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10 Things You Gotta Do To Play Like Roy Buchanan

August 1, 2009
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HE WAS THE RAREST OF BREEDS—A GUITARIST’S GUITARIST WITH AN innate grasp of bittersweet country sounds, wailing blues licks, sophisticated jazz harmonies, and balls-out rock and roll, all presented with spine-tingling tone, innovative techniques, and a downhome nonchalance that could be downright disarming. Roy Buchanan (1939-1988) immeasurably altered the evolutionary course of the electric guitar by introducing previously unheard but now commonplace tones and techniques to the instrument’s pantheon using only the simplest tools and a vivid imagination.

Perceived by many as an enigma, Buchanan was ultimately a family man who simply didn’t give a hoot about stardom—he just wanted to play the guitar on his own terms. And that’s exactly what he did, garnering a legion of diehard followers along the way. A short list of Buchanan freaks past and present includes Mick Jagger (whose Rolling Stones attempted to enlist Roy following Mick Taylor’s departure), Paul McCartney and John Lennon (both of whom unsuccessfully tried to record with Buchanan), Jeff Beck (who dedicated his signature version of Stevie Wonder’s “’Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers” to Roy), Les Paul (who compared Buchanan to Hendrix), Eric Clapton, Mundell Lowe, Merle Haggard, Ray Flacke, Robbie Robertson, Jim Weider, Nils Lofgren, Arlen Roth, and scores of others. Add the throngs of devotees who swap vintage concert recordings online, plus the hardcore gearheads who regularly debate the impedance of Roy’s bridge pickup, and you’ve got a bustling community of Buch-o-philes still thriving more than two decades after Buchanan’s passing. (Buchanan’s death on August 14, 1988, was officially ruled a suicide, an edict that still sparks controversy among family and friends.)

Buchanan’s professional career began at age 15, when he hit the road with R&B bandleader Johnny Otis. During the following years, Buchanan traveled extensively, jumping from band to band and honing his rock, country, jazz, and blues chops in the process. Roy listened to lots of guitarists, including Roy Nichols, Chet Atkins, Merle Travis, Hank Garland, B.B. King, and Barney Kessel (years later, Buchanan would express his admiration for Jimi Hendrix and Jeff Beck), but it was the greasy string bends of Jimmy Nolen, the founder of funk guitar, that Buchanan found most influential during his formative years. (Treasure Hunt: Buchanan recorded an exclusive flexi-disc Soundpage entitled “Blues For Jimmy Nolen” for the August 1985 issue of GP.) In 1956, Buchanan replaced James Burton in Dale Hawkins’ band, and two years later made his recording debut on the singer’s “My Babe.” Moving to Canada in 1960, he briefly joined Dale’s cousin in Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks, a breeding ground for Robbie Robertson and other future members of the Band. Buchanan returned to the states and tried his hand at session work, but in 1963, Roy virtually packed it in and gave up performing to raise his family in Virginia, working as a licensed barber, giving guitar lessons, and playing only occasionally in local clubs. All that changed early in 1971, when Rolling Stone published a rave review of Roy’s performance at a Washington, D.C. nightclub that led to the acclaimed PBS documentary known as The Best Unknown Guitarist in the World (though its actual title was Introducing Roy Buchanan). Record deals and international bookings followed as Buchanan spent the next six years recording a dozen albums for Polydor (Roy Buchanan and Second Album are required listening) and Atlantic, and touring the world as a solo artist. Despite his success, Roy was dissatisfied with his recorded work after his first two albums and developed a bitter attitude towards record companies. By 1978, Buchanan’s history of alcohol consumption had taken its toll and Roy spent the next six years fighting his demons. His performances reportedly suffered despite flashes of brilliance, and he released only one album during this period. In 1985 Roy was able to curb his drinking habit and strike a deal with Alligator Records, a Chicago-based blues label that offered Buchanan complete artistic control of his recordings. Roy exercised his newfound freedom by cutting When a Guitar Plays the Blues, Dancing on the Edge, and Hot Wires for the label, and was delighted with the results of this new direction. At his last gig, in New Haven, Connecticut, on August 7, 1988, the show smoked, and Buchanan was reportedly in great spirits, had curtailed his hard-drinking, and seemed optimistic about future projects. Go figure.

