually do not listen to music where I don't understand the lyrics.
1. Willie Nelson
Willie Nelson is not just one of the most famous guitarists from Texas. Willie Nelson is probably the single greatest living Texan. There is no one else currently alive who represents Texas so famously, and so well, as does Willie Hugh Nelson.
Willie was one of the primary movers in the Outlaw Country music, he is one of the greatest folk singers from Texas, and yes, he is a noteworthy guitarist too. Not only is Nelson famous as a singer, songwriter, and guitarist-his guitar is one of the single most easily recognized and iconic guitars in the history of guitars.
Willie Nelson has sold 40 million albums. He's worth $25 million dollars, and he has written well over 300 songs. Willie's career began way back in 1956, and it continues still to this day. Long may he run.
Though Willie Nelson is a famously left wing hippie cowboy sort of person, I assure you that in Texas, you will have to work to find someone who does not respect him. It seems that when the subject is Willie, people are willing to forget all about politics.
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If Texas isn't the first thing you think of when you see or hear a thing about Willie, then probably you think of Country music. Nelson has a very unique style and blends a plethora of non traditional elements into his music.
When it comes to guitars, though Willie has many, there is only ONE guitar a body thinks of, and that is his legendary Martin guitar, Trigger. The story is Nelson had a guitar, but a drunken fool stepped on the thing. It couldn't be repaired, and so a man offered Willie a Martin N-20 classical guitar at a nice price, and Willie named his famously worn out guitar after Roy Rogers' horse.
2. Charlie Christian
Charles Henry Christian was born in 1916, and he died young in 1942. Charlie could play the fire out of a guitar, and he could do so in many styles. From smooth jazz to bebop, Charlie could do it all.
I listen to Charlie Christian, and sometimes he is playing so ferociously he sounds like an amplified Django Reinhardt, and other times he plays so softly and mellow he sounds like Chuck Mangione.
I feel like the common guitar player or fan of guitar music these days doesn't know of Charlie Christian so much. I'm a middle aged guy now, and when I was young, he wasn't talked about much. It was later in life when I found out about Charlie Christian.
The thing is, this guy is one of the persons who is the most responsible for bringing the guitar from the rhythm section into being a soloing, front and center of attention instrument.
Charlie was born in Bonham, Texas; but he mostly grew up in Oklahoma, which is really just a place that used to be Texas, and probably regrets that it is not so today. Charlie's family was very poor, his father went blind in adulthood, and his family were buskers, which is to say, they would perform music and dancing on the streets, hoping to get tips or food.
Charlie would dance for people as a small child, but then he took to the guitar, and he never let loose of the thing. A man after my own heart, Charlie also loved and pursued baseball playing, but his great talent was music.
In 1939 Charlie auditioned to play with Benny Goodman, and he swiftly achieved national fame as a guitarist. Charlie contracted tuberculosis, and so he died young. He left a fantastic legacy of outstanding guitar playing, and was a massive windfall for Gibson guitars.
3. Stevie Ray Vaughan
Stevie Ray Vaughan wasn't just one of the greatest guitarist from Texas. Stevie wasn't just one of the greatest of all blues guitarists. Stevie Ray Vaughan was one of the single greatest guitarists of all time, and I mean, without reservation, of all guitarists of all genres in this world.
Stevie was born and raised in Dallas, Texas; but more specifically, he lived in Oak Cliff, which is part of Dallas. I've also lived there, and I've been to visit Stevie's grave. There's a nice statue of Stevie down in Austin, and I've seen that one too. Stevie dropped out of high school in 1972 to move to Austin, and that is where he became the musician we all remember.
Vaughan and his band, Double Trouble, played the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1982. Lots of the French were booing and jeering Stevie because of the way he dressed. They thought Vaughan was making a mockery of African American bluesmen, they didn't see they were witnessing the single most dedicated lover of electric African American blues alive.
David Bowie saw him there in France, and wanted him to play on his upcoming record, and so he did. Bowie didn't pay Stevie much, but playing for Bowie is going to help anyone's career, and so it did.
If you ever thought that Stevie literally brought the blues back into the forefront of music all by himself, you're pretty much right. He paved the way for Robert Cray's stardome, Walter Trout's long deserved recognition, and Jeff Healey's unorthodox bluesman playing as well.
After decades of alcohol and cocaine abuse, Stevie Ray Vaughan got clean, he toured with Jeff Beck, and then Eric Clapton, recorded an album with his brother and died in a helicopter crash.
