by Robert Berman
So who’s Roy Buchanan? He’s a 31-year-old legend. For five or six years he has been working with Danny Denver and the Soundmakers in a tiny bar a couple of miles outside Washington, D.C. in Bladdensburg, Maryland. Not too many months ago, you could call him the finest unknown guitarist in the world. Many people did. But now, with articles in a few newspapers and a TV special about him, you’d have to call him the finest semi-known guitarist in the world. Then again, you might be among the growing numbers of people who simply call him the finest guitarist in the world.
Among his admirers are Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones, Merle Haggard, Johnny Otis, Robbie Robertson, Hank Snow, Henry Vestine, Al Kooper, Kim Simmons, Mundell Lowe, and Nils Lofgren. And among his fans are thousands of people who have faithfully made the pilgrimage to the Crossroads, where Roy usually plays for all the stompers and late-’50s boppers. And now, there are the millions who were turned on to Buchanan by Bill Graham and the National Educational Television Network last fall.
As a father of five, Roy has hesitated about going out on the road—even turning down the Rolling Stones. And, then again, he has been around quite a while, has paid his musical and drug dues, and can’t see himself scuffling to be a rock and roll star.
The following interview was done by Bob Berman—a true Buchanan freak who wrote us offering $1,000 to any reader or staff member who could show him a better guitarist. Now that’s faith.
Where were you born and raised?
I was born in Arkansas, but when I was about two, we moved to Pixley, California. I left to go on the road when I was about 14, and have been traveling ever since. In California, I just went to school and worked in the fields once in a while.
When did you first develop an interest in music?
I actually started listening to music when I was about five years old. My father always liked it—he used to listen to the radio and things. I told him one time that I liked music, and he said, “What do you like best?” I said, “guitar.” That was when I was five or six. He bought me one right after that, and I started picking it up myself. Then it broke, so I didn’t get another one until I was nine or ten. That’s when I really became interested in it.
Why the guitar?
It sounded like a versatile instrument, and I’ve always liked different types of music. I wouldn’t want to play a horn, because I couldn’t get the chords and other things on it. One of my first inspirations was a guitarist named Roy Nichols. He was raised around Bakersfield, California. I used to catch him on television and radio. He’s with Merle Haggard now. And I listened to all the regular cats like Chet Atkins, Hank Garland, and Grady Martin. Today, though, my favorite is Barney Kessel. Kessel for jazz, Jimmy Noland for blues. And B.B. King—everybody likes him. But Barney, because he always played it straight. He didn’t have to have any gimmicks. He played what he felt, rather than having a flash thing.
You studied music at the beginning, right?
Yeah. I studied steel guitar for three or four years, but I gave it up because I wasn’t really interested in anything other than the regular guitar. I studied it for my folks—they wanted me to learn it. But I never learned how to read music. And I haven’t practiced in ten years [laughs]. Playing with other people is even better than practicing—it’s experience. My first group was a trio when I was about nine. We played a little bar for about six months. Since then, I’ve, worked with quite a number of groups. I was with Bobby Greg who had a hit called “The Jailman” about 1962 or ’63. I played with Dale Hawkins, too. He did “Suzy Q.” I worked with Ronnie Hawkins. The first thing I ever recorded was “My Babe” with Dale. I did a couple of things with Freddie Cannon, but I can’t remember the names.
They’re still playing your lick on “Suzy Q” today. Did you make a lot of money back then?
Oh, yeah. I got rich [laughs]. I made about $100 a week, and all I could drink.
Do you feel bitter about the past—about working so hard for so little money?
No. I mark everything up as experience. You learn not to do things that way again.
What has kept up your interest over all these years?
I always wanted to play what I felt, but when working with other people, it has to be kind of commercial. Even when they let me do what I wanted, they held me back to a certain point. I couldn’t go all the way, because they were interested in selling—in making all that money with a Top-10 record. But now it seems like anything sells, and you have more freedom. You can play jazz, and the kids seem to be buying it. Blues—it’s whatever you want to play.
Is it true you turned down an offer to work with the Rolling Stones?
Yes. That came about through my first manager, Charlie Daniels. I never actually met the Rolling Stones, but they had heard of me some way or another. They mentioned to Charlie that they wanted me to tour with them. The main reason I decided not to go with them—beside the fact that I don’t want to travel—was that I didn’t know the material, and I didn’t figure I could do the job right. To sit down and learn all those songs—that would have taken a lot of work. I guess I’m lazy. I figured that there were other people who knew the music better.
