Les David­son ex­plores the play­ing style of Howlin’ Wolf’s main man and the gui­tarist who laid down the tem­plate for elec­tric Chicago blues.

Guitar Techniques - - CONTENTS -

Les David­son looks at the style of Muddy Wa­ters and Howlin’ Wolf gui­tarist, Hu­bert Sum­lin.

Best known for his many years spent back­ing Howlin' Wolf, Hu­bert Sum­lin en­joyed a long and il­lus­tri­ous ca­reer in The Wolf Pack un­til his death in 2011. His con­tri­bu­tion to the de­vel­op­ment of early elec­tric blues gui­tar and singing style is hugely sig­nif­i­cant and has be­come a tem­plate for the style known as Chicago elec­tric blues.

Born in Green­wood Mis­sis­sippi in 1931, Hu­bert was raised in Hughes, Arkansas pick­ing up his first gui­tar at the age of eight. While his ear­li­est in­flu­ences are un­known, Howlin Wolf was cer­tainly a child­hood hero and he first met him af­ter sneak­ing into a show when he was still a young kid.

In 1953, Howlin’ Wolf de­cided to re­lo­cate from Arkansas to Chicago where the work was. His then gui­tarist Wil­lie John­son de­clined the of­fer to join Wolf, so in 1954 Sum­lin was in­vited to join the band as se­cond gui­tar to Jody Wil­liams, whom Wolf had hired on mov­ing to Chicago. In 1955 Wil­liams left the band and Hu­bert stepped up to be­come the main gui­tarist and he re­mained there for the rest of Wolf's ca­reer. Along­side his loy­alty to the Wolf, Sum­lin also played briefly with the other great blues gi­ant of the pe­riod Muddy Wa­ters. Sum­lin said that Howlin Wolf was like a father to him and, af­ter Wolf's death in 1976, Hu­bert and other band mem­bers con­tin­ued to work un­der the name of The Wolf Pack un­til 1980.

Sum­lin started to record as him­self from 1964 up un­til his last solo record (About Them Shoes, 2005). The al­bum boasted guest ap­pear­ances from a glit­ter­ing ar­ray of hon­oured friends in­clud­ing Keith Richards, Eric Clap­ton and Levon Helm. Hu­bert’s solo record­ings and his many col­lab­o­ra­tions were nom­i­nated four times for Gram­mys and he was in­ducted into the Blues Foun­da­tion Hall of Fame in 2008. His last record­ing was cut­ting tracks for Stephen Dale Pe­tit’s al­bum, Crack­ing The Code, in 2011 just days be­fore his death on De­cem­ber 4th that year.

Hu­bert had a very fluid ap­proach to time, which I think comes from play­ing from the heart and not the head. He tended to use both fin­gers or a pick for so­los but there ap­pears to be no hard and fast rule with his style. It's pretty clear that ev­ery great player does things a bit dif­fer­ently from each other, hence cre­at­ing their own voice on the in­stru­ment. Keep in reg­u­lar tun­ing, and on both of th­ese ex­am­ples fo­cus on note pro­duc­tion and Hu­bert’s en­dear­ing un­ortho­dox tim­ing, play­ing style and vi­brato. Take your time and, most im­por­tantly, have fun!

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