Albert King and Jimi Hendrix were the two biggest influences on Stevie's playing, but he started playing guitar after being inspired by his older brother, Jimmie Vaughan. Rolling Stone magazine ranks Stevie as the 7th greatest guitarist of all time.
4. Freddie King
Freddie King was born in Gilmer, Texas. His family did move to Dallas when he was very young, and Chicago not too long afterwards, but Freddie would fuse the Texas blues with the Chicago blues, and make his own unique style.
As a young man in Chicago, Freddie would sneak out of his parent's house to go to clubs so he could hear Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Elmore James, T-Bone Walker, and all the rest of the great bluesmen who either lived there or passed through.
More than any other Black American bluesman, Freddie King's music influenced the hard rock, and the heavy metal of the white British guitarists who would take control of popular music in the late 1960s and the entire 1970s. You listen to Freddie, and you realize the only difference between his blues and hard rock music is that people don't call Freddie's music hard rock, I've no clue why.
Freddie King played guitar intuitively. His singing Gibson guitar solos mimic vocals. He played both Les Paul guitars with P-90 pickups, and then later, Gibson ES-335s.
Governor Ann Richards in 1993 declared September the 3rd as Freddie King Day. Here in Texas, we know our people create great music, and we honor them, and often. King was listed by Rolling Stone as the 15th greatest guitarist of all time. Everyone recognizes Freddie the guitarist, but his vocal style was just as influential.
5. Dimebag Darrell
Dimebag Darrell Abbott, along with his brother, Vinnie Paul, are Texas heavy metal or thrash metal legends. They formed both Pantera and Damageplan, both extreme metal bands, and for a time, every white guy I knew was in love with the music.
Myself, though I never saw Pantera live, I sure did go to the totally nude club, "The Clubhouse," the brothers owned, and I don't mean just once either. Great BBQ there, by the way.
Abbott was born in Ennis, Texas, and that is roughly 30 miles from where I sit. The boys would grow up in Arlington, home of the Texas Rangers, and now the Dallas Cowboys too.
The Abbott boys' father produced country music records, and so they had access to music and musicians, and lots of both, at all times. Vinnie would take up the drums, and younger Darrell would take up the guitar. Both boys loved Van Halen, and it is clear why, as one Van Halen brother played guitar, and the other one played drums.
At 14 years of age Darrell would win a local guitar competition, and following this, would be asked to no longer compete, but instead, to be a judge for the competition-so someone else could have a chance to win.
Pantera started out as a glam metal band, but that crap was swiftly going out of style. Think Motley Crew. That kind of music was just no longer what anyone wanted. We had all heard too much of it. Aggressive thrash metal, like what you heard from Metallica, or Megadeth was what was now cool, and Pantera hired Phil Anselmo to help them get to that place.
Well they got there. Led by Anselmo and the Abbott brothers, Pantera took Texas radio by storm. Wikipedia wants to call that music "groove metal," but it's thrash to me. Lots of heads were banged for some years, and then the band fell apart. Damageplan was the new Abbott bros band, and then one day, for no reason at all, some psycho with a gun shot Darrell Abbott while he was performing.
The man shot and killed more persons than just Dimebag, and then he too was shot and killed before even more carnage could be done.
Dimebag had wanted to record with one specific guitar owned by Eddie Van Halen. He loved Eddie Van Halen, and had idolized him. He never got to record with that guitar, but good guy Eddie Van Halen was not to blame, and Dimebag was buried with Eddie's 1979 Charvel "Bumblebee" guitar, in his casket. Rest in peace.
6. Trini Lopez
Trini Lopez was born in Dallas, Texas. That city sure has produced a lot of great musicians. His father, Trinidad Lopez, had been a singer, actor, and dancer down in Mexico. Trini formed his first band at just fifteen years of age, in Wichita Falls.
Strangely enough, Trini and his band performed in a band owned by none other than Jack Rubinstein, who went by the name of Jack Ruby-and was the man who murdered Oswald, so Oswald couldn't tell us about the cabal who had John F. Kennedy murdered.
Trini Lopez would switch record labels many times, trying to find a place where he could do the work he wanted to do. He was heard by Frank Sinatra, and Frank signed Lopez to his own record label. Success soon followed.
Besides running around with Frank Sinatra, Lopez formed a fast friendship with Pat Boone. Trini Lopez at PJ's became a number one record in thirty six countries. That's some big success. If you like old music like I do, then you will enjoy Trini at PJ's.
