The number of sightless guitarists who helped forge the American blues tradition is extraordinary. Featured below are six guitarists, three of whom helped pioneer the blues, who rose above their blindness to make great music.
Blind Boy Fuller
During his brief but prolific recording career, which extended from 1935 to 1941, Blind Boy Fuller was one of the most popular musicians in the Southeast. By the time he lost his eyesight — while in his late teens — he had perfected an impressive fingerpicking style, which ultimately brought him to the attention of the American Record Company in the mid ’30s. Fuller subsequently recorded more than 120 songs that ranged from ragtime to blues to novelty tunes. Several of his original compositions — including “Lost Lover Blues” and "Step It Up and Go” — have become standards of the Piedmont blues genre. Fuller died in 1941, at age 33, from kidney failure brought on by blood poisoning.
Blind Willie McTell
As the man who wrote the classic “Statesboro Blues,” Blind Willie McTell influenced hundreds of country bluesmen, folk singers, and blues-oriented rock bands. It’s unknown whether McTell was born blind or whether he lost his sight as a child. What is certain, however, is that as a youngster he became proficient on 12-string guitar, combining fingerpicking and slide work to create sophisticated arrangements. In 1940 folk music historian Alan Lomax traveled to Atlanta to record a handful of McTell’s songs for the Library of Congress. Although he was signed briefly to Atlantic Records in the late ’40s, McTell never garnered substantial earnings from his recordings, and he often performed for tips on Atlanta’s Decatur Street. He left music in 1956, at age 55, and worked as a pastor in a local church until his death in 1959.
A teen prodigy, Jeff Healey rose to prominence during the late ’80s, when shredders dominate the guitar scene. A rare form of cancer, known as retinoblastoma, claimed his eyesight when he was just a year old. As a result, when Healey took up the guitar as a child, he forged an unconventional playing style in which he usually rested the guitar in his lap and placed his left hand over the top of the neck. Healey’s best-selling album, 1988’s See The Light, was rock oriented, but the late guitarist’s heart lay mostly with jazz. Healey was just 41 years old when he died in 2008 from cancer.
A pioneer for Latin musicians who strived to make inroads in the American music scene, Jose Feliciano will always be best-known for his seasonal tune, “Feliz Navidad,” and for his top-selling cover version of the Doors’ “Light My Fire.” Blind since birth from congenital glaucoma, Feliciano moved with his family from Puerto Rico to New York’s Spanish Harlem, where he became a fixture on the early ’60s Greenwich Village coffeehouse scene. His dazzling, flamenco-inspired playing talents were achieved through relentless practice sessions, during which Feliciano would lock himself in his room and emulate such players as classical great Andres Segovia and jazz legend Wes Montgomery. During an impressive stretch in the ’70s, Guitar Player magazine honored Feliciano as Best Pop Guitarist five years in a row.
Best known for his flatpicking skills — although he’s also adept at fingerpicking — Doc Watson forged his multi-dimensional style as young man living in the hill country of North Carolina. While rooted in the traditional music he grew up with, Watson’s playing also bears the influence of Chet Atkins, Merle Travis, Jimmie Rodgers, and the “fiddle tune” lead style popularized by Hank Garland and Grady Martin. An eye infection robbed Watson of his sight before his first birthday. His first guitar, a $12 Stella, was purchased for him by his father after a young Doc learned “When Roses Bloom in Dixieland” on a borrowed instrument.
Blind Lemon Jefferson
The son of sharecroppers, Blind Lemon Jefferson lived a life shrouded in mystery, although talk of his prowess as a bluesman was legendary among all musicians who heard him. Around 1912, when he was 18 or 19 years old, Jefferson was befriended by Leadbelly, who through the years credited Jefferson for giving him a rigorous tutelage in blues guitar. Jefferson’s recordings — made between 1926 and 1929 — showcase his extraordinary six-string virtuosity. He made extensive use of single note runs, often picked with his thumb, and employed a variety of keys and tunings. His place in the Texas blues tradition is profound, and his influence has been acknowledged by artists as diverse as T-Bone Walker, Carl Perkins, and even the Beatles. It’s unknown how Jefferson lost his sight, or indeed whether he was in fact totally blind.