The Original Guitar Hero-Lonnie Johnson

I don’t know when it started but I heard Lonnie Johnson’s named mentioned in a lot of books about blues, then saw his name in studies about jazz, and then pop and decided to do a deep dive on all his songs and history. After reading some biographies, mostly by Dean Alger and Jas Obrecht, I decided to create a thread on Twitter about Lonnie that I’ll repost here. Spoiler: He’s the original guitar hero and one of the first guitar soloist


Lonnie was born in New Orleans in Feb 8, 1899 to a family of musicians, and originally played violin, piano, kazoo, and harmonium before focusing mostly on guitar in the 1920s. He was influential on jazz, blues, and pop guitar.

In terms of jazz, Lonnie played with Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five on their seminal performances, Duke Ellington, Eddie Lang, and even on some tracks with King Oliver, and Hoagy Carmichael. On these tracks, Lonnie developed the vocabulary of jazz guitar licks. In “I’m Not Rough” Lonnie plays a guitar solo at the 1:30 mark I'm Not Rough - YouTube. In “Hotter Than That” his guitar scats w/ Louis Hotter Than That - YouTube. Here’s Lonnie and the Duke Duke Ellington - The Mooche - New York, 01.10. 1928 - YouTube. The Oliver/Carmichael group Blue Blood Blues - YouTube.

But the biggest influence Lonnie had on jazz guitar was the duets he recorded with Eddie Lang where mostly played the chords and rhythm while Lonnie developed the solo vocabulary. This happened 10 years before OKC’s own Charlie Christian made jazz electric guitar sing. Their most celebrated is called Have to Change Keys to Play These Blues. Eddie Lang & Lonnie Johnson - Have to Change Keys to Play These Blues - YouTube. Guitar Blues shows there was not a distinction b/w blues and jazz at this period Eddie Lang & Lonnie Johnson - Guitar Blues - YouTube. My favorite is called “Hot Fingers” Eddie Lang & Lonnie Johnson Guitar Duet - Hot Fingers - YouTube. “A Handful of Riffs” Eddie Lang & Lonnie Johnson - A Handful Of Riffs - New York, 08.05. 1929 - YouTube and “Two Tone Stomp” are great as well Eddie Lang & Lonnie Johnson - Two Tone Stomp - New York, 17.11. 1928 - YouTube. They recorded twelve sides in total. All experts agree that this was the invention of jazz guitar as we know it. W/ Eddie recording as “Blind Willie Dunn.”

In terms of blues, I love this quote from B. B. King: "“There’s only been a few guys that if I could play like them I would. T-Bone Walker was one, and Lonnie Johnson was another. I was crazy about Lonnie Johnson.” Ry Cooder, Buddy Guy, & so many others had similar quotes. Lonnie’s first blues hit for Okeh “Mr. Johnson’s Blues” Mr. Johnson's Blues (Original) - YouTube. Mr. Johnson’s Swing is quite similar Lonnie Johnson - Mr Johnson Swing - YouTube. And he’s at his best in his re-recording of Backwater Blues in 1948 on electric Lonnie Johnson - Backwater Blues - YouTube.

He also played a lot of guitar solos in this time period that were quite complex 6/88 Glide Lonnie Johnson - 6 88 Glide - YouTube. Playing w/ Strings Lonnie Johnson - Playing With The Strings - YouTube. Away Down in the Alley Blues is his masterpiece Lonnie Johnson - Away Down In The Alley Blues - YouTube. Most of his songs at this time period are in a hybrid tuning (D-G-D-G-B-E).

“Uncle Ned” is another fun variation one of an old song Uncle Ned, Don't Use Your Head - YouTube. And most blues scholars agree that Life Save Blues Life Saver Blues (1927 Version) - YouTube and Blue Ghost Blues Lonnie Johnson - Blue Ghost Blues - YouTube were influential on Robert Johnson’s “Malted Milk” Robert Johnson-Malted Milk - YouTube & “Drunken Hearted Man” ROBERT JOHNSON - Drunken Hearted Man [1937] - YouTube. In fact, Robert apparently liked to say he was related to Lonnie and that the L in his middle initial was for Lonnie. I love Robert Johnson, but Robert wanted to be Lonnie, not the other way around.

Lonnie was in music off & on until his death in 1970. When times were good he played, & when they were bad he worked odd jobs even as a janitor when he was “rediscovered” just in time for the folk boom in the 1960s. Here’s my fav of that era. Lonnie Johnson Too Late To Cry - YouTube, which I did at the last open mic, though nowhere near as well.

