How would you describe the evolution of your playing from the ’60s to now?
I’ve learned a little more, but it’s still Buddy Guy. If you put me through a modern amplifier, somebody is going to say, “He don’t sound like he used to.” Well, of course, the guitars and amps aren’t the same today. But the man is still the same. I’m using the same fingers I left Louisiana with. I can’t really say how my style has changed, though. I used to tell T-Bone Walker, B.B., Lightnin’ Hopkins, Muddy, and John Lee Hooker—all those guys I learned from—that I didn’t have anything unique. Guess what they said? “Buddy, we got it from someone else, too.”
What was the biggest lesson you learned from the blues legends you worked with?
Oh, man, lesson number one is be cool. They weren’t making any money, but they were having fun playing. I used to look at them and say, “Buddy, you ain’t never gonna be that good, and nobody is ever going to fill those shoes.” Those guys weren’t superstars then, but I thought they were living the high life. It made me think, “This is as high as you can go.” Then the British groups got into the blues, and were able to live decently from it. But I still worked in the daytime—I drove a tow truck.
How does it feel to know so many blues and rock players count you as a huge influence?
It makes me feel great, because some of the things that people like Eric Clapton and Keith Richards and the late Stevie Ray Vaughan said about me have helped me more than any record company. So many kids come up to me and say, “I didn’t know anything about you until I read what Eric Clapton said.” That gives me a big lift.
Do you think the blues needs to be modernized in order to stay relevant?
I don’t know if I can answer that. You know, when they put a Robert Johnson CD out a few years ago, it went gold—and he had been dead 40 years. B.B. King told me the record he did with Clapton, Riding with the King, was the biggest-selling record he has ever made. But let’s be honest— when you’re black, it doesn’t matter how good a blues record you make, you’re not going to get it played on these big radio stations unless some super guy like Eric Clapton or Stevie Ray Vaughan plays the same thing you played. That’s just the way it is. Blues has been like that ever since I’ve been alive—it has been ignored until some rock group gets it, plays it to big audiences, and tells them whose music it is. But, I guess that’s why we still sing the blues. I just look at it like a prizefighter— if I don’t get in that ring and risk getting knocked out, I ain’t got a chance to win.
—Excerpted from Shawn Hammond’s piece in the August 2001 Guitar Player