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Big Joe Williams

When it is written, the “History of Guitar in the Twentieth Century” will chronicle how guitarists developed their craft by standing on the shoulders of the pioneers that came before them. The essence of Robert Johnson permeates Eric Clapton’s music. Muddy Waters help to shape B.B. King. The early blues masters’ body of work laid a foundation for generations of guitar greats to build upon. Just as Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters shaped a new generation of artists, there were countless blues pioneers that were highly revered and inspiring to many of the contemporary guitarists we know today. None of them were more original and influential than Big Joe Williams, “The King of the 9 String Guitar”.

Big Joe Williams (Born Joseph Lee Williams-October 16, 1903) was an American Delta blues guitarist; singer and songwriter, notable for the distinctive sound of his nine-string guitar. His recording career spanned five decades and he was inducted posthumously into the Blues Hall of Fame on October 4, 1992.

Big Joe was a mountain of a man. He had a taste for pickled pigs feet, peppermint schnapps and Chesterfield cigarettes. He lived in an abandoned warehouse loft playing his hand modified guitar with cymbals taped to his knees and no laces in his shoes. Joe was the ultimate scavenger and tinkerer. He added three extra strings to his guitar by pounding nails in his headstock. He was King of the 9-string guitar.

When Big Joe played it was more than music, it was his sound, energy and his tone that moved people. Blues historian Barry Lee Pearson illustrated it best when he wrote:

“When I saw him playing at Mike Bloomfield's "blues night" at the Fickle Pickle, Williams was playing an electric nine-string guitar through a small ramshackle amp with a pie plate nailed to it and a beer can dangling against that. When he played, everything rattled but Big Joe himself.”

– Sounds good to me: The Bluesman’s Story, Virginia Piedmont Blues