Take Five: Lead Guitarists from John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers

Celebrating his 90th birthday this past November 29, John Mayall is the grand old man of British Blues. While Cyril Davies, Alexis Korner and select others deserve credit for launching a British Isles version of American blues, it was Mayall who put together the first and perhaps greatest group in the style, the Bluesbreakers. Mayall’s band would go on to feature some of the biggest names in British blues (and rock, for that matter), and spawned many celebrated spinoff groups like Fleetwood Mac, Mark-Almond and others.

Over the course of the Bluesbreakers run (1963 to present day, with gaps), the band has gone through myriad lineup changes, with some two dozen musicians occupying the lead guitarist slot. (These days it’s Carolyn Wonderland.) And while every single one of them has been superb, it would be those ‘60s guitarists who became the stuff of legend. Here’s a look at five key Bluesbreakers tracks, each featuring a notable lead guitarist.

Roger Dean – “Crawling Up a Hill” from John Mayall Plays John Mayall (1963)
Often overlooked due to the succession of high profile guitarists who followed him, Roger Dean (not the album cover artist) was a key part of the early Bluesbreakers lineup. The group’s first release was a document of their live set, captured onstage at hip venue Klooks Kleek. “Crawling Up a Hill” swings, and showcases the Bluesbreakers’ formula of combining blues textures with delivery that got hips shaking in the clubs.

Eric Clapton – “Steppin’ Out” from Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton (1966)
It was on the group’s second album (often referred to as the “Beano” LP) that the Bluesbreakers truly entered the popular consciousness. With the addition of 21-year-old guitarist and blues purist Eric Clapton, the band dug into its repertoire of classic blues covers. The 12-song record featured no less than seven covers; chief among them was a fiery instrumental reading of Memphis Slim’s “Steppin’ Out.” With due respect to his subsequent work, much of Clapton’s reputation as a guitarist is based upon his work on this LP.

Peter Green – “The Stumble” from A Hard Road (1967)
When Clapton departed for the Yardbirds, his place in the Bluesbreakers was taken by Peter Green (neé Greenbaum). Setting aside Clapton’s towering reputation and focusing instead upon the music has led many listeners to conclude that Green was an even better player than “Slowhand.” In any event, Green’s sinewy and assured guitar work on cuts like Freddie King’s “The Stumble” is thrilling. Elsewhere on A Hard Road, 20-year-old Green revealed himself as a fine composer and vocalist; he’d eventually leave the Bluesbreakers to form his own group, Fleetwood Mac.

Mick Taylor – “Driving Sideways” from Crusade (1967)
The Bluesbreakers was always a revolving-door affair, so when Green left (taking John McVie and Mick Fleetwood with him), Mayall recruited another superb player in 18-year-old Mick Taylor. Taylor is showcased on another Freddie King number, “Driving Sideways.” Taylor would have a longer tenure with the group than did his predecessors; he played lead guitar on four Bluesbreakers LPs before decamping to replace Brian Jones in the Rolling Stones.

Harvey Mandel – “Room to Move” from The Turning Point (1969)
Technically a Mayall solo album – the Bluesbreakers had temporarily disbanded – The Turning Point was aptly named, as it featured a primarily acoustic, drummerless sound. The radical departure from electric blues proved a winning formula: an original tune, “Room to Move” would become one of the most well-known tracks in Mayall’s catalog. Fresh from a stint with Canned Heat, American guitarist Mandel plays on the album and would stay with Mayall for a few releases.