There was something about Roy Buchanan’s notes that made them different from everyone else’s—that’s why the Stones and some Beatles wanted him, why Jeff Beck loved him, and why we mere mortals are so compelled to revisit his music. Buchanan’s mojo doesn’t make it to paper very often (It ain’t easy!), and it’s an honor to have him as the subject of this month’s “10 Things.” So, crank up your Telecasters and Vibroluxes, peoples, and get ready to make the men cry! But first, you gotta...

1 GET PRESHER-IZED

Two years after Leroy Buchanan was born in Ozark, Arkansas, his family relocated to Pixley, California. He got his first guitar at six and a few years later went on to take three years of lap-steel guitar lessons from a local widow named Clara Presher. Buchanan spoke highly of Mrs. Presher in the August 1985 issue of GP, crediting her for his early musical development: “She taught pop music on steel guitar. I was only nine, so rock and roll wasn’t around yet. I learned ‘Mule Train’ and some country things. She started the ‘Roy Buchanan sound.’ She set the foundation for everything I learned on steel guitar. And when I went to regular guitar, it was still a steel sound.” Buchanan paid tribute to his former teacher with a track on When a Guitar Plays the Blues entitled “Mrs. Pressure.”

2 DEVELOP SIGNATURE TONES AND TECHNIQUES

There are two contradictory accounts of how he actually acquired it, but the important thing is that Roy Buchanan found his soul mate in a battered 1953 Fender Telecaster sometime in the summer of ’69. (Ironically, Buchanan obtained his first ’53 Tele in his early teens, but swapped it for a Stratocaster shortly thereafter.) Though he would own several Teles over the years, that particular ’53 plugged into various Fender Vibrolux 2x10 combos was Roy’s main voice throughout much of his solo career. Buchanan typically maxed the volume and tone controls on his amp, added reverb to taste, and controlled everything from his guitar. He wore his Tele high, used light gauge Fender Rock and Roll strings, and would only change them “when they break.” Early in 1979, Buchanan switched to a Fender Stratocaster for a few years. He vacillated between guitars until 1985, when he permanently retired his ’53 in favor of a 1983 Tele loaded with Bill Lawrence pickups and a Gibson 30th Anniversary Les Paul goldtop. During this period Buchanan explored a variety of amplifiers, including Peaveys, Mesa/ Boogies, and Marshalls, before eventually settling on a Roland JC-120. He also began experimenting with a Boss DD-2 delay pedal. By early 1988, Roy’s main squeeze was a new Tele-style ax custom made by the Fritz Brothers of Mobile, Alabama that sported three EMG pickups. Buchanan’s abandonment of his vintage gear shocked some, but Roy strongly felt that his new rig allowed him to duplicate all of his pioneering tones and signature techniques, including those greasy string bends, masterful volume- and tone-control manipulations, and patented “pinched” pick harmonics, and explore new techniques and tonal horizons, and that should be good enough for us.

3 WHISTLE WHILE YOU WORK

Roy Nichols once asked Buchanan, “Where’d you get them bird sounds, Roy?” Guitar lore has it that Buchanan recorded the first pick harmonic (Buchanan called ’em “whistlers”) on “Potato Peeler,” a 1962 single he cut with Philly-based drummer Bobby Gregg. (True story: An unsuccessful online search for a reissue of the full song finally located an excerpt of the legendary moment ... as a ringtone!!) Buchanan chalked up the prehistoric event depicted in Ex. 1a to a happy accident in several of his GP interviews: “How I first did that harmonic thing was actually a mistake, and I only did it once so you have to really listen for it. Somewhere in the back of my mind I was trying to hit one of those high notes that R&B sax players like Junior Walker and Plas Johnson would always hit. I thought we were going to have to do another take, but everybody was digging that one thing, so I just figured out what I did and I’ve been doing it ever since. You have to have a lot of treble to do it. As you pick the string, you let a little bit of the skin from the thumb touch the string with the pick. You’ve got to do it with pressure— you can’t do it easy—and it works best on the thinner strings.” (For the scientific lowdown on pick harmonics, see “Demystifying Harmonics,” in the May 2008 GP) Once you’ve got this essential R.B. technique down, add random pick harmonics to any part of any single-note example that follows. For instance, “whistling” the vibrated C#s in the typically slippery open-position shuffle lick in Ex. 1b, or the already slinky characteristic bends, pre-bends, and partially- released bends in Examples 1c and 1d will make these simple, complementary I-chord (E7) phrases scream “Buchanan!” even louder.