With his popularity rising, Gibson guitars had asked Lopez would he like to collaborate with them on some custom guitar designs. Lopez agreed, and today the Trini Lopez Gibson guitars are some of the most sought after in the world. This means they are extremely expensive, and nearly worth their weight in gold.
7. Johnny Winter
John Dawson Winter III would make his public debut as a stringed instrument man inauspiciously, as he was only ten years old, and playing ukulele for a children's show. Time did go on, however, and his professional career as a person with recorded music available for sale? That happened just five years later, and he wasn't yet old enough to drive.
Johnny seemed to have caught the same exact bug all the great United Kingdom guitarists of the "British Invasion" years had caught, and at a young age as well. So when you hear that stuff about how Americans needed to have the British to turn them on to African American blues, you will know that is not the truth, it's just one of those stories people sometimes believe. Just to illustrate this a bit more, Mike Bloomfield, also an American the same generation, would meet Johnny. The two were of like minds, and Bloomfield's friendship would lead to Winter's big break.
Mike Bloomfield was from a massively wealthy family, and was one of the very first of the "Boomer" generation musicians to earn a name for himself not for being cute, or singing so well, but because the man was a beast with a musical instrument. Mike surely saw some of that in Johnny, and had Johnny play live with him in NYC. It led to what has been said to have been the largest ever recording contract advance in history, at that time, for Johnny Winter.
Johnny would famously play at Woodstock, and like a lot of others of his generation into that whole scene, get addicted to some serious drugs, and have serious struggles for it all. Oh he'd get used by the press for all of this as well. Sometimes a person's childhood dreams do come true, and for Winter, his would when he performed with Muddy Waters.
Johnny Winter and Muddy Waters would not just perform together, but record together. Johnny Winter would also produce albums for Muddy Waters, as Waters felt Winter knew exactly how to reproduce a sound, and a vibe which he wanted to forever project. With Muddy Waters as the person who personally vouches for you, it is levels of street cred unimaginable in today's world.
Johnny and Edgar Winter were both born with albinism. You would think the surname was something they chose, but no, that is situational irony in this case. Their father was also a very enthusiastic musician, and this is almost certainly how the Winter brothers got so into music, and both became classic rock radio stars. For some strange reason, the persons at DC Comics decided to make a mockery of both Johnny and Edgar Winter. Courts would uphold the first amendment, however hard that is to believe, and allow DC Comics to continue.
Johnny Winter would continue to be an active blues singer and guitarist until the day he died. He died in a hotel room after a performance, of emphysema and pneumonia. Can you imagine the antifa generation even getting out of bed to burn a building down, when as sick as Johnny Winter was to perform his last show? No. Winter was for earning a living, and boy did he ever. We don't tend to antifa much here in Texas. In Texas we aspire to Johnny Winter.
8. Billy Gibbons
Billy Gibbons and his band, ZZ Top were so ever present on Texas radio when I was a kid that I hadn't really appreciated him so much back then. You understand, I hope, if you have tacos for dinner every single night, then tacos are not so exciting. Well, I'm a middle age guy now, and I don't really listen to radio much, but when ZZ Top is playing in my automobile in a parking lot, I feel everyone should also have the pleasure of hearing it.
Billy had got to become good friends with Jimi Hendrix as a young beardless man, and Hendrix had spoken rather loudly about how impressed he was with this Texan, who would have to work rather hard to become the rock and roll hero Hendrix knew he would be. Texans are bold people. Gibbons was in a young band opening for Hendrix. They could only play the 45 minutes they accepted pay for by playing 2 of Hendrix own songs.
You're not supposed to do that for the same reason you don't sell your own cheeseburgers outside the door of Whataburger. Gibbons says Hendrix doesn't get enough credit for turning the Stratocaster 3 way switch into the modern 5 way switch. Far be it from me to argue with William Fredrick Gibbons, but Gibbons doesn't get enough credit for being the originator of the Brown Sound.
What the heck is a Brown Sound? It's where the guitarist uses so much distortion the guitar no longer has the harsh distortion sound, but some liquid or mercurial sound which is otherwise indescribable by mere mortals, and no one but no one created this more than the Reverend Billy Gibbons.
In the 1970s Billy Gibbons and ZZ Top created some of the greatest of all classic Texas rock, and in the 1980s they finally earned all the money and acclaim they'd always deserved for their fantastic pop rock radio hits, and their far beyond famous contributions to the newfangled world of music videos. Gibbons and the Boys rock on today, as one of the single greatest living and active bands.
