Roy Buchanan: Five Insights into the Master's Style

May 10, 2011

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 down-home 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.
1. Find a Teacher/Muse
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 a Unique Voice
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 greasy string bends, masterful volume- and tone-control manipulations (his volume-knob swells were used to fade into notes or chords and create steel guitar, cello, violin, and crying kitty-cat effects), and patented “pinched” pick harmonics, and explore new techniques and tonal horizons. 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 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).
4. Pump Up the Excitement
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.)

Another example is the showstopping tour de force in “The Messiah Will Come Again” (from Roy Buchanan). 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.
5. Diversify
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.

Excepted from Jesse Gress’ “10 Things You Gotta Do to Play Like Roy Buchanan” in the August 2009 issue of Guitar Player.


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