12 Best Blues Albums for Beginners

If You're Just Warming up to the Blues, Check Out These Recordings

The enormous depth and breadth of blues music can prove to be somewhat daunting for a new fan. Ranging from early Chicago blues to Texas blues/rock, from British blues-rock to acoustic Piedmont blues, these are the albums that make a good start on a blues collection. If this list is a little light on Mississippi Delta blues, it’s not for lack of artistic merit – many surviving Delta blues recordings would sound harsh to ears unaccustomed to primitive recording techniques. Instead, this is a list of blues albums for beginners, those artists and recordings that introduce a newcomer to the charms of the blues.

The most popular duo to perform in the Piedmont blues style, both individually and together, guitarist Brownie McGhee and harp player Sonny Terry popularized folk blues with a young, white audience that went on to create the mid-1960s folk-rock sound. Originally released in 1958 by Moses Asch’s legendary Folkways label, "Brownie McGhee & Sonny Terry Sing" features a baker’s dozen of the Piedmont style's most inspired performances, from traditional songs like “John Henry” to original material like “Better Day” and “Dark Road."

Blues guitar legend Buddy Guy recorded for Chess Records from 1960 to 1967, but it was primarily his role as a session player – adding his talents to recordings by artists like Muddy Waters and Koko Taylor – that the Chess Brothers were interested in exploiting. While Guy never had much chart success while at Chess, this collection of 10 singles he recorded for the label during the 1960s perfectly frame Guy's gospel-tinged vocal style and scorching fretwork. Guy went on to bigger and better things, but this is where it all began.

Although it took until their fifth album, 1986’s "Tuff Enuff," before the Fabulous Thunderbirds found a modicum of mainstream commercial success, the band’s self-titled debut album (also known as "Girls Gone Wild") is a better representation of the T-Bird’s early Texas roadhouse sound. Hitting your ears like a shot from a blunderbuss, nobody could have predicted the heady mix of Jimmie Vaughan’s inspired fretwork, which combined the rawness of Albert King with the smooth-as-silk elegance of Freddie King), and frontman Kim Wilson’s soulful vocals and blistering harpwork. Along with ​Roomful of Blues, the Thunderbirds laid the groundwork for the contemporary blues band. 

Howlin' Wolf's first album, ​"Moanin' in the Moonlight," was released in 1959 and gathers singles that he cut for Chess between 1951 and '59, while his self-titled 1962 album (often known as the “Rocking Chair" album for its cover), featured songs recorded in 1961 and '62. Put together on a single CD, the songs from Wolf's first two albums represent some of the artist's finest work. Backed by the talents of songwriter and studio bass player Willie Dixon and the phenomenal six-string talents of guitarists Hubert Sumlin and Jimmy Rogers, songs like "Wang Dang Doodle," "Back Door Man," "Spoonful," and "Smokestack Lightning" have long since become blues and blues-rock standards.

The great John Lee Hooker’s discography is a minefield of ill-conceived studio albums, cheapie cash grabs, dashed-off pseudonymous recordings and “hits” collections of dubious merit. "The Legendary Modern Recordings 1948-1954" is the real deal, two dozen of Hooker’s earliest sides and the powerful performances on which much of his legacy is based. This is where you’ll find the roots of boogie in Hooker’s primitive, Delta-influenced rhythmic drone, and songs like “Boogie Chillen’,” “Crawlin’ King Snake” and “I’m in the Mood” would influence the Rolling Stones,  the Animals, Canned Heat and Bonnie Raitt (as well as dozens of fellow blues performers.

Although he initially made a name for himself with the Yardbirds, it was only when guitarist Eric Clapton defected to John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers that the British blues-rock explosion took off. Although he only made one album with Mayall, "Bluesbreakers With Eric Clapton" was more than enough to influence a generation of English youth to follow in the footsteps of “Slowhand.” Mayall allows his guitar prodigy to explore covers like Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say,” Robert Johnson’s “Ramblin’ on My Mind” and Freddie King’s “Hideaway,” while Clapton’s contributions to originals like “Double Crossing Time” bring the flavor of traditional Chicago blues to a uniquely British performance.

