The blues, like jazz, probably began to be amplified in the late 1930s. The first star of the electric blues is generally recognized as being T-Bone Walker; born in Texas but moving to Los Angeles in the mid-1930s, he combined blues with elements of swing music and jazz in a long and prolific career. After World War II, amplified blues music became popular in American cities that had seen widespread African American migration, such as Chicago, Memphis, Detroit, St. Louis, and the West Coast. The initial impulse was to be heard above the noise of lively rent parties. Playing in small venues, electric blues bands tended to remain modest in size compared with larger jazz bands. In its early stages electric blues typically used amplified electric guitars, double bass (which was progressively replaced by bass guitar), and harmonica played through a microphone and a PA system or a guitar amplifier.
By the late 1940s several Chicago-based blues artists had begun to use amplification, including John Lee Williamson and Johnny Shines. Early recordings in the new style were made in 1947 and 1948 by musicians such as Johnny Young, Floyd Jones, and Snooky Pryor. The format was perfected by Muddy Waters, who utilized various small groups that provided a strong rhythm section and powerful harmonica. His "I Can't Be Satisfied" (1948) was followed by a series of ground-breaking recordings. Chicago blues is influenced to a large extent by the Mississippi blues style, because many performers had migrated from the Mississippi region. Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon and Jimmy Reed were all born in Mississippi and moved to Chicago during the Great Migration. In addition to electric guitar, harmonica, and a rhythm section of bass and drums, some performers such as J. T. Brown who played in Elmore James's bands or J. B. Lenoir's also used saxophones, largely as a supporting instrument. Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller) and Big Walter Horton were among the best known harmonica (called "blues harp" by blues musicians) players of the early Chicago blues scene and the sound of electric instruments and harmonica is often seen as characteristic of electric Chicago blues. Muddy Waters and Elmore James were known for their innovative use of slide electric guitar. Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters were for their deep, "gravelly" voices. Bassist and composer Willie Dixon played a major role on the Chicago blues scene. He composed and wrote many standard blues songs of the period, such as "Hoochie Coochie Man", "I Just Want to Make Love to You" (both penned for Muddy Waters) and, "Wang Dang Doodle", "Spoonful" and "Back Door Man" for Howlin' Wolf. Most artists of the Chicago blues style recorded for the Chicago-based Chess Records and Checker Records labels, there were also smaller blues labels in this era including Vee-Jay Records and J.O.B. Records.
In the late 1950s, the West Side style blues emerged in Chicago with major figures including Magic Sam, Jimmy Dawkins, Magic Slim and Otis Rush. West side clubs were more accessible to white audiences, but performers were mainly black, or part of mixed combos. West side blues incorporated elements of blues rock but with a greater emphasis on standards and traditional blues song forms. Albert King, Buddy Guy, and Luther Allison had a West Side style that was dominated by amplified electric lead guitar.
Memphis, with its flourishing acoustic blues scene based in Beale Street, also developed an electric blues sound during the early 1950s. Sam Phillips' Sun Records company recorded musicians such as Howlin' Wolf (before he moved to Chicago), Willie Nix, Ike Turner, and B.B.King. Other Memphis blues musicians involved with Sun Records included Joe Hill Louis, Willie Johnson and Pat Hare who introduced electric guitar techniques such as distorted and power chords, anticipating elements of heavy metal music. These players had an influence on early rock & rollers and rockabillies, many of whom also recorded for Sun Records. After Phillips discovered Elvis Presley in 1954, the Sun label turned to the rapidly expanding white audience and started recording mostly rock 'n' roll. Booker T. & the M.G.'s carried the electric blues style into the 1960s.
Detroit-based John Lee Hooker pursued a unique brand of electric blues based on his deep rough voice accompanied by a single electric guitar. Though not directly influenced by boogie woogie, his "groovy" style is sometimes called "guitar boogie". His first hit, "Boogie Chillen", reached #1 on the R&B charts in 1949. He continued to play and record until his death in 2001.
The New Orleans blues musician Guitar Slim recorded "The Things That I Used to Do" (1953), which featured an electric guitar solo with distorted overtones and became a major R&B hit in 1954. It is regarded as one of The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll, and contributed to the development of soul music.
In the 1950s, blues had a huge influence on mainstream American popular music. While popular musicians like Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry, both recording for Chess, were influenced by the Chicago blues, their enthusiastic playing styles departed from the melancholy aspects of blues and played a major role in the development of rock and roll. Chicago blues also influenced Louisiana's zydeco music, with Clifton Chenier using blues accents. Zydeco musicians used electric solo guitar and cajun arrangements of blues standards.
British blues emerged from the skiffle and folk club scene of the late 1950s, particularly in London, which included the playing of American acoustic blues. Critical was the visit of Muddy Waters in 1958, who initially shocked British audiences by playing amplified electric blues, but who was soon performing to ecstatic crowds and rave reviews. This inspired guitarist and blues harpist Cyril Davies and guitarist Alexis Korner to plug in and they began to play a high-powered electric blues that became the model for the subgenre, forming the band Blues Incorporated. Blues Incorporated was something of a clearing house for British blues musicians in the later 1950s and early 1960s, with many joining, or sitting in on sessions. These included future Rolling Stones, Mick Jagger, Charlie Watts and Brian Jones; as well as Cream founders Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker; beside Graham Bond and Long John Baldry. Blues Incorporated were given a residency at the Marquee Club and it was from there that in 1962 they took the name of the first British Blues album, R&B from the Marquee for Decca, but split before its release. The model of British rhythm and blues was emulated by a number of bands including the Rolling Stones, the Animals, and the Yardbirds.
