Style Study: Play Like Buddy Guy

Dive deep into Guitar Slim's "The Things I Used to Do."
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 Guitar Slim

For a long time, Buddy Guy led a double life. There was the suppressed Chicago session guitarist who cut dozens of sides for Chess records with blues legends Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, Koko Taylor, and many others, filling in the holes and playing only as much as the artists and Leonard Chess wanted him to play.

And then there was the wild and crazy showman who played the amazing, amped-up distorted blues that would foment the pending British blues boom, and tore it up by running a 150-foot guitar cord between his Fender Stratocaster and amp so he could begin his show from the street, the bar, the men’s room, or wherever. This Guy could blow away all comers, and seemingly fit more notes into a single beat than anyone, but was rarely allowed to do so on any recordings. (Hoodoo Man Blues with long-time partner and blues harpist Junior Wells is one exception.) The real Buddy Guy was finally committed to wax during the ’90s, when he recorded Damn Right, I’ve Got the Blues, and Last Time Around: Live at Legends (with Junior Wells.) Since then, Guy has released three more albums: Sweet Tea, Skin Deep, and the aptly titled Living Proof. (Guy turned 77 this year.)

 Buddy Guy

Early on in his informative and highly entertaining biography, When I Left Home, Guy reveals that his earliest musical influences were the bird songs and other sounds of nature he heard while growing up on a Louisiana plantation. This makes complete sense when trying to analyze how the wild and crazy Guy crams nearly 50 notes into a single measure and keeps it musical.

Next to John Lee Hooker, Guy’s earliest guitar hero was Guitar Slim, a.k.a. Eddie Jones. Guy was transfixed not only by Slims’ playing and singing, but also by his showmanship and talent for entertaining crowds. Guy, who admits he wanted to be Guitar Slim, emulated his early idol by standing up while he played and getting his own 150-foot cord, which Slim also pioneered.

While “Boogie Chillen” by John Lee Hooker was the first song Buddy Guy learned to play (on a handmade 2-string guitar, no less), it was Guitar Slim’s “The Things I Used to Do,” which Guy still plays today, that became the most important record of his life. It’s the song on which both Buddy Guys converge and that’s why it’s been placed under investigation.


Guitar Slims’ original 1953 recording is in the key of F, and begins with a loosely arpeggiated C7 V-chord pickup, played in time and starting on dotted-quarter beat three, as shown in Ex. 1a. The horns and rhythm section enter with the figure notated in the next three bars, and adapt this slow 12/8 shuffle groove to the song’s 12-bar, “quick change” blues progression—F7-Bb7- F7-F7-Bb7-Bb7-F7-F7-C7-Bb7-F7-C7. During the first four bars of the verse, Slim, who plays no chords or string bends, answers each of his vocal phrases with the grace-note- hammer-on and slide-inflected first-position licks illustrated in Ex. 1b.

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Buddy Guy, on the other hand, plays the song a bit slower and a major third higher in the key of A, and typically starts his version with a single E note in place of Slims’ V-chord arpeggio. Ex. 2a depicts how he remains true to Slims’ form, but adds more embellishments and occasionally frantic rhythmic outbursts to his response fills throughout bars 1 through 4. (Think “birdies” in bar 1.) The turnaround in Ex. 2b doesn’t break any new melodic ground—it’s a simple root-3-5 motif followed by a descending A pentatonic minor scale—but its timing and zippy one-handed playing on beat four makes it unique to Guy. (Tip: Try dropping it into bar 12.)

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Guitar Slim doesn’t bend a single note throughout his entire 12-bar solo (Ex. 3). He relies instead on emoting with slurs, slides, and spot–on position shifts of up to nine frets. Slim begins with a three-note, 5-6-root pickup, a motif that recurs in nearly every measure. This leads into a two-note, 9/2-to-root motif superimposed over an eighth-note triplet (bar 1), followed by a measure of grace-note hammer-ons, a technique Guy, Jimi, and millions of others would put to extensive use. Bars 3 and 4 echo the previous two measures (sans the IV chord) before the aforementioned position shift occurs on the downbeat of bar 5. Slim goes on to cover two bars of the IV chord by gradually decreasing the height of each skip, and then returns to the I chord with a new phrase played twice. During the last four bars, Slim displaces the 5-6-root motif five different ways over the course of the V-IV-I-V turnaround, wrapping up a solo that is totally elegant and way ahead of its time.

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Guy’s out-of-the-gate first solo chorus transcribed in Ex. 4 was culled from a live performance circa 1991 (Tip: Search the YouTubes), and it’s here that we get to know both Buddy Guys. He begins by respectfully quoting and playfully toying with Slims’ opening figure in bars 1 and 2, before going completely berserk on the fifth-position A blues box in bars 3 and 4, where he manages to cram a whopping 86 notes into just two measures! The downbeats have been aligned properly, but the rhythms of all those in-between notes are certainly open to interpretation. (Again, think “birdies,” and go at it like a house afire.) Guy reels it back in to re-quote bars 1 and 2 over the IV chord changes in bars 5 and 6, and then stings hard with a surprise B.B. King-style high A and trail off slide, after which he immediately returns to seventeenth position for a stuttering two-measure lick that only Buddy Guy could pull off. Playing into and over the V chord in bar, Guy again tributes Slim by perfectly nailing his mentor’s spot-on, nine-fret leap up the high E string, as well as the subsequently lower jumps over the IV chord in bar 10. Guy’s turnaround in bars 11 and 12 enhances the flavor of Slims’ original with b3-to-3 grace-note slurs and a tasty descending chromatic wrap up. The main difference is that Slim left off here, but this is just where Buddy gets started! Guy typically builds his solo up to a screaming frenzy over a few more choruses before dropping back down to whisper level. And, of course, the crowd goes crazy!

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Guy still plays Guitar Slims’ ending verbatim to this day, and why not? It’s a beautiful thing. Ex. 5a portrays the original: A delayed two-against-three rhythmic motif consisting of two fourth intervals played a minor third—or three frets—apart. This yields the root over the 5, and the 6 over the 3, respectively, followed by a descending half-step approach from Gb9 into the final tonic F9 chord. Guy’s version, shown in Ex. 5b, is a carbon copy transposed up four frets to the key of A.

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As Buddy Guy has shown us, you can learn a lot by studying the work of one great player. There’s a whole world of Buddy Guy music out there, so get cracking and check out his Chess sessions, work with harmonica great Junior Wells, and numerous solo albums. And while you’re at it, don’t forget to catch Buddy live on tour or at Legends, his famed Chicago blues club.