There are a lot of rumors—particularly in Europe—about you. You and James Burton are the main ones people in Europe ask for. Have you ever thought of going over?
Well, most of them know that I don’t like to travel. I like to stay in my own area. The only way I would think about traveling would be for myself—if I had a hit or something on my own.
When did you first meet James Burton?
It was at the Skyway Club in Shreveport, Louisiana, about 1957 or ’58. They tore it down since then. It was Dale Hawkins’ group. All the musicians would come down on Friday nights and jam. I came down once in a while, and that’s how we met. I thought he was good—really commercial. He knew how to make a hit, which he did, as far as I’m concerned. We played together on stage three or four times. We lived together for about a month in L.A. in 1959. We never worked together in the same group, though. We’d just go around once in a while and sit in with other groups.
Why did you leave California?
I got a job in Las Vegas, and I lived there for about a year. I was young, so I wanted to travel.
Are the musicians today better than when you started playing?
I wouldn’t say better. They’ve had a lot more people to listen to. I guess you would say they’re improving faster. Rock and roll is always going to be here, but the competition is getting tough. You’re going to have to be a little bit better.
Where is the music scene going from here?
I think that jazz and blues and rock will be kind of combined together. The players will have to get better and more versatile.
Let’s talk equipment for a while. What type of guitar do you use?
A Stella [laughs]. No, I’ve got a Fender Telecaster—a 1953. I like it, because it’s the funkiest. And it’s versatile. You can play jazz...I think it’s the best all-around guitar. It’s not modified—I just keep it stock. I use Fender Rock and Roll Strings.
How often do you change them?
When they break.
Don’t they lose their sound before that?
Do you prefer the one-piece maple neck to the rosewood model?
It was the grain in the wood that I think I liked. The feel of it makes it better. It’s harder for me to bend a note on a rosewood neck. Maple is easier to work with. And I like the action high, because it keeps your technique built up, for one thing. You won’t get lazy if you have to work a little harder. I have a tendency to get slouchy with the strings too low, and they get like a “popping” sound, and they rattle. Notes sustain better when the action is high, too.
When you sustain, do you use hand vibrato or just finger action?
A little of both, but I keep my thumb around the neck for strength and balance.
And do you bend the notes by pushing the strings or pulling them?
I push them up.
When you fingerpick notes while playing with a pick, how many fingers do you use?
Sometimes, only one or two. Sometimes, all of them. It depends on the feel of the thing. I think my technique came from playing steel when I was young. You have to play steel with fingerpicks. You can play with a flatpick, but it limits you. I used to use fingerpicks on the Telecaster, but now I just use fingernails. The flat pick I use is a little Fender jazz pick. It’s like a mandolin pick or something—very small and heavy. Big picks get in my way. The smaller the pick, the better I can get around.
Do you pick in any unconventional style?
Everything I do is unorthodox. I hold my pick wrong. I use my thumb, which you’re never supposed to do. When I’m picking blues, though, I’ll do a lot of downstrokes. When I want speed, I use a small circle.
You’ve perfected an overtone technique by striking the string with your pick and the first finger at the same time. Did you develop this yourself?
I guess so. I never heard of anybody else doing it, and I’ve been doing it ever since I can remember. When I first did it, it was a mistake. I did a thing with Bobby Greg called “Potato Peelings,” and it happened. Then, everybody was digging that one thing, so I just figured out what I did.
When you do it in blues, you move down in every position, and basically do it on the high notes to get the effect of bringing the note up then dropping it down, say a full step. Then, you’ll ring the note. It’s very effective for blues, but do you use it in other material?
It’d be hard to use it in jazz, because you have to have a lot of volume, and you have to have the guitar on treble. But when I play jazz, I usually have a lot of bass. On some country things I’ll use it, though.
You can produce a pedal-steel effect with and without manipulating the volume knob on your Telecaster. Which method do you prefer?
I really don’t prefer one over the other. You use the palm of your right hand kind of as a mute when you hit it, and the volume sound comes up. I don’t know how to explain it. It’s not really like a dead mute. You just hit it, with a slight vibrato, and it’ll bring it out and pick up the volume. You have a chord, and you put your palm right next to the bridge, and you hit it, and just forget about it. Then, you rely on the left hand—just a slight vibrato. Lots of times, it’s so slight you don’t even know there’s a vibrato there, and the volume will come up.
I’ve never seen any other guitarist who could...