4 KEEP IT GREASY

As you can see, hear, and feel, Buchanan applied gobs of finger grease to his lines in the form of all sorts of bends and slurs, a trait shared closest with compadre Beck. The deceptive pre-bending technique utilized in Ex. 2a, which could easily serve as a turnaround, is one method Roy used to blur the lines between bent and unbent notes. Moving to the key of G, the IV-I (C7-G7) lick in Ex. 2b comes off like a Tele-fied Clapton/Beck cocktail, the latter looming largely over those pre-quarter-bent pull-offs laid on the last two beats. Meanwhile, back in the key of E, Buchanan’s I-IV maneuvering in Ex. 2c reveals a way to create rhythmic greasiness by combining ascending chromatic passing tones and an open-B pedal tone with some quarter- note-triplet-based ingenuity and still more pre-bends. (Connect the dots: Precede Ex. 2c with Ex. 1b to form a four-bar phrase.) Buchanan’s bendies could be totally off-thewall, and you won’t find a sicker approach to a IV chord than the one that kicks off Ex. 2d! To navigate this slow 12/8 blues lick, shift your focus to the key of A and tackle the complex- looking rhythms by breaking each dotted-quarter beat into a mini-measure of 3/8. (Tip: You can also double each note’s value and think in 3/4.) Begin at bar 6 in a 12-bar blues progression, follow the recommended fingering on the first two beats, and things will fall into place as you bend your way around D7 like you’ve never done before!

5 BRING DOWN THE HOUSE

While many of Buchanan’s solos culminated in wild excursions into pure sound that simply defy notation (playing above the fretboard, etc.), he had plenty of other ways to whip an audience into a frenzy. Roy envisioned building his blues solos the same way a preacher would excite a congregation. His strategy was to gradually turn up the heat every 12 bars so that each turnaround became more intense than the previous one until he finally reached a climax. (Tip: Listen to “After Hours” from Second Album. It’ll blow your mind.) In R.B.’s world, taking the audience a step higher during the opening choruses of a medium shuffle in A might entail something as simple and elegant as the Tele-bop-with-bends turnaround in Ex. 3a, while wrapping up a slow blues rave-up in E requires something more akin to the weeps and moans of the climac- tic run in Ex. 3b. Dig those dead-on pre-bends! Ritard the final four notes and you’ve got yourself one heck of an ending.

6 STEEL AWAY

Mrs. Presher’s early lessons became so ingrained in Roy’s standard guitar style that steel-informed runs like the one demonstrated in Ex. 4 were a common occurrence during Buchanan’s improvisations. This 4- bar line begins with a chromatic pickup, and then utilizes hybrid-picked diatonic sixth intervals and their chromatic neighbors to outline the IV-I (A7-E7) movement found in bars 5-8 of a 12-bar medium-tempo shuffle in E. Make it sing for Mrs. P. by adding vibrato in all the right places.

7 COUNTRI-FY YOUR BLUES

Buchanan’s steely sounds were often more akin to pedal-steel than lap-steel, as in the first two bars of Ex. 5. This 4-bar excerpt was designed to fit bars 9-12 in a 12-bar blues in A, making is suitable for application as an intro or turnaround. Barre your pinky at the 12th fret, pre-bend the G string one whole step from the 11th fret (reinforcing your ring finger with the other two), then attack the strings simultaneously with your pick, middle, and ring fingers and let that rhythmic release and re-bend rip. Sweet! The anticipated IV chord move into bar 2 lowers the same grip one whole step, but here we use a rhythmic reverse pick rake to arpeggiate the notes individually. (Tip: Let ’em ring.) Drop into fifth position for the remaining two-bar turnaround, where Buchanan’s slinky phrasing transforms an otherwise ordinary turnaround lick into something special.

