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.
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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