“If you call me up to play, I’ve got to give you my best,” says Buddy Guy, whose ready-to-rumble attitude and no-holds-barred Strat attack have earned him eternal icon status.
Since B.B. King’s passing on May 14, 2015, Guy may have inherited the mantle of “Elder Blues Statesman,” but his in-your-face stage presence is a far cry from King’s gracious and kindly “grandfather” persona. Guy carries the torch with the devil-may-care attitude of a punk rocker.
“Thanks to the rappers, I can say whatever the f**k I damn well please these days,” announced Guy from the stage of the San Francisco Masonic while supporting Jeff Beck in 2016.
A few folks probably don’t appreciate Guy ’s litany of F-bombs—or his over-the-top guitar antics—but most people find Guy’s firebrand blues a welcome presence in a genre watered down with each passing cliché. On recent tours, the 80-year-old Guy has come across like a man possessed—as if he’s making up for lost time in the spotlight. Throughout much of the ’70s and ’80s, Guy couldn’t even land a record deal, much less fathom being honored as a living legend at the 2012 Kennedy Center Honors by an African-American president.
No one can deny that Guy—who was born George Guy in Lettsworth, Louisiana—represents the ultimate long shot, and he continues to defy all odds. The atomic energy he channels through a Fender Stratocaster and a Fender Bassman would be thrilling and impressive at any age, but it’s almost supernatural for an octogenarian to rock so hard. Last year, Guitar Player honored both Guy and Jeff Beck—the two wildest Strat cats of their generations—with Lifetime Achievement Awards.
What does it mean to you to be honored in the world’s oldest guitar publication for playing a lifetime of ferocious licks dating back to before there was even such a thing as a guitar magazine?
Thank you very much. Better late than never. Most blues musicians I learned my lessons from are no longer with us, and they didn’t print a lot of stuff about those guys. Every night I go to the stage, I stop and imagine the history of some of the guys like Lightnin’ Hopkins and T-Bone Walker. The media didn’t get us until the British started playing blues. That’s when major newspapers started interviewing Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and people like that. Before then, we were playing to a 99.9-percent black audience. When the British started playing blues, the audience completely changed. My late friend, B.B. King and I were in Memphis once, and this lady ran up to him, and said, “Hey man, these white people are taking the blues from us.” B.B. said, “No, ma’am. They didn’t take it. You just quit listening to it.”
What player would you like to acknowledge above all from a guitar perspective?
I could mention a thousand players. When I was coming up, it was Lightnin’ and T-Bone, and then up stepped B.B. King, Gatemouth Brown, and, of course, Guitar Slim. There weren’t many guitar players way back when, because it was unheard of. You literally couldn’t hear an acoustic guitar onstage. The guitar was getting obsolete until Leo Fender and Les Paul electrified it.
How unimaginably wild was the Stratocaster when you first witnessed one?
When Leo came up with that Strat, man, I didn’t know what the hell it was! Guitar Slim was the first I saw play one, and I thought it was a joke. But you had to keep the acoustic guitar out of the weather, and this solid piece of wood Leo came up with took more wear and tear. Guitar Slim’s Strat had scratches all over it. Well, you can’t do an acoustic like that. I’m not sure if Leo made the first solidbody, but his was the one that exploded. The Stratocaster got the guitar heard.
How did you develop your own sound?
I don’t know. Some people tell me I have a tone. I barely pay attention to that. Back when the British guys started mentioning my name, players like Jimmy Page would come up to me, and say, “Man, I didn’t know anyone could play blues like that on a Strat. What are you doing?” The Chess brothers used to say, “If you want it played right—go get Buddy.” But even I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I got my tone from a ’57 Strat and an old Fender Bassman. You can’t get that tone anymore. The Fender people do a good job at trying to replicate that ’57 tone, but there’s something different about the wood, or something else that Leo took with him. I’ll tell you what else Leo took with him: Whatever he had in that [original] Bassman transformer.
You’ve talked for years about the glory of the vintage Bassman tone. Ironically, you turn all the knobs up except Bass.
I turned the bass all the way off from day one. There was no reason to do anything else, because that was exactly the sound I wanted. I never had to worry about changing the tone. All I would do was wrap up the guitar cord and come home. Nowadays, you get different tones at different clubs, but that thing had the same tone wherever I played—except some of the smaller clubs where grounding issues would produce a scratchy sound that you hardly hear anymore.
Do you still have your original Bassman?
Yes. I’ve still got that old Bassman. I almost lost it when I went to Africa around 1969. I was sitting by the window watching my bags being loaded, and my amp was just sitting there. As the plane was going to take off, I jumped up. The stewardess said, “Mister, sit down. You’ve got your ticket for your bag.” I said, “My amp is out there past the wing of the plane!” They kept that amp for five years. When it finally came back to me, it was all rusted out.
You use two amps onstage each night—a ’59 Bassman reissue, and a new Fender Bassbreaker.
Right. They come pretty close, but they don’t have the tone that the one had when I came here 60 years ago.
Was Jimi Hendrix the first player you heard use a wah?
I heard the late Earl Hooker play the wah-wah before I even knew who Jimi Hendrix was. I made a few cuts with it, because I liked Hendrix a lot. I’m doing the Experience Hendrix tour again in 2017. They go get a bunch of youngsters that can really play. Everybody knows “Voodoo Child.” But if you listen to Hendrix, “Voodoo Child” was similar to the Muddy Waters tune, “Mojo Working.” So I’m trying to do a version of that.
