Tinsley Ellis (2022) | Alligator Records
Tinsley Ellis (2022) | photo: Suzanna Khorotian, courtesy of Alligator Records

Guitar Is King: An Interview with Blues Rock Guitarist Tinsley Ellis

Blues-rock guitarist Tinsley Ellis talks about the influential bands that bridged the gap between the blues, his love, and rock’ n’ roll, his heritage.

Ice Cream in Hell
Tinsley Ellis
Alligator Records
31 January 2020

It all started in Miami Beach, a broken guitar string handed over from an icon. Blues-rock guitarist Tinsley Ellis‘ calling essentially traces to 1972, as a teenager on a Saturday afternoon in the presence of B.B. King.

B.B. King was the definition of fan-friendly,” says Ellis. “He had the gift of his presence and he always made you feel special. After the show, it was King’s warmth and kindness that stood out. We stood in the lobby and he greeted us all, and he gave me a postcard with a picture. I kept the guitar string and, almost 50 years later, I still have it taped to that postcard. He talked to us and listened and it was like having an audience with Buddha or Moses. Years later, I got a chance to tour with him as an opening act, and I always reminded him of that afternoon. I always loved it when I would tell him that story and loved how he always acted like he remembered me.”

Born in Atlanta in 1957, Ellis watched a number of bluesmen perform during the years that he was raised in South Florida, experiences courtesy of his rhythm and blues-loving ethnomusicologist father. One time his dad even brought him to see Howlin’ Wolf, the Mississippi-born, Chicago-bred crooner with the grittiest sandpiper vocals and most salacious of lyrics. 

“I had no idea who Howlin’ Wolf was at the time, and he blew my mind,” says Ellis. “He had Hubert Sumlin on guitar and Eddie Shaw on sax and he was down and dirty. B.B. King would beat an upscale place, and with a horn section. Whereas I never saw someone as down and dirty as Howlin’ Wolf. I would say that if B.B. King was G-rated then Howlin’ Wolf would have to be a hard R, if not an X-rated show. He had the microphone in his pants and pulled it out through his zipper and swung it back and forth. Eddie Shaw spanked him on his hand and called him a naughty boy.  He played “Little Red Rooster”, “Killing Floor”, and “I Asked for Water (She Gave Me Gasoline)”.

Despite the influence of Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King, and the like, Ellis’ first guitar was actually inspired after seeing the Beatles perform on The Ed Sullivan show. It was on 9 February 1964, and Tinsley, his sister, and their parents crowded around a small black-and-white television set to watch the four mop-headed, dapper-looking English lads play five songs.

“I remember that my sister and I loved them,” says Ellis. “My parents were totally disgusted by them. And that made my sister and I love them even more. After that, I begged my parents for a guitar. They said they’d rent me a guitar if I’d take guitar lessons. We rented one and I took lessons above a music store.

“After five lessons, I realized that he wasn’t teaching me any rock ‘n’ roll, so I released myself on my own recognizance; I’ve been self-taught ever since, playing along with the albums of B.B. King and others. In 1967, I begged them for an electric guitar. I ended up with the cheapest one – Brand X. At 15, I got a job washing dishes and saved up enough money to get a Les Paul.”

Fleeing the omnipotence of the disco panorama that he didn’t relate to, Ellis returned to his birthplace of Atlanta in 1975. In the midst of this, an eclectic blues-rock music climate, one now often designated as the “classic Southern rock” years, was burgeoning. There, he was fully exposed to the hybridized Allman Brothers, who had a profound bearing on his outlook of music.

“Not a lot of blues came to South Florida unless you were a big name,” says Ellis. “But Atlanta was much more on the circuit. B.B. King and the Allman Brothers were it for me, and those two directions I haven’t strayed from very much. The Allman Brothers sort of bridged the gap between the blues, which is my love, and rock’ n’ roll, which is my heritage. The Allman Brothers tied that up in one neat package for me… and gave me the courage to tell my dad – a jazz-blues 1950s music kind of guy – what I wanted to do with my life. Once he agreed that “Stormy Monday” (a popularized Allman Brothers cover credited to bluesman T-Bone Walker) was very, very good, I told him that I wanted to be a musician. He would always just grunt – until I got into the New York Times and then he was happy about me doing it.”

Slowly, Ellis trudged the blues-rock scene in the East and Midwest and after he arrived in Chicago in 1988, he settled into a career that has ever since leaned heavily into the blues side of the divide. From that time forward, he had the chance to play with many notables such as Otis Rush, Albert Collins, Koko Taylor, and Buddy Guy. Once a fan, a kid collecting keepsakes, he was now performing with his heroes.

Over the past few decades, Ellis has accrued a reputation as a reliable entity that delivers the merchandise. Yes, Tinsley is a phenomenal guitar player – a walking, living breathing ambassador of the instrument. But above all, he is a respectful envoy of the distinct genre of music to which he is most commonly equated: the blues.

“One of the ways I respect the tradition of the blues is by not labeling myself a blues artist. I label myself a blues-rock artist. If someone wants to call me blues, well, that’s an honor and a compliment.”

Existing between a storied past and a prodigious future, Ellis is playing leaner, meaner, and louder than ever, as his most recent release Ice Cream in Hell attests. The primary “studio guitar” on that recording is a limited edition, cherry-red Gibson Freddie King ES-345 reissue made almost exactly like the one that King used to record his most prominent stuff in the 1960s. Ellis cherishes one of the 200 manufactured in 2018, using it on approximately 80 percent of the album. The ES-345 from 1967 is his workhorse guitar, one of about five of varying ages that he routinely tours with.

The album has been cheered as “infectious” and “high-octane and blistering” and even “feral”, in a laudatory way. Such accolades are surely well warranted and Ellis is suitably proud of the achievement, which he sees as another opportunity to showcase solidarity with his instrument of choice.

“Guitar is king,” says Ellis. “I didn’t make that rule, I just enforce it.”

In this, Ellis separates the musicians who purvey the blues into a pair of categories: stay-at-hometypes or road warriors. He respects both options, yet he prefers to be among the latter.

“A musician never got famous staying home,” says Ellis. “A lot of musicians are perfectly content to play it (the blues) locally where they live. Others are perfectly content to take it wherever they can take it. I look at it as more of a calling than it is an occupation. I love to take it to you.”

Tinsley Ellis performs at the Lobo Theater in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on Thursday, 24 March.