Finally, in terms of pop music, Lonnie’s biggest no. 1 hit is the song “Tomorrow Night” which highlights his sweet voice and fun major pentatonic licks in between lyrics Lonnie Johnson - Tomorrow Night (1947) - YouTube. Elvis loved this song so much he did his own cover Elvis Presley - Tomorrow Night - YouTube. In terms of the charts, they basically didn’t exist until 1942 and were in a period of flux until 1949. So it’s hard to know what Lonnie’s no. 1 pop songs would have been in earlier eras. His duets w/ Victoria Spivey like this one were popular as she was one of the most popular singers of her time period. What’s fun about this song, is basically was in response to Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “Black Snake Moan” Black Snake Moan - Blind Lemon Jefferson (1927) - YouTube that you can make a direct line from that to Arthur Crudup to Elvis, particularly the line “mama that’s alright, that’s alright for you.” Quick aside: yes, Elvis is doing someone else’s song, but Arthur Crudup is taking floating blues lyrics from Blind Lemon, Robert Johnson and others to “create” a new song, which happened all the time.

Lonnie and Victoria re-did some of their duets on the folk circuit in the 60s. Victoria Spivey - Black Snake Blues - 1963 - YouTube. I also love his duets with Clara Smith. This is my favorite, “What Makes You Act Like That” What Makes You Act Like That? - YouTube. He also toured with the great Bessie Smith, but they unfortunately never recorded together. What a shame. In terms of duets, Lonnie also recorded with the great Texas Alexander. My favorite is “Levee Camp Moan” Although Lonnie liked to sing what he called “sophisticated, city blues” this song shows he could raw country blues too when needed. Levee Camp Moan Blues (Remastered) - YouTube. His duet w/ Peetie Wheatstraw, “Truckin/ Through Traffic” was one of his first attempts at electric guitar. Peetie was one of the most popular singers of this time period. Truckin' Thru Traffic - YouTube.

Other fun more popular songs are “Nuts About That Gal” Lonnie Johnson - I'm Nuts About That Gal - YouTube “Carless Love” Lonnie Johnson - Careless Love (1948) - YouTube and “Jelly Roll Baker” Jelly Roll Baker - YouTube.

Three other favorites I forgot to mention are “To Do This You Got To Know How” To Do This You Got To Know How (1926) - Lonnie Johnson - YouTube, his 1960’s duet with Elmer Snowden, who also played with the Duke, called “New Orleans Blues” New Orleans Blues - Lonnie Johnson & Elmer Snowden (1960) - YouTube, and this haunting rendition of “Summertime,” which is one of his last recordings Summertime - YouTube.

An indirect HUGE influence in the pop and rock world was when Lonnie toured Europe and played with a group led by Anthony Donegan. He was a jazz musician, but getting into folk, blues, and what Brits called skiffle. He was so impressed with Lonnie. Tony changed his name. Mr. “Rock Island Line” started a movement in England 1956 HITS ARCHIVE: Rock Island Line - Lonnie Donegan - YouTube and his movement is exactly who some boys from Liverpool were trying to copy when John, Paul, and George got together way before Ringo. Here is John’s original group “The Quarrymen” doing another Donegan song “Putting on the Style” The Quarrymen Putting On The Style with Lyrics - YouTube.

I’ll end this thread with what his duet partner Victoria Spivey said about Lonnie: “He was the greatest blues guitarist man in the business—and what a beautiful blues ballad singer he was too! Everywhere I turn, I hear him in T-Bone Walker, B.B. and Albert King, Muddy and the younger fellows like Buddy Guy. And, of course, all the white kids are playing Lonnie, most of them thinking they’re being influenced by B.B. What I like about B.B. and T-Bone is that they all give Lonnie the credit for it. I say to Lonnie: Join the heavenly Gabriel as you used to play with the earthly Gabriel, Louis Armstrong.

Two other helpful links Saluting Lonnie Johnson, Original Guitar Hero : NPR and Model Citizens » Blog Archive » Jas Obrecht: Lonnie Johnson – The Most Influential Blues Guitarist Ever.


That’s a great write up, David, thanks for posting. I bookmarked it so I can come back and listen through the recordings, maybe find something I can cover at some point. :slightly_smiling_face: