Blue Notes

Tinsley Ellis lives on Blues Power and...Porn?

Tinsley Ellis lives on Blues Power and...Porn?
Photo by Flournoy Holmes/Courtesy of Alligator Records
While it might not have as many users or generate as much income as many other adults-only online ventures, bluesman Tinsley Ellis does have an idea that would make any self-respecting gearhead salivate: Guitar Porn!

In the credits for his new album, Winning Hand, the singer/guitarist lists which axe he used to record each song, including a 1967 Gibson ES 345, a 1959 Fender Stratocaster, and a 1973 Gibson Les Paul Deluxe. An interior photo shows all five of his instruments lined up together. And the reaction so far has surprised the man himself.

CD cover by Alligator Records
“More people talk about that photo of the guitars and the list than anything else. It’s like guitar porn!” he laughs. “We should have put that photo on the back cover! When I was younger, I spent a lot of time trying to find out what kind of guitar Eric Clapton used on ‘Crossroads’ by Cream. I knew it was a Gibson, but a list would have been helpful! What can I say? I’m a nerd for that stuff.”

As to the ten tracks that make up the record, Ellis says what he reaches for depends on what kind of sound he wants to make. “If it’s going to be a British Rock song, I’ll use a Les Paul. If it’s a Robert Cray type of tune, I’ll use the Stratocaster,” he continues. “It just comes to me when I’m in my own studio. I’m hardly ever wrong which guitar I pick up, and I don’t use many effects pedals.”

Winning Hand finds Tinsley Ellis back to form in a couple of areas. First, it marks his return to the blues-based Alligator label out of Chicago, for which he recorded his most commercially popular albums in the ‘90s. And it’s a return to a driving, electric guitar-based blues rock sound after four more experimental albums he released himself that included side trips into instrumentals and the music of his home state of Georgia.

Still, not every song on the new record’s final version sounds anything like what was first brought into the studio. Ellis says the track “Nothing But Fine” is a prime example.

“We were going to give it the standard Freddie King/Leon Russell/Shelter People production, and then the song turned into something that was more like the soul song ‘Some Kind of Wonderful’ that Grand Funk covered,” Ellis offers. “It changed in shape and style by the time we were done with it.”

Tinsley Ellis was born in Atlanta, Georgia, and grew up in Southern Florida. And like many of his generation, was first exposed to blues music through its reconfiguration via British rock bands like the Yardbirds, the Animals, and the Rolling Stones. When a friend’s older brother suggested he go back a bit further to the source artists — say, like a B.B. King – Ellis was intrigued. And as luck would have it, King was performing nearby soon after.

Photo by Regan Kelly/Courtesy of Alligator Records
In a moment that seems like it could only happen in a movie, King broke a string onstage during the show…then handed it to an entranced Ellis. When King came out and talked to him after the show, his path was set. In 1975, he returned to Atlanta to cut his teeth with bands and older blues performers before his debut solo record (on Alligator) came out in 1988.

Since then, he’s shared stages or recording studios with the likes of Stevie Ray Vaughan, Otis Rush, Willie Dixon, the Allman Brothers Band, Albert Collins, Buddy Guy, and the Tedeschi Trucks Band.

Contemporary blues is sometimes an odd genre to sell, though, given that so much of its lore and appeal is based on work that is decades old by artists who are long dead. Ellis knows this, and says he and others have had to adapt to get their new music to fresh ears.

“Guys like Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters…how are you going to top that? The only way for a musician today to make an impact is to go out and tour, tour, tour,” he says. “We don’t have Tower Records or Borders anymore. It’s about getting people excited at a show so they’ll download an album or listen to Spotify or buy from Amazon or even go to my website. You know, maybe it’s always been about touring with the blues.”

As for more localized interests, Ellis says that he has always lionized Texas-based blues guitarists, and that their collective talent is not just hype by any means.

“There’s definitely something in the water in Texas. I got on board with that through Johnny Winter in the ‘60s. I never saw such hype on a player, but he lived up to it,” he says. “That lead me to Albert Collins and Gatemouth Brown and T-Bone Walker. And later the Vaughan brothers came around and sealed the deal. And it’s not just blues. You have Eric Johnson. I mean, is there anybody better than that guy out there? I probably should have moved to Texas when I was in my 30s. But I just stayed in Atlanta!”

Tinsley Ellis & Band play April 5, 8:30 p.m., at the Dosey Doe Big Barn, 25911 I-45 North. $68-$108, dinner included. For information, call 281-367-3774 or visit

For more on Tinsley Ellis, visit

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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero