“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 finally said.
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 go down?
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 possessed.
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 string sometimes.
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.