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