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How Black Musicians Shaped Acoustic Guitar History

How Black Musicians Shaped Acoustic Guitar History

Graphic by Hannah Travis

There is no music history without Black History. That’s why we’re celebrating Black History Month by honoring some of the legendary artists who paved the way for acoustic guitar and shaped music as we know it today. Though this list is not nearly comprehensive, we hope it inspires appreciation for these iconic artists, introduces you to a new favorite song, and encourages you to learn more about the lasting impact of Black musicians throughout history.

Huddie "Lead Belly" Ledbetter (1888 - 1949)



Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter was a talented multi-instrumentalist from childhood, having played several instruments, including accordion, bass, harmonica, and, of course, the guitar (both 6-string and 12-string). Known for his distinctive finger-picking style, he also developed innovative tunings out of necessity in an era predating truss rods. 

Living as a wanderer, Lead Belly learned songs through oral tradition. He spent most of his life in and out of prison, and along the way, he developed his musical style combining folk, blues, and gospel. One of his more famous tunes, “Midnight Special,” was actually a traditional prison song. Other famous Lead Belly songs include “Black Betty,” “Boll Weevil,” “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” and “Goodnight, Irene.” 



Robert Johnson (1911 - 1938)



Ever thought about offering up your soul for unparalleled mastery of guitar? Well, Robert Johnson was the first to shake hands on that Faustian bargain, according to legend. That is the origin for his iconic 1936 song “Crossroads,” where he proclaimed he met the shadowy figure. The deal with the devil is not the only legend that came from Johnson’s short life; he was also the first member of the fabled “27 Club,” which includes other iconic musicians such as Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, and Amy Winehouse.

The final legend that Johnson left behind in his mysteriously short life was his discography. He recorded around 30 discrete tracks, including “Come On In My Kitchen,” “Ramblin’ On My Mind,” “Hell Hound On My Trail,” and, of course, “Cross Road Blues.” He was known as the King of Delta Blues, and Eric Clapton even labelled him as “the most important blues singer that ever lived” due to his iconic riffs, otherworldly playing, and hauntingly beautiful voice. Though his legacy is shrouded in mystery, his influence on acoustic guitar is crystal clear.



Elizabeth Cotten (1893 - 1987)



There are no rules in guitar  just ask Elizabeth Cotten, who became one of the most well-remembered folk musicians while playing her guitar completely upside-down. As a lefty, she played a standard right-handed guitar and flipped it to play comfortably without rearranging the strings. With the bass strings plucked by her fingers and the melody played with her thumb, her completely unique fingerpicking pattern became known as “Cotten Style,” which defined her popular tunes like “I’m Going Away” and “Freight Train.” 

Though Cotten began playing music by 7 years old and writing songs by 8, she gave up guitar in her teenage years to focus on her family and church. It was not until her 60s that she was rediscovered as a talented musician. She recorded the songs she had written in her childhood in her home. After the first album was released, she began playing concerts at acclaimed venues like the Newport Folk Festival, and won a Grammy in 1985 for Best Traditional Folk Recording. Cotten performed live up until the end of her life, and the last concert she played at was arranged by Odetta Holmes in 1987. 



Odetta Holmes (1930 - 2008)



Speaking of Odetta Holmes, she had a vast legacy of her own. Her music was filled with unrivalled passion, as she transformed spirituals with her unique combination of folk and jazz. Her career began in New York City nightclubs, but she quickly blazed her own trail in the world of folk. She released two solo albums in 1957, and her 1963 release,Odetta Sings Folk Songs, was one of the best-selling folk albums of that year. She influenced the likes of Maya Angelou, Janis Joplin, Joan Baez, and Bob Dylan, who credited her as the “first thing that turned [him] on to folk singing.” Her inspirational energy made her live shows unlike any other, and her recorded music could only capture a glimpse of what made Odetta such an influential artist.

While Odetta was known for her music, her impact spread beyond and into the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. One of her most iconic performances was in 1963 at the March on Washington, where she performed “O Freedom.” Though she believed her role in the movement was very small  like “one of the privates in a very big army”  Martin Luther King Jr. revered her as the Queen of American Folk Music.



Charley Pride (1934 - 2020) 


It’s impossible to imagine modern country music without the foundation of Charley Pride. Known for his warm, baritone voice and relatable storytelling, Pride captured the heart of Americana, pairing catchy chord progressions with reflections on love and loss. Born on a cotton farm in Sledge, Mississippi, Pride bought a Sears guitar for himself and learned to play by just listening to the country radio. He would eventually go on to win nearly every honor available for a country musician despite rampant racism within the industry. 

After singing to the iconic RCA Records and releasing his first single in 1965, the label first tried to obscure Pride’s race 
intentionally leaving his photos out of press materials. Even after his breakout single “Just Between You and Me” was nominated for a Grammy in 1967, radio DJs refused to play the song after learning he was Black. Music industry gatekeepers’ racism notwithstanding, Pride’s popularity continued to skyrocket. That same year, he became the first Black singer to perform at the Grand Ole Opry since DeFord Bailey in 1941, and in 1971, Pride released one of country music’s biggest hits: Kiss an Angel Good Mornin. For many years after, Pride was the best-selling act for RCA Records, second only to Elvis Presley in sales. This past November 2020, the Country Music Association presented Pride with the Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award to commemorate Pride's lasting impact on music history.