And now that I’ve figured out what it was, I’ll never be able to do it again [laughs]. Most of the things I’m doing, I’m not even aware of what I’m playing. I know how to get the sounds, but I can’t explain it to someone else. I’ve tried to teach other guys how to do it, but it wouldn’t work for them like it did for me. It’s the same with a lot of guys. If you asked Jimi Hendrix how he did all those things, I’ll bet you a dollar to a nickel he couldn’t have told you.
You also manipulate your tone control to produce a wah-wah effect. When did you figure that out?
When I was nine or ten and starting to play steel. I don’t remember the name of the foot pedal steel players used back then, but you moved it up and down for volume, and side-to-side you had wah-wah. When I started to play a regular guitar, I did the same thing.
Have you ever used any mechanical devices like wah or fuzz?
Only before they came out. Like, to me, fuzz tone is only distortion, so I used to slice my speakers with razor blades, and soak them in water. I did that for a couple or three years. I was up in a session in New York one time, and I told a guy it was a shame they didn’t have a device that would make distortion without doing that to your speakers. Then, about six years later, the fuzz tone came out. Mechanical devices can be a crutch, though. But some people, like Hendrix, Clapton, and Jeff Beck know how to use them effectively. I won’t name any bad players.
What kind of amplifier do you use?
I was using a Fender Vibrolux with two 10-inch speakers. There was enough power there for me. If I had to play the Colisseum or something, I’d just mic it through another amp. I’ve tried most of the big ones, but they’re not for me. They don’t have the sound. They’re good for feedback and so on, but I can’t see much reason why you need all that power. Like I’ll see some of these kids in a club that will seat maybe a hundred people, and they’re up there with ten Marshalls—wall-to-wall amplifiers—and the son-of-a-guns will be wide open. I can’t see any reason for it.
Do you prefer any special brand of speakers or speaker set-up?
I know very little about electronics and different speakers. I just know when the sound is right. If I can get the right amplifier, I’m satisfied with the way the company makes the speakers. They know more about it than I do. But I do think some of the old instruments were better. I think they try to make them too perfect, and it ruins a lot of the good qualities—like the Magnetones. They’ve been changing them every year, but they’ve never equaled the old ones. And like Fender—you can’t find much room to improve an old Fender Bassman. Even though they made a new one, I think the old ones are best. It’s the same with guitars. The companies ought to wise up and reproduce the old ones. I remember when I used to go out and buy brand new Telecasters for $140. A white maple-neck Telecaster with case.
Roy, do you read music, or just pick tunes off the radio by ear?
Well, I don’t read, and I don’t listen to the radio. If I decide I want a new lick, I just lay in bed and think of it. Don’t even need an instrument. Some of my best licks I can just think. Some of them aren’t good, though, but when I try them out on the guitar, I know whether to keep them or not.
Why do you keep changing the structures of the songs you play over and over?
To keep it from getting monotonous. I may play them the same way, but I prefer to change them.
It was reported that you had your first solo album planned to come out in February of 1971. What happened?
I canned it, because it was overdone. It had me sounding like too many other people—the Beatles, Cream, Hendrix—and I don’t want to copy other cats. Everything I did on the first album was like show. I would go down to Nashville, and the tracks would already be made, and all I had to do was put the guitar part on. And they would sit there and say this is what we want you to put on it. Then, after I got through, I called the record company and told them I was dissatisfied. They asked if I thought I could do better, and I said, “Yes.” So I made some dubs and sent them to them, and they said, “Okay, we’ll do it your way.” I want a little jazz, a little country, and a little blues.
Is there any particular musician you’d like to work with?
Yeah. Barney Kessel. He’s great. I’d be ashamed to try to duplicate what he’s doing in front of him, but I’d play my own thing. I’ve got some ideas of my own that would go along with his. I think jazz could be funkier, for one thing. It’s possible to add jazz and rock together, in spite of what some people say. You just have to know how to do it.
Do you have any advice for young guitarists?
If I had it all to do over again, I’d probably learn to read music. And I’d spend more time practicing, and learning harmony and theory. The more you know about it, the better off you are. But also add your own things to it.
It has been said that if a man knows more about the theory of music, he would play different, with less feeling.
No, that’s not true. The more knowledge you’ve got, the better you can do it. Sure, sometimes, you have to remember how you felt before, but it’s a matter of using what you learn. If you can’t do that, you might as well say you could play better 15 years ago than you can now. See what I mean? That’s learning, too.
Originally appeared in the March 1972 issue of Guitar Player.