“IF YOU’RE GOING TO PLAY THE DAMN THING, PLAY IT LIKE
it’s never been played before—or don’t play it at all,” says blues
icon Buddy Guy. At age 75, he’s picked up a guitar more times
than almost anyone on the planet. Astonishingly, he hasn’t lost
one iota of his original passion for playing, or his vigor for life.
When Guy’s not on the road, he’s very likely to be found in
the expansive new incarnation of his renowned Chicago blues
club—Buddy Guy’s Legends. He takes keen interest in serving
authentic Creole cuisine, is liable to be seen in a corner having
a drink with a lady, and is bound to jump onstage during The
Jam on Monday nights to thrill eager audiences with the sorts of
real-deal guitar heroics, belly-laugh storytelling,
and earnest historical insights that
make him a national treasure.
Guy’s most recent, Grammy-winning,
CD, Living Proof [Jive], is exactly that. Guy’s
tone has never had more balls or nuance,
and he attacks his solos with a ferocity that
sounds like a combination of a young buck
who’s getting his first chance to record, and
a savvy veteran who’s concerned he might
not get an opportunity to do it again.
You list the guitars you played on Living Proof in
the CD booklet, and I was surprised to see your
polka dot Stratocaster only made it onto one
cut. What’s the story behind the workhorse sunburst
’57 Strat you used on most of the tracks?
I used to own another one of those, but
somebody stole it years ago. I never did
track it down, and I had never been able to
get my hands on another one like it until
one day on tour in Florida a kid came to
my bus and asked me if I’d sign his guitar.
When I spotted what it was, I asked him
how much he wanted for it.
“You can have my wife, but not this
guitar,” he said. I asked him if he drank,
and he told me that he didn’t, but he would
make an exception for me. So I poured
a couple shots of Remy XO, and waited
for it to go to his head little bit. “I’ll give
you this red polka dot Strat and whatever
money you want,” I told him. No deal. So
I poured a couple more shots, and then a
couple more. “Give me $500, the red polka
dot guitar, and another shot of cognac,” he
That vintage Strat delivers such a tone,
man. I played it on about 80 percent of
Living Proof. I’m not married. The only wife
I’ve got here in my bedroom now is that
’57 Stratocaster. “Just tell me how much
you want for it,” is what Eric Clapton tells
me every time he sees it. I tell him, “I want
you to leave me alone.”
What guitar do you play live these days?
I’m afraid to take the vintage Strat on the
road. I bring my polka dot Strat. Actually,
I’ve got several in different colors. Fender
just made me two new ones.
Are they trying to replicate the ’57?
They’re trying. They’ve just about got it,
but they won’t ever get one to sound exactly
like that ’57, because when Leo Fender left
the company he took the magic with him.
Now Fender’s engineers are telling me it’s
got something to do with the wood, and
I’m saying, “Well, then let’s grow some
trees like they had back then!”
Living Proof opens with “74 Years Young,”
which is pretty mellow until you come in with
a completely manic solo. How’d that lead session
When you start rolling tape on me and I
get a chance to do what I did on “74 Years
Young,” I’m thinking like a racehorse. I
can’t wait till you let me come in that gate.
Some racehorses get you later, but I’m the
kind who believes the chance to get you is
right now. So, when the record begins—just
like the opening gate on the racetrack—I’m
saying to myself, “I’m going to bust out of
that gate like I’ve never busted out before!”
Mission accomplished. You sound almost
There was another factor. I was having
dizzy spells, so my doctor had affixed a heart
monitor to my chest, and the wires hanging
off of me were interfering with my guitar
playing. We fixed it up so they would go
around my back, but they would work themselves
around to the front. When I went to
play that solo, I positioned them around to
my back, and I took off playing stuff I didn’t
even know I was playing! When that take was
over, I truly didn’t know what I had done—
but I felt so good. I realized I had come out
of that gate like a racehorse just the way I
wanted to, and I didn’t look back.
There are several solos on Living Proof with
that kind of energy, and blistering tones. What
amps were you using, and how were they set up?
I don’t know because I didn’t come out
of the booth. I was too busy giving my best
effort on all those solos. The amplifiers were
in another room because I wanted them blasting
loud. My tech would adjust my amps, or
switch me from one to another until I found
what I wanted.
Was he feeding you a variety of guitars as well?
I would ask for whatever guitar I thought
would blast the type of stuff I wanted. We
tried three-to-five tracks with two or three
different guitars for each solo, and the one
we thought was best is the one you got.
Were they all your personal guitars—the Gibson
Custom ES-335 on “Thank Me Someday,” the ’74
Telecaster Deluxe on the title track, and the ’72
Tele Deluxe on “Skanky?”
They’re all mine. I can’t play other people’s
guitars, not even at a jam. I play with
such a stiff hand that by the time I’m finished
with anybody else’s guitar, it’s out
of tune. Before I play my guitar, I’ll bend
those Ernie Balls as far as they can possibly
go, because I’ll make my E string kiss my D
For the duet with B.B. King, “Stay Around a
Little Longer,” the liner notes only list your signature
Martin acoustic-electric, though it sure
sounds like a Strat, and you play one in the video.
It’s a Stratocaster. I remember because
B.B. looked at me during the video and said,
“Buddy, I never told you this, but I can tell
it’s you when I hear a lick from your Stratocaster,
because you do something with the
Stratocaster I’ve never heard anybody else
do. And you get something out of a Gibson
I’ve never heard anybody else get, either.” I
said, “So, we’ve got something in common.”
You use a combination of right-hand techniques—
sometimes with a pick, and sometimes without. You
also hold the pick with different finger-and-thumb
combinations, and sometimes the pick disappears.
How do you apply these variations, and where does
the pick go when it disappears?
When I first came to Chicago, I had no
concept of how to play with a straight pick.
I had fingerpicks. When I met B.B. King, he
told me I needed to learn to use a straight
pick, so I had to re-learn how to use my right
hand. I still don’t play like the average guitar
player. I play with a stiff hand.
You don’t bend your wrist—the motion is all
in the finger joints.
Right. And as far as the pick disappearing,
I didn’t even realize I was doing that until
somebody told me what you are telling me
now. I must have developed that playing for
an audience, figuring that if I took the time
to place it on amplifier, I’d be leaving some
space when I went to pick it back up.
Even when I can see three of your four fingers
stretched out, it’s curled up in the other one?
You’d make a good magician.
I don’t know about that because if you
just walked up and asked me to do it—I’d
probably drop the damn thing.
Let’s talk about the future. You’re endorsing a
12-year old player named Quinn Sullivan. What do
you see in his guitar playing that is so special?
When I first called him up onstage as a
seven-year-old kid wearing a polka dot bandanna,
I figured I’d let him play three or
four notes, but he matched me note-for-note
for the rest of the night! I had him play the
solo on a song from Skin Deep called “Who’s
Gonna Fill These Shoes,” because he can do
it. I spent my own money to record his CD,
Cyclone, and I’m having him open some of my
shows this summer when he’s out of school.
I’m hoping Quinn can step into the shoes of
B.B. and myself, wake up the blues again, and
make it stay around a little longer—just like
we sing about in that song.