For over 50 years, Buddy Guy has produced startlingly raw, soulful, dynamic music. Along with his friend and mentor, B.B. King, and several other blues pioneers, Guy created the model for edgy electric blues and rock guitar—and along the way influenced a few such obscure, little-known players as Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page and Stevie Ray Vaughan, not to mention thousands and thousands of other guitarists.
Guy has won five Grammys, 23 W.C. Handy Awards, Billboard magazine’s Century Award, the National Medal of Arts, awarded by the President of the United States, and was elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2005, where he was inducted by his longtime friend, Eric Clapton. He has recorded dozens of albums, played for millions of people around the world, and he continues to knock out blues and rock guitar fans at age 73 when most of his peers are playing shuffleboard in retirement communities.
In these days of diminished interest in blues music, Buddy Guy is one of the very few practitioners of the genre who continues to sell out concert halls and outdoor “sheds.” He is, without a shadow of a doubt, one of the most successful blues guitarists in the world, right behind B.B. King, with whom he has been touring for the last several months. With deadly tone ripped from a vintage Fender Bassman or a new Chicago Blues Box amp, and a voice that sounds like an exposed nerve, Guy has never been one to hold back. His live shows are studies in tension and release, loud and soft, sweetness and fury, all mixed with brilliant showmanship. It’s not uncommon for Buddy to take a walk through the crowd during an extended solo. Inevitably, the audience goes crazy. This author has seen it happen again and again.
In the early days with Chess Records, Guy did a lot of session work to pay the bills. As far as his own recordings were concerned, label president Leonard Chess considered Guy’s playing “noise,” and forced him to record novelty songs, R&B, instrumentals and ballads, all outside the realm of Buddy’s style. It wasn’t until recognition from Hendrix, Clapton and Beck got back to Chess that he allowed Guy to record the music in his head and heart. After a 13-year dry spell without a record contract, Guy secured a deal with Silvertone Records and produced the comeback, Damn Right I’ve Got The Blues, which won him his first Grammy award in 1991. He hasn’t looked back since.
What was the spark that made you pick up a guitar?
Buddy shows his versatility as he test-drives the new PRS 305 during a Signature Club event at the company’s Experience PRS open house in September. In addition to playing a set of classics, the blues legend joined Carlos Santana for a rendition of P-Funk’s “Maggot Brain.”
Watch our video of the performance...
It was a combination of listening to country and western music like Hank Williams, Eddy Arnold and Roy Rogers, plus B.B. King, Lightnin’ Hopkins and other bluesmen, and the gospel music I heard in church. I asked my grandfather about music in the family once, and he said nobody before me had any musical talent. We didn’t have a phonograph—we didn’t even have electricity—but we had a radio and we listened to that. They played blues in between the rain delays of the baseball games back then. I built a two-string diddley bow and nailed the strings to the house. I used my mother’s hairpins. She was wondering where they all went! I’d wear it out in about a week or break the strings, so I kept rebuilding it. That’s what I started on. I was influenced by T-Bone Walker, John Lee Hooker, Little Walter and Les Paul, too.
Guitar Slim was an influence on you. How did he shape your own style of playing?
I went to see him play in Baton Rouge, and he came out with a gold Les Paul and long cord so he could run all over the place. I had never seen a solidbody guitar before. I didn’t even think it was a guitar! He was wearing a bright red suit. He played great and had all these fancy stage moves and things he did. The crowd loved him. I picked up some of what I do from him. I wanted to look like Slim and sound like B.B.
Muddy Waters helped you out when you came to Chicago, didn’t he?
I had gotten to Chicago, and I was on my third day without food when I was introduced to Muddy. At first, I didn’t know who he was. But he asked me if I was hungry and got me a salami sandwich. Then he helped me get into the Chess Studios playing on sessions.
Let’s talk about your early recordings. It seems like the Chess Brothers held you back in the beginning and didn’t let you record the music you wanted to do. Why did they do that?
Like I said, I did mostly session work for Chess to start, but I was on Cobra Records first. It was a little storefront operation, a small label. Otis Rush recorded for them too. Back then, if you sold 90,000 45’s, you had a big hit. The Chess’s made me record stuff I didn’t want to do because they thought my material and guitar style was noise. It wasn’t until people like Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix brought the harder style I play to their attention that they let me loose. Leonard Chess heard Jimi and realized that he was doing what I’d been doing all along.
What was your first guitar?
The first good guitar I had was a Harmony acoustic that we paid $52 for. I learned to play on that. I donated that guitar to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
In the early days you played Stratocasters, then a white Gibson SG Les Paul Custom, then a Guild Starfire. Now you’re back to Strats again with your own signature model. Why the Strat?
Buddy Guy plays his Martin signature model – the JC Buddy Guy Blues Guitar – which features Martin’s jumbo body style with a cutaway, extraordinary purfling (even for a Martin) and his signature polka dots on the rosette, bridge and fingerboard.
I had a Les Paul first, but someone broke into my apartment in Chicago and stole it. I borrowed money from a lady named Theresa, who owned a bar called Theresa’s Blues Lounge, and bought a sunburst Strat. She let me pay it off by playing there. I still have that guitar. The white SG Custom I gave to my nephew a long time ago. It was in my guitar room, and one day I saw that the headstock was cracked so I gave it to him. I think he got it fixed.
I played the Guild Starfire until they stopped making them. The first one they gave me was red [Writer’s Note: it was a Starfire III]
. Eric Clapton got one too, around the same time.
Did you have input in designing your signature- model Strat? What is unique about it?
I picked the features I wanted and helped design the neck shape, a soft V shape, and they sent me prototypes. I use Fender Noiseless pickups in them. I went back to Strats because they can take a lot of wear and tear. I couldn’t afford to be buying guitars all the time back then if they broke. You know, you’d leave it on the floor and somebody would step on it and break something. The Strat can take a beating.
I have to ask about the polka-dot finish. How did that come about?
When I left Louisiana, I told my mother I was going to Chicago … get a job, make some money and come back home in a polka-dot Cadillac. She was worried I would get in trouble and run out of money, and I did. My mother is gone now. She died in 1968, so I remembered what I told her and had Fender do the black with white polka dots. I never really wanted a polka-dot Cadillac.