The other key focus for British blues was around John Mayall who moved to London in the early 1960s, eventually forming the Bluesbreakers, whose members at various times included, Jack Bruce, Aynsley Dunbar and Mick Taylor. Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton (Beano) album (1966) is considered one of the seminal British blues recordings. It was notable for its driving rhythms and Clapton's rapid blues licks with a full distorted sound derived from a Gibson Les Paul and a Marshall amp, which became something of a classic combination for British blues (and later rock) guitarists. It also made clear the primacy of the guitar, seen as a distinctive characteristic of the subgenre. Clapton left to form Cream with Baker and Bruce and his replacement was Peter Green, who in turn (with the then Bluesbreaker's rhythm section Mick Fleetwood and John McVie) left in 1967 to form Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac. By incorporating elements of rock, led these bands to a hybrid form of blues rock.
Blues rock combines blues with rock. With some notable exceptions, blues rock has largely been played by white musicians, bringing a rock sensitivity to blues standards and forms and it played a major role in widening the appeal of the blues to white American audiences. In 1963, American guitarist Lonnie Mack had developed a blues rock guitar style, releasing several guitar instrumentals, the best-known of which are the hit singles "Memphis" (Billboard #5) and "Wham!" (Billboard #24). The Paul Butterfield Blues Band and Canned Heat were among the earliest exponents and "attempted to play long, involved improvisations which were commonplace on jazz records". In the UK, blues rock was popularized by bands as Fleetwood Mac, Free, Savoy Brown and the groups formed around the three major guitarists that emerged from the Yardbirds, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page.
After leaving the Yardbirds and his work with John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers, Eric Clapton formed supergroups Cream, Blind Faith and Derek and the Dominos, followed by an solo career. In the late 1960s Jeff Beck added elements heavy rock with his band, the Jeff Beck Group. Jimmy Page formed the New Yardbirds, which became Led Zeppelin. Many of the songs on their first two albums and occasionally later in their careers, were expansions on traditional blues songs.
Janis Joplin, Johnny Winter, and The J. Geils Band later popularized the style in the US. The revolutionary electric guitar playing of Jimi Hendrix with the Experience and Band of Gypsys, influenced blues rock guitarists. Blues rock bands like Allman Brothers Band, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and eventually ZZ Top from the American South, incorporated country elements into their style to produce Southern rock.
By the 1970s, blues rock had become heavier and more riff-based, exemplified by the work of Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple, and the lines between blues rock and hard rock "were barely visible", as bands began recording rock-style albums. The genre was continued in the 1970s by figures such as George Thorogood and Pat Travers. Except perhaps for groups such as Status Quo and Foghat in the UK, who moved towards a form of high energy and repetitive boogie rock, bands moved towards heavy metal and blues rock began to slip out of the mainstream. More recently, the White Stripes, the Black Crowes, the Black Keys, Clutch, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, and Joe Bonamassa have explored a more roots oriented, but edgier style.
Texas had had a long history of major acoustic blues performers like Blind Lemon Jefferson and Lightnin' Hopkins, but by the 1940s many Texas blues artists had moved elsewhere to further their careers, including T-Bone Walker who relocated to Los Angeles to record his most influential records in the 1940s. His R&B influenced backing and saxophone imitating lead guitar sound would become an influential part of the electric blues sound. Goree Carter's "Rock Awhile" (1949) featured an over-driven electric guitar style and has been cited as a strong contender for the "first rock and roll record" title.
The state R&B recording industry was based in Houston with labels like Duke/Peacock, which in the 1950s provided a base for artists who would later pursue the electric Texas blues sound, including Johnny Copeland and Albert Collins. Freddie King, a major influence on electric blues, was born in Texas, but moved to Chicago as a teenager. His instrumental number "Hide Away" (1961), was emulated by British blues artists including Eric Clapton.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s the Texas electric blues scene began to flourish, influenced by country music and blues rock, particularly in the clubs of Austin. The diverse style often featured instruments like keyboards and horns, but placed particular emphasis on powerful lead guitar breaks. The most prominent artists to emerge in this era were the brothers Johnny and Edgar Winter, who combined traditional and southern styles. In the 1970s Jimmie formed the Fabulous Thunderbirds and in the 1980s his brother Stevie Ray Vaughan broke through to mainstream success with his virtuoso guitar playing, as did ZZ Top with their brand of Southern rock.
Since the end of the 1960s electric blues has declined in mainstream popularity, but retained a strong following in the US, Britain and elsewhere, with many musicians that began their careers as early as the 1950s continuing to record and perform, occasionally producing breakthrough stars. In the 1970s and 80s it absorbed a number of different influences, including particularly rock and soul music. Stevie Ray Vaughan was the biggest star influenced by blues rock and opened the way for guitarists like Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Jonny Lang. Practitioners of soul-influenced electric blues in the 1970s and 80s included Joe Louis Walker and most successfully Robert Cray, whose Strong Persuader album (1986), with its fluid guitar sound and an intimate vocal style, produced a major crossover hit. Veteran Linsey Alexander is known for his original Chicago blues influenced by soul, R&B, and funk.
Since her breakthrough commercial success Nick of Time in 1989 Bonnie Raitt has been one of the leading artists in acoustic and electric blues, doing much to promote the profile of older blues artists. After the renewed success of John Lee Hooker with his collaborative album The Healer (1989), several artists began to return to electric blues, including Gary Moore, beginning with Still Got the Blues (1990) and Eric Clapton with From the Cradle (1994).