The first true Chicago blues album cut in the studio (others were collections of singles or recorded live) was also Junior Wells' first full-fledged album, and the young harpist pulled out all the stops to make it rock. Hard. Backed by friend and musical foil Buddy Guy (the guitarist is listed as "Friendly Chap" on the original vinyl because of contractual legalities), Wells attempted to capture the sound and feel of a performance at a West Side blues club. The general consensus is that Wells accomplished what he set out to do; the harpist returned to Delmark for the equally raucous "South Side Blues Jam" album in 1970.

Although you can’t beat Muddy Waters’ late-1950s/early-1960s Chess label recordings, this 1977 “comeback” album, produced by blues-rock guitarist Johnny Winter, might serve as a better introduction to the blues legend’s enormous talents. Fronting a top-notch band that included guitarist “Steady Rollin’” Bob Margolin, the great blues harpist James Cotton, pianist Pinetop Perkins and drummer Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, Waters roars and rocks with the energy and vigor of a bluesman half his age. For ears accustomed to a more rock ‘n’ roll-oriented style of blues, "Hard Again" provides a gateway to Waters’ albums like "Live at Newport 1960."

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Paul Butterfield Blues Band:- 'The Paul Butterfield Blues Band' (Elektra,1965)

Paul Butterfield Blues Band's The Paul Butterfield Blues Band
Photo courtesy Elektra Records

Harp wizard Paul Butterfield's racially mixed band revolutionized the Chicago blues, popularizing the music with young rock fans and introducing the talents of guitarists Michael Bloomfield and Elvin Bishop to the world. This self-titled debut mixes inspired covers of classic Little Walter, Muddy Waters and Elmore James songs ("I Got My Mojo Working," "Blues With a Feeling," "Shake Your Moneymaker") with newer material, like Nick Gravenites' "Born in Chicago," infusing each performance with Butterfield's soulful vocals and growling harp playing, incendiary guitar work and a rock-solid rhythm provided by Chicago blues veterans Jerome Arnold and Sam Lay.

In many ways, this is the one that put Delta blues on the map. Pushed into release by the legendary Columbia Records A&R man John Hammond (in spite of the label’s misgivings), this collection of Robert Johnson’s 1930s recordings provided a blueprint for 1960s blues-rock. A single-CD set includes penultimate versions of blues classics like “Terraplane Blues,” “Cross Road Blues” and “Hellhound on My Trail,” among others, while a deluxe two-disc set includes alternate versions of these essential early blues recordings. If you’re looking for just one blues record for your collection, this is the one.  

With “folk blues” all the rage during the mid-1960s, Chess Records attempted to present its hardcore blues stable of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Sonny Boy Williamson to young, white blues fans with introductory collections titled "The Real Folk Blues." In most cases, this title was somewhat deceptive, but such a description was apt for Williamson. The harmonica wizard’s music always retained its Delta flavor no matter the production, and this collection features some of the best of the artist’s late-career performances from a period that he was hanging with folks like Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page. Assisted by legends Willie Dixon, Robert Jr. Lockwood, and Otis Spann, these edgy, dark juke-joint stomps perfectly capture vintage Sonny Boy.

Blues-rock guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan’s 1983 debut came at a time when blues artists were struggling (more than usual), and the music was considered to be past its prime by all but a hardcore faithful. The popularity of "​Texas Flood"  landed it in Billboard’s Top 40 and kept the album on the charts for a year and a half. Although Vaughan went on to make better records and develop a distinctive artistic voice, "Texas Flood " is a celebration of the guitarist’s influences – a raucous, reckless record that rekindled a blues flame that still burns brightly today.

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Gordon, Reverend Keith A. "12 Best Blues Albums for Beginners." ThoughtCo, Jul. 23, 2017, thoughtco.com/blues-album-for-beginners-404316. Gordon, Reverend Keith A. (2017, July 23). 12 Best Blues Albums for Beginners. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/blues-album-for-beginners-404316 Gordon, Reverend Keith A. "12 Best Blues Albums for Beginners." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/blues-album-for-beginners-404316 (accessed December 11, 2017).