Richie Havens (1941 - 2013)



Richie Havens paved the way for the future of folk music,  introducing soul to the acoustic guitar. A Brooklyn-native, Havens started as a guitarist playing live at the Greenwich Village Folk Clubs in the mid-’60s. His unconventional open tuning and unique playing, combining intense percussive strumming with a fast-paced thumb-fretting technique, quickly made him a standout performer. In 1969, Havens left a defining mark on history as the Woodstock Music Festival opener, improvising the song “Freedom” set to the tune of the old spiritual “Motherless Child.”


Following the success of Woodstock, Havens started his own record label, Stormy Forest, and released 5 albums, including a Billboard chart-topping cover of George Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun.” In 2003, the guitarist was awarded the American Eagle Award by the National Music Council to commemorate his place in the nation’s musical heritage. Today, Haven’s music is still distinctly recognizable, and when paired with his larger-than-life performances, he encapsulates the sound and spirit of the American ‘60s.  



Linda Martell (1941 - )



“I want to sing.” Those words  spoken to her record producer, Shelby Singleton Jr. were the words that started Linda Martell’s career. Though Black contributions to music were the foundation for ‘60s country music, artists like Martell often found difficulties trying to make their way into the scene. But, with a voice that rang like a bell, a golden smile, and a manager that believed she could take on Nashville, Martell found herself off to the races.

Though she only released one album Color Me Country  her music caught fire. Her first release, “Color Him Father,” was a Top 25 country hit, and the second, “Before the Next Teardrop Falls,” hit number 33 on the Billboard charts. She also had her fair share of appearances at country staple events, including a song on the television show Hee Haw and a performance as the first Black woman at the Grand Ole Opry. Despite her success, her career was cut short due to the abuse of power she felt Singleton and the rest of the industry had over her. From her stage name to her recording rights, Martell’s career was out of her control, and so she left the industry after just one album. Though her discography is small, her imprint on music as a whole spans much wider as one of the first to tear down genre boundaries and return country music to its origins.



Labi Siffre (1945 - )



If you haven’t heard of Labi Siffre yet, we can guarantee you’ve heard his music. A British singer-songwriter, poet, and activist, Siffre’s music has been sampled by some of the biggest names in music  including Kanye West, Eminem, Dr. Dre, Miguel, and JAY-Z. Known for his lush finger-picked guitar and poeticism, Siffre released a number of albums in the 1970s before taking an almost decade-long musical hiatus. As an outspoken advocate for civil rights, Siffre’s art often directly addressed the racism, homophobia, and bigotry that he’d encountered throughout his career as a queer Black man. 


In 1985, Siffre quietly released “(Something Inside) So Strong” in protest to the South African Apartheid. The song became his biggest hit and introduced Siffre to a new generation of listeners. In recent years, Siffre has continued to gain a cult-like following thanks to his tender guitar playing and vulnerable lyricism. 



Tracy Chapman (1964 - )



One of the most iconic guitar players of all time, Tracy Chapman needs no introduction. When she burst on the scene, the 1980s were dominated by glam, synth, and electronics. Chapman’s music demonstrated the power in minimalism, pairing her ethereal guitar strumming with sparse instrumentalism. Her songwriting was fresh and exciting, driven by simple melodies and confessional lyrics that would bring a new era to the singer-songwriter genre. 


Born in Cleveland, Chapman made art out of the working class struggle, telling stories of community, feminism, family, and oppression. Her first single, “Talkin’ Bout a Revolution,'' would go on to be one of the most compelling protest songs of all time. Now, over thirty years since her 1989 self-titled debut album, Chapman’s music is still as emotionally resonant as ever. Though Chapman is notoriously private about her own life, there’s so much to uncover in her music, as like any true artist, Chapman lets her guitar do the talking. 



Yola (1983 - )



Yolanda Quartey, known professionally as Yola, is the reigning queen of country soul. Her genre-bending 2019 breakthrough album,Walk Through Fire, incorporates twang, orchestral strings, and baroque rock for a stunning debut. Her guitar playing, rhythmic and energetic, remains the center-piece of the record, letting each song take shape differently. Whether she’s drawing inspiration from the bluegrass of Appalachia, Motown-infused Detroit, or the trip-hop of her hometown in Bristol, Yola is ultimately a country artist that dares to explore all the different paths of the genre. Alongside contemporary peers like Leon Bridges, Brittany Howard, Lianne La Havas, and many more, Yola is shaping the future of guitar — and inspiring a new generation of musicians.  


Celebrating Black History Month

This list is by no means comprehensive. There are countless other Black artists— acoustic and beyond — that have revolutionized music and shaped it into what we hear today. We encourage you to delve deeper into the history of these musicians and their influence on the industry as a whole. Here are a few resources from USA Today,  Reverb,  SheShreds, and The New York Times to get started.




Give a listen to these featured artists and more on our Black History Month: Acoustic Guitar playlist.