You’re a noted Fender Stratocaster player. What do you love about Strats? I live and die with the Strat because in the beginning you had the acoustic and if you couldn’t afford a case—and of course I couldn’t—if you walked anywhere it got damaged and sooner or later it would crack open. When Leo Fender came out with that Strat, I found out you could drop it, and it wouldn’t hurt it. You could scratch it, but you wouldn’t hurt it. I still do love Gibson guitars because that’s what B.B. and a lot of other guys play, but I got hooked on the damn Strats because of the late Guitar Slim. I don’t compare myself to the great guitar players like Wayne Bennett, Matt Murphy, Otis Rush, Freddie King, Earl Hooker, and all of them. I looked at them and thought, “Man, you got a lot to learn!” But when I saw Guitar Slim put on a show I said, “Well, if I put on a show, they can’t do these trick shots like me.” They can all outplay me, but they can’t do the trick shots that I stole from Guitar Slim and that kept me going.
For years you’ve been using a 4x10 Chicago Blues Box amp, a Fender Bassman replica. What is it about that tone that you enjoy so much? Let me give it to you like this: I still indulge Fender, and they still make my polka-dot guitar, but when Leo Fender came out making these things in the late ’40s and ’50s, those guitars and amps had a certain tone, and he took that with him when he left, because they’ve been trying to match that tone ever since. I’ve had other engineers try to come up with that tone of the original Fender Bassman, and they haven’t been able to match it yet. I just fell in love with that tone. I went into Chess Studios making records behind the greats and all the British guys were listening to it. In fact when I got the Kennedy Center Award, Jimmy Page told me, “Man, I didn’t know what a Strat even sounded like until I heard you do that Copa Cabana live album [Blues from Big Bill’s Copa Cabana] and I’ve been turned around ever since.”
Do you find yourself using many effects pedals? No. I do use the wah-wah a little bit. There was a guy—one of the best guitar players I’ve ever known—named Earl Hooker, and he was playing slide like Robert Johnson and Elmore James and all those people, and he was the first person I saw playing a wah-wah. I would say Jimi Hendrix perfected it more because they wouldn’t let Hooker record too much with it.
You mentioned the Kennedy Center honors a little earlier. Can you talk a little bit about what that experience was like and what it meant to you to receive that award? Well, as I told the Commander in Chief, it’s a long way from picking cotton to picking the guitar in the White House. When I was picking cotton we didn’t have a machine to pick the cotton—I was the damn machine! It was a long way from there, which is the best way I can explain it. I still have to kind of slap myself and ask, “Were you really in the White House as a blues player?”
What motivates you to keep pushing forward? I’m trying to keep the blues alive. It was created by some of the best that ever was, but has been forgotten by the big radio stations. You can turn on some of the biggest radio stations in this country or any other country and you may hear what came up in the late ’50s or ’60s of rock, or whatever you want to call it, playing a version of a Muddy Waters record, but they won’t play Muddy’s version. The young kids out there don’t know nothin’ about Muddy Waters and they won’t unless you play him once or twice a week. Then they might say, “Oh, I see where they got it from.” That’s my goal, and I’m gonna fight for that until I leave.