Buddy Guy’s Chicago Blues Band circa 1969—(from left) Bobbly Fields, A.C. Reed, Guy, Jack Meyers, and Glen Martin.
Did you get to know Hendrix very well?
Yeah. There’s a video clip of the night we met. When I first went to New York in 1967, I was into a solo with the guitar behind my head when somebody started hollering at me, “There’s Jimi Hendrix!” I was like, “Who in the hell is Jimi Hendrix?” And he came up and said, “Can I tape your show?” He had a reel-to-reel tape recorder.
You weren’t aware of him at all?
No, no. I was into Arthur Crudup, T-Bone Walker, B.B. King, and all the old blues guys. I wasn’t into all the special effects. If I had been, I probably would have got hooked myself. I liked what Hendrix was doing when I heard it. But I decided to let him have that. I figured my time would come.
I couldn’t be B.B. or T-Bone, but they kept telling me, “Man, you got something there. You got a Buddy Guy tone.” I was so dumb. I didn’t even know that. Even the Chess brothers told me. When I first went in there, they didn’t want to hear my noise. But when Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, and Eric Clapton all said, “I’ve been listening to Buddy,” the Chess brothers said, “Wait a minute. Let him come in and do what he wants.” I was surprised. I said, “Man, what are you talking about?” They said, “These British guitar players are selling millions, and they’re eating up the sh*t you’ve been playing!”
Why didn’t you play together more onstage with Jeff Beck during your recent tour together?
We didn’t play together every night, but we played together several nights. He insisted on me coming out and playing “Let Me Love You,” which Willie Dixon and I wrote. I told him I didn’t want to wear out my welcome, because if you go to a ballgame expecting to see your favorite pitcher, you look for him to pitch. If they change, you’ll watch the game, but you’re not happy. He’s a hell of a guitar player. People want to see Jeff Beck, and I didn’t want to get in the way. You see, I played the Crossroads Guitar Festival in Dallas with Eric once, and Eric asked me to solo. I soloed, and the writer from the Chicago Sun-Times wrote, “Buddy Guy was trying to step on Eric Clapton’s feet.” It kind of pissed me off, because if you don’t ask me to solo, I won’t—especially if I’m playing behind someone else. I didn’t learn how to play by the book. I learned how to play by listening. So with somebody as good as Eric Clapton or Jeff Beck, I like to say, “Can I learn something from you?”
I heard that you celebrated at your 80th birthday show by shredding Beck to the point that he simply threw his guitar up in the air, smiled at you, and walked off the stage!
Well, I’m like this—if you don’t want me to play, don’t call me up there. From the time I was eight years old, my dad and mama would always tell me, “Son, don’t be the best in town—just be the best ’til the best come around.”
Buddy Guy in 1988.
Why is it that you hardly ever use the whammy bar?
I used a whammy bar. Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix would tell you that if you check your history. I cut a side at Chess using a whammy bar, but they weren’t ready for it. They were like, “Nobody wants to hear that.” These days, though, I don’t put a whammy bar on my guitars. Honestly, I stopped back when I was using very light strings because it made them break easier, and I couldn’t afford to keep buying new ones. Beck puts that whammy in the palm of his hand, and Stevie Ray Vaughan was good with that, too. Stevie, Beck, and Jimi are the best I’ve ever seen with that. A lot of guitar players couldn’t figure out how to work with it, but if you do it right—like Hendrix—it works.
In Carlos Santana’s autobiography, Universal Tone, he claims that Stevie Ray Vaughan told him that Albert King demanded $50,000 from Stevie for copping his style—and that Stevie paid it!
That story is new to me, but Albert would sit down and trade licks with Stevie, and he was the only one. I didn’t play a lot with Albert, but we were often on the same show. I’ll never forget one time in Montreal when Albert was doing his soundcheck. I was sitting in the audience, and he turned his back to me after he saw me out there. He said, “I ain’t going to let you see a damn thing.” I had to tell him, “Man, you’re left-handed. I can’t take sh*t from you no way, because I’m right-handed.”
Muddy Waters’ influence on your playing is apparent, but it makes me wonder why you’ve never picked up a slide.
It’s because I was always wanted to be like Guitar Slim, and you can’t be wild and play a slide. You’ve got to be precise. You’ve got to sit there, and make that tone—like Derek Trucks. When I came out, I didn’t ever think I was a good guitar player, so I was trying to make people pay attention. I got that from Guitar Slim. I remember when I first saw his show. At the start, all I heard was a guitar. And then he came in the front door playing. I turned to see he had a 150-foot-long cable. I said, “That’s what I want to do. I want to be wild like Guitar Slim, and I want to be able to shake my wrist like B.B. King.” But who can?
It seems you may be the very last of the original blues guitarists who moved from the delta to the cities.
It’s a little lonesome now. B.B. and I talked about it before he passed away. As a matter of fact, we used to talk about it before Muddy and all of them passed away. They would tell me, “Man, if you outlive me, don’t let the blues die.” That’s exactly what I’m trying to do, and, this year, I did more dates than I’ve done in a long time.
If there were ever an “Experience Buddy Guy” tour, whom would you like to see on it?
I would invite every guitar player I know. That’s why I don’t think I would ever have one. There would be no end to the show!
Special thanks to Guy’s guitar tech Chris Bynum, as well as his soundperson/tour manager Max Maxson for their insights.