Chris Duarte is not Stevie Ray Vaughan. And yet, if you believe everything music critics say, Chris Duarte might as well be the second coming, playing searing Texas blues on a worn-in Strat. Which is not necessarily a bad thing—there are certainly worse musicians to be compared to—but the whole thing begs the question: just who is Chris Duarte anyway?

It’s bit of a slippery question, because even at the age forty-five, and after decades onstage, Duarte has avoided falling into musical ruts, all while clothing himself in one of the most rut-prone genres in music. It’s an interesting strategy for a player who would admittedly rather spend a jam session exploring George Benson’s back catalog than noodling over 12-bar turnarounds, but one that has helped the guitarist garner legions of blues-crazed, guitar-centric fans without losing them in the midst of an extended solo. It is very likely a musician’s survival instinct, developed during his earliest, underaged days in the clubs of Austin and taught to him during his time backing Bobby Mack: give the people what they want. And so, while the house band jammed on tunes like “Snake Oil” privately, they also had a few shuffles up their sleeves for when it was time to dance.

Instead of burying those jazz and pop longings, Duarte has spent years blending them all together in a stew heavy on familiar blues refrains palatable enough for newcomers, but complex enough for the diehard fans. Admittedly, a lot of musicians strive to blend all of those genres together; perhaps it works for Duarte because he makes it look particularly effortless. A Chris Duarte album really is what you make of it. If you’re listening for some high-powered Texas blues played with a characteristic flair, you’ll find them in spades; if you’re listening for something more cerebral, you’ll hear the influences of Allan Holdsworth and John McLaughlin poking out in tracks like “Woodpecker.” His newest album, 396, due out in January 2009, promises to continue that trend, with Duarte acknowledging that he’s taken it in a decidedly rock direction.

We sat down with Chris Duarte to talk about his beginnings in Austin, the pressure of working under a cloud of SRV/Hendrix comparisons, and of course, his gear. 

I guess I’d just like to start off with your beginnings. Where were you born and raised?

I was born and raised in San Antonio, Texas. I got interested in music by the Beatles growing up. I may look young, but I’m kind of an older cat—I’m forty-five, born in 1963, and I remember distinctly the Ed Sullivan Show and Tom Jones and all of that. My parents had the Beatles’ second album. A friend of mine down the street had the Hey Jude album, and we used to play it all the time. I used to love “I Should Have Known Better.” AM radio was the thing back then; KTSA was the big radio station down there. Slowly, I shifted… when I was fourteen years old, I got a job working as a bus boy in a restaurant that featured jazz musicians. That’s when I started getting into jazz.

It’s interesting that you had such an eclectic musical upbringing—coming from the heart of the blues scene and listening to your stuff, you’d think you grew up in a house full of blues musicians.

You know, I didn’t really start getting into blues until I was like seventeen. I moved to Austin on my own when I was sixteen years old, and I started networking with musicians. Blues just seemed to be the big thing at the time. The T-birds were a real big band at the time, and Stevie Ray was coming up. The Cobras with Paul Ray were big. But I didn’t think much of it. I always thought, “Jazz is so sophisticated and complex,” and that’s where I was with it. But in truth, I really couldn’t play the stuff at all. I played more jazz-rock stuff, honestly. I was a huge Yes fan… Steve Howe was like my first real big guitar hero.

That’s not a bad first guitar hero to have. You both have a diversity of influences— Howe was a big Barney Kessel fan.

Oh yeah. I remember Steve Howe winning “Best Overall Guitarist” in Guitar Player like five, six years in a row. “South Side of the Sky,” “Going for the One,” “Heart of the Sunrise,” I used to plug away at all that stuff.

And I remember a long time ago before that, too. My neighbor next door when I was still in San Antonio… this kind of eclectic, hippy guy… he was smoking a joint and put on “Birds of Fire” and said, “Check this out.” I was completely stunned, like “What the hell is this?” It jumped out at me because of its sheer ferocity.

Also, back in 1978, somebody got me Land of the Midnight Sun by Al Di Meola. And I had never heard anybody who played guitar like that. So I was completely like, “This is what I want to do. I want to play like this.” I mean, I love Santana and all of that rock stuff, but hearing those notes blow by like that with such power and ferocity… I thought, this is what I want to do. That’s kind of when I moved to jazz, right before I moved to Austin.

Were you playing prog rock stuff when you began playing in bands in Austin? Or were you playing the blues because that’s what everyone else was doing?

Well, unfortunately that wasn’t the stuff we were playing in clubs, but I would sit in with some friends. I used to hang around with David Murray, who is a celebrated guitar player and a really good friend of mine… with Denny Freeman and Derek O’Brien. They used to all go down there. And I used to play with Bobby Mack—we were playing the Holdsworth stuff off of Tony William’s Believe it album, like “Snake Oil.”

And “Snake Oil” is actually an easy solo, because it’s just a real melodic, lyrical solo. And then we’d try to play “Red Alert,” or we’d play some early George Benson off the It’s Uptown with George Benson album. But then we’d have to supplement it with the blues; I’d kind of begrudgingly go, okay, dunka-dunka, let’s go.

But is that what paid the bills at the time?

Blues was so big… it was so happening. And so when Bobby Mack hired me to be his second guitar player when I was still seventeen, he realized that I had this sort of recalcitrant attitude toward the blues. He said, “Okay, we’re going to play this Freddie King, and I want you to learn this solo, note for note. And here’s some Hubert Sumlin stuff I want you to learn. And we’re going to play some Marvin Gaye.” And I would go about learning these solos, because Bobby was smart. He could see I was from San Antonio, which had a lot of cover bands, so he sensed I had a knack, a predisposition to learning that kind of stuff, going note for note. He felt learning this stuff would help me increase my vocabulary and my appreciation of the music, which it did. Which just shows how smart he was and how good of a bandleader he was.

Being that young, did you develop an early appreciation of the merits of versatility as a musician?

Definitely. I always thought [the blues] was easy, but when I started learning it, playing that stuff note for note, I thought, “I don’t sound anything like what’s coming off these records; I sound like halfway there.” I wasn’t sincere enough; I wasn’t getting the feeling. So, I really started to delve into the blues, and I really started gaining a much greater appreciation for it. And to this day, Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters are my favorites. I love all three Kings—and old Hank Ballard tunes.

You were in the right place at the right time for a blues education. Didn’t you see SRV at the Continental?

I saw Stevie once at the Continental Club. I went over there, paid my measly two dollar cover or whatever it was… actually, I think it was like four dollars, which was like, “Whoa! Four bucks?” I caught his second set. And to this day, I still remember that night. He opened up with “Let the Good Times Roll,” and went right to “The Sky is Crying.” I was just amazed. I know I’ve used the word ferocity already, but the passion and ferocity with which he attacked his instrument was really mind-blowing.

And you’ve got to remember that this was before people had all of these pedals and couture amps. And that’s always what I’ve subscribed to. I know this one guy that’s been looking for pickups for years—for years!—and I don’t know how many dozens of kinds of pickups he’s gone through. And I’ve tried to explain to him the metaphysical things… it’s not the pickups, it’s how you approach your instrument, and it’s in your hands.