9. Eric Johnson
Eric Johnson's name isn't so well known. He's no superstar like Willie Nelson, but unlike Willie, Eric is one of the single most respected guitarists in the world. Johnson is a guy who takes playing the guitar to a level most would never be able to comprehend. He's an all out perfectionist, and so his musical output is low.
Myself, I learned about Eric back when he had hit instrumentals on the radio. Yes, that's right, like Joe Satriani, and very few others, Eric Johnson had radio hits which were nothing but pure guitar artistry. I would get the tablature and music from guitar magazines, look at it, and nearly cry. No way I could ever play the stuff this guy plays. Very few can.
Who do you compare Eric Johnson to? People like Eddie Van Halen, Steve Vai, persons who can play at levels you have to have the talent for, and then dedicate most of your life to it in order to compete at that level. Eric Johnson also has several models of Fender Stratocaster named after him, and not coincidentally, they are among the most sought after Strats made.
It's not uncommon for a person who can play music on the level of Eric Johnson to also be able to play many other instruments, and of course that is exactly the case here. This guy could string shoe strings across a shovel, and make music you'd never believe with the thing. Eric probably has an IQ well past 140, and probably most of his family does to.
Eric has won a lot of Grammy awards, but he's just not a guy who produces a lot of work, and it is as I said, because he is such a perfectionist. He's still alive and well, and we can all surely hope that he'll give us more genius music to enjoy while the Sun also rises.
10. Brad Davis
Brad Davis is one of the most technically astounding guitarists in the entire world. Right up there with persons like Eric Johnson, the man can burn up a fretboard. Think of how hard it is to play clearly, cleanly, and well at shred tempos, and now think about how much harder it is to do that on a steel string acoustic rocking medium gauge strings.
That's what Brad Davis does all day long. He's less well known than the rest of these guys for playing in the genres of Bluegrass, traditional Folk, and Country music. He's playing music from an underappreciated vein of thought, representing a people the entity owning mass media hates. Well, we don't need the vacuous media at all, not when we have great music calling to us from our ancestors, and that's what Davis represents.
Brad was initially the guitarist for Marty Stuart, and buddy, Marty Stuart is so good on guitar himself, it should blow your mind that he'd hire anyone at all to play guitar for his band. Earl Scruggs, Sam Bush, and Billy Bob Thornton have also called Brad's name when looking for that six string gunslinger. He is among the greatest of all living Bluegrass flatpickers, and you'd best be prepared to bloody your fingers to attempt to compete in that bullring.
Thanks for reading.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2020 Wesman Todd Shaw
Wesman Todd Shaw (author) from Kaufman, Texas on July 21, 2020:
Some folks just got wild talent, and when that is combined with intense desire, you get persons like Stevie Ray Vaughan.
Eddie Van Halen was another who never read music, but the funny thing was, he had people convinced that he could He would win piano competitions, but he was doing it all by ear and by talent. Even his teacher didn't know he wasn't reading the music at all.
Readmikenow on July 21, 2020:
Excellent article. I do have a deep admiration for Stevie Ray Vaughan. I read where he never took a guitar lesson...his older brother did but not him. He couldn't read music...he played by ear. Frustrated a lot of people when they were trying to put together sets for a performance. Enjoyed reading this.
Wesman Todd Shaw (author) from Kaufman, Texas on July 21, 2020:
@James. Thanks very much, Sir! Gibbons is a strange guitarist. He uses strings so light that Brad Davis would break them on accident, as would SRV. He's all finesse, but it sounds freaking terrific, and that's what matters.
SRV would have been the exact same beast had he chose any other style of music, or any other style of instrument. To really be successful at a thing, whatever the thing may be, one needs to be like SRV, a true disciple of said thing.
James A Watkins from Chicago on July 21, 2020:
I enjoyed the journey. Thank you for this fine article. I'd have to go with Billy Gibbons myself, with SRV a close second.
Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on July 19, 2020:
That is true but you have listed some that I even know pretty well. They are at the ver least some of the best.
Wesman Todd Shaw (author) from Kaufman, Texas on July 19, 2020:
Thanks very very much, Pamela. The problem with this kind of thing is forever that there's folks left off who could have just as easily been in. But no one can please everyone.
Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on July 19, 2020:
This is definitely a great group of guitarists and a very interesting article. I appreciate the wealth of information in this article.