8 HAVE A SWELL TIME

Another technique Buchanan ushered from steel to standard electric was using his Tele’s volume control to fade into notes or chords and create steel guitar, cello, violin, and crying kitty-cat effects, but he was also able to approximate swelling effects in other ways. To illustrate, each event in the slow 12/8 blues excerpt shown in Ex. 6a features a different attack resulting in three distinct types of swells, two of which demonstrate Roy’s penchant for woozy, single-note bends played within larger chord shapes, also known as oblique chordal bends. First, we lay down the I chord by attacking the bottom four strings of a standard, 3rd-position G7 barre grip with pick and fingers (a là Ex. 5), and applying a rhythmic half-step bend and release to the 3 of the chord (B) played on the G string while letting everything ring. The addition of vibrato to this lazy sus4-to-3 suspension and resolution results in a subtle swell. Next, transpose the same grip up five frets to the IV chord (C7) in bar 2 and rake into the repeated rhythmic bends and releases while sustaining the lower voices, and you’ll hear a slightly different kind of swell. Finally, it’s the real deal as we anticipate the return to the I chord in bar 3. Wrap your pinky around the zeroed out volume knob, and then simultaneously pick the prebent 12th-fret double stop as you roll the volume up. (Tip: Stop at “6” or “7” to keep it mellow, or go full tilt.) Release in rhythm and you’re done. We’re back in A for the tsunami of sixteenth-note triplet diads in bar 1 of Ex. 6b. and while there’s no actual swelling here, check out how in bar 2 the rhythmic slides between the IV chord (D9) and its lower chromatic neighbor (C#9) create subtle rises and falls in volume. (Tip: Precede Ex. 6b with Ex. 5.) Now go back and incorporate volume pot swells into all of the previous examples.

9 PLANT DEEP COUNTRY ROOTS

Buchanan considered himself primarily a blues guitarist, but his country roots were deeply embedded in the heart of the R.B. sound. Roy’s cover of the Don Gibson country classic “Sweet Dreams” (from Roy Buchanan) has remained a pinnacle of his career, a rite of passage for Tele-masters worldwide, and a widely licensed track most recently heard during the closing credits of Martin Scorsese’s The Departed. Brimming with elegant, slightly askew rhythmic phrasing and steely ornamentation, Ex. 7a presents the first four bars of the melody in all of its stripped-down beauty. Limit those opening volume pot swells in the pickup to “6” or “7” for a clear, sweet tone, then dig every nuance of Roy’s approach to this bittersweet tune. Ex. 7b picks up at bar 8 of the progression (bars 5-8 are essentially a repeat of bars 1-4) as Buchanan contrasts three bars of even-sweeter steel sounds with a wild flurry of pull-offs. Buy the album and hear what follows.

10 MAINTAIN AN AURA OF MYSTERY

The sermon-like intoning that precedes the showstopping instrumental tour de force in Buchanan’s signature song may have lent to his mystique, but according to Roy, “The Messiah Will Come Again” (from Roy Buchanan) came from a special place deeply connected to his family and roots in Pixley. Following the song’s softspoken intro, Buchanan takes on the majestic, classically-inspired melody, building tension over each cycle of the 8-bar Am-G6-Fadd9- B7-E7 progression until he explodes with a barrage of sixteenth-note triplets that gliss all the way up the E string and continue off the fretboard until reversing direction just before hitting the bridge. It’s a spectacular moment, but you’ll have to be content with my verbal description. Roy played the first melody pretty straight, so Ex. 8a was culled from a more ornamented reading of it beginning at 2:55. He covers the first four bars in the 12th position before sliding down to the 8th fret of the third string to nail the 3 (D#) of the B7 chord that frames bars 5 and 6. Live, Roy would often build a B7 voicing below these D#s to fatten up the melody. (Tip: Transpose the first oblique chordal bend from Ex. 6a to B7 and drop it into bar 5.) Roy’s next round begins in bar 8 with a trio of bent-andvibrated Es followed by a melodic E-F-E bend-and-release move that forms a two-bar motif. Beyond the page, Buchanan milks this motif for another entire 8-bar progression with only minor adjustments. Listen to the recording and you’ll hear him repeat bar 8, and then release the held E bend one half step to D# using a rhythmic motif similar to the one in bar 9, adding mournful vibrato the entire time. He repeats this two-bar move verbatim, then holds three half-released, vibrated D#s for the first half of the motif and bends back up to E in the second half. And then...cue the glissando! In closing, Ex. 8b shows just one of the phrasing variations you’ll find dropped into bars 6 and 7 of the “Messiah” melody throughout Roy’s many live interpretations of the piece. Let this crying bend leave a tear in your eye and restore sweet memories in the wake of the sad but brilliant story of Roy Buchanan. Peace, peoples.

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