JONTAVIOUS WILLIS is a unique guitar player. The young musician, a native of Greenville, Georgia, has been playing since he was a kid and got into the blues after spending years singing gospel music. He discovered Muddy Waters when he was 14, and the rest was history.
As he dove into the broad world of blues, he discovered Delta and Piedmont among other variants, and ultimately landed on a compelling playing style that nods to the fingerpicking style of the 20s and 30s but is ultimately all his own. He’s now found the balance between blues and country with his own music, and has garnered critical acclaim for his unique style.
He also grabbed the attention of legendary blues players and songwriters Taj Mahal and Keb Mo’. He ended up developing a working relationship and friendship with both.
“I met Taj first, and he kind of felt like a second grandpa. He’s really wise,” Willis tells Connect ahead of his performance at Southbound Brewing on Fri., Feb. 21.
“Both of them gave me a lot of great information, you know? My biggest influences are the guys that recorded in the 20s and 30s, and Taj was in touch with some of those guys. It was an experience being with them, but it’s been an experience being with a lot of the older guys I’ve played with. Any elder, really; not just musicians. You’ll learn something if you just stick around.”
Willis’ unique approach to guitar and banjo wasn’t something he was necessarily looking for, in the sense that he wasn’t striving to do something new or different—just absorbing the music around him.
“I think it happens like that, because if you have different influences then what you do is automatically different,” he says.
“BB King listened to Lonnie Johnson—the vibrato he did was all Lonnie Johnson. Lonnie Johnson and T-Bone Walker were definitely his big influences. If you listen to different people, then what you do is going to be different. It might not be better or worse, but it’ll be different.”
The upcoming show at Southbound Brewing Co. will mark the annual release of Savannah Music Festival’s Wailin’ IPA, and Willis is on the bill alongside pedal and lap steel virtuoso Roosevelt Collier.
Willis started playing piano when he was very young, but the death of his piano teacher caused him to stop and he never quite picked the instrument up again. He played trombone in band at school, before getting into guitar.
Banjo was something he discovered later, and has only recently invested energy into.
“I had one, and I thought I knew what playing the banjo was. But I didn’t,” Willis laughs.
His interest in the instrument came from the blues and what came before it historically and musically.
“One you go to the precursor of blues, you find out that all the black folks were playing banjo before guitar was a thing,” he says. “A lot of the early guitar players were real percussive in their playing style, and they used open tunings. It was really reminiscent of banjo, so I was like, ‘Yeah, banjo is where it’s at.’”
Willis, who was nominated for a Best Traditional Blues Album Grammy award this past year, says he’s constantly writing and working towards the next project.
“I’m always touring and I always have ideas and concepts,” he says. “Always.”