What did they play?
I do not think many people puzzle over what kind of piano Jelly Roll Morton played. The answer is simple; he played whatever piano happened to be available. But many people want to know what guitars various artists from the classic era of country blues played. A good many adherents of the genre wish to own the same make and model guitar that their idol played. For example, a 1920s Gibson L-0 or Kalamazoo KG-14, like the guitars Robert Johnson is holding in the now famous photos originally found by Steve Levere.
Unfortunately, there is very little documentation regarding the lives of the blues artists who were active during the 1920s and ‘30s - let alone the instruments they possessed. In most cases, to glean which particular brands or models of guitar they played, all we have to go on are one or two photos and an occasional eye witness account. And the accuracy of a single picture can be misleading. For example: there's only one known photo of Charley Patton with a guitar: the “Tefteller” portrait, with Patton seated holding a Stromberg-Voisinet parlor guitar. It is widely believed that the guitar in that picture is simply a prop, not Patton’s own instrument. According to an account given to Gayle Dean Wardlow by the Reverend Pearly Brown who knew Patton personally, Charley played a black Stella with a white fingerboard - presumably "pearlette" AKA "mother-of-toilet-seat".
Like many other country blues and old time music enthusiasts, I have spent a good many hours studying rare, often out of focus black & white photos of musicians with their instruments in hand. I am sure most, if not all of us have wondered at the guitar that Blind Lemon Jefferson has in his lap in the one existing photograph of him. Is it a Stella? Is it a Washburn? We may never know the answer. Even if we could discern the maker of that instrument, it may have been just one of several instruments that Jefferson owned and played during his career. Or...the guitar in that photo may not have been Jefferson's own guitar!
More than ten years ago, after studying a very grainy snapshot of Blind Willie Johnson, I said the guitar in that photo looked like an Oscar Schmidt “First Hawaiian Conservatory” model. And I made mention this speculation in my “Stella Guitar Book”. Since then, I have had the opportunity to examine a few hundred instruments. The truth is, there are at least a half dozen Stellas similar to the “First Hawaiian” guitar, any one of which could easily have been the guitar in that shot. It might indeed be a "First Hawaiian" guitar. They were certainly common enough back in Blind Willie Johnson's day. On the other hand, it is equally possible that the guitar in that fuzzy photo was another model... in fact, it might not be a Stella at all!
Skip James is said to have played a jumbo Stella 12-string guitar that was strung with six strings during his legendary 1931 recordings for Paramount. The haunting sound that guitar produced in Skip's hands has to be among the richest and most resonant of any prewar blues performance!
Blind Blake’s “guitar” has been the subject of much speculation. Only one retouched photo of Blake is known to exist. The guitar in the photo looks to have a dark top, leading some to speculate that it is either a mahogany or koa wood instrument. But the lighting could account for the dark appearance. At any rate, who is to say that this was Blake's one and only guitar? After all, Mr. Blake was a professional musician. Blake recorded many solo performances. He was also a sought after session guitarist, often hired by recording companies to back up a variety of performers. It is possible that Blind Blake had numerous instruments, not just the one axe shown in that picture of him!
Blind Willie McTell is probably the most photo-documented of the country blues performers. Having a shiny new axe was an important element of a bluesman’s public image. So McTell would trade in his guitar for a new one on a regular basis.
Here are some pictures of McTell taken between 1928 to 1956 showing some of the guitars he owned