When referring to the all-time great legends of the blues and the guitar, the formidable Buddy Guy comes to mind every time.
His peers – from Eric Clapton to B.B. King – tip their hats in praise and regard to this esteemed musician, and many of today’s young-gun players cite him as one of their influences, often requesting and partaking in the honor of touring or collaborating with him. One of the blues’ most influential players and interpreters, this four-time Grammy winner is internationally acclaimed not only for his many classic albums on the Chess, Vanguard, and Silvertone labels, but for his tornadic virtuoso live performances. Guy is renowned for setting the stage afire, coiling his testifying, soulful vocals around his six-string ferocity on his beloved Strat.
Guy has just released his first studio album in three years, Sweet Tea, an organic, vivid exploration into the old-time hill country blues of North Mississippi. The album was conceived by producer and Mississippi native Dennis Herring, known for his work with The Counting Crows and Jars of Clay. Herring selected an atmospheric, inspired collage of music for Guy, most of which was popularized by artists on Fat Possum Records, including Junior Kimbrough, T-Model Ford, and Robert Cage. Herring then assembled a sterling ensemble of artists to support Guy; keyboardist Bobby Whitlock (of Derek and the Dominos), Squirrel Nut Zippers’ rhythm guitarist Jim Malthus, and a trio of respected session drummers. And to Guy’s delight, Herring implemented a selection of classic, vintage amplifiers for the esteemed tone aficionado. The record is essential Buddy Guy, through and through.
Born July 30, 1936, in Lettsworth, Louisiana, Guy may be approaching 65 years of age, but those years have infused the firepowered blues rocker with a lightning vibrancy, transforming this latest record into a remarkable interpretation of this traditional roots music form. From his elegiac, lamenting vocals and acoustic guitar on “Done Got Old,” to the Strat-scorched blues rock of “Look What All You Got” to the smoldering lyrics and his searing fretwork on “I Got To Try You Girl,” Guy’s expressive reading of the music is evocative of his gift as a storyteller, the stuff of the crossroads, one might say.
The self-effacing Guy sat to discuss the making of Sweet Tea and elaborated on his music, his career, his charity organization benefiting less fortunate blues artists, and unraveling the tale of the blues as only he can!
Vintage Guitar: Sweet Tea is your first recording exploring the hill-country blues of North Mississippi. What was the impetus for pursuing this artistic direction?
Buddy Guy: Well, the record company came in, plus I’ve been talking to some people…and every time you talk to someone who explored the roots from whoever played the blues in the early days before me, they talk about Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, and all throughout the South, which all had great blues players. But Mississippi’s got great ones, too.
You know, I think I only played in the state of Mississippi twice in my life – unbelievably – because I’ve played in Africa, all over the world. So the record company came to me and said, “We want you to go down to Mississippi and this guy, Junior Kimbrough, has got this great thing.” He was one of the artists who never left Mississippi. Someone recently asked me why a lot of these blues players didn’t leave Mississippi and get recognition? Well, 50 years ago you couldn’t make any money as a guitar player. You just played it for the love of the music.
How did you become involved with producer Dennis Herring?
My record company found him, and he’s been affiliated with some pretty big records. They sent me the demos and I said, “Wait a minute! What am I gonna do about this (laughs)?”
And they said, “Look, we want you to go down to Mississippi to play ‘Buddy Guy plays Junior Kimbrough’ with these guys.” I told them I’ll do anything, because after Chess left and I did records with Vanguard and Atlantic, they said, “Well he’s not good enough to record.” I went to Europe and recorded a few things.
Even though the blues was born in this country, so many artists had to go to Europe to be appreciated and recognized, then America started jumping on the bandwagon.
I remember when the Rolling Stones came here and started smashing big on the “Ed Sullivan Show.” There was also a show called “Shindig,” and the Stones said, “We’ll do ‘Shindig,’ but you got to bring on Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters.” And the people from the show said, “Who in the hell is that?,” and the Stones were offended. They said, “You mean to tell us you don’t know who Muddy Waters is? We named ourselves after one of his famous records.”
So, yes, we were recognized more in Europe than we were here. Then after the Stones, Clapton, and all of them came to the States and said, “These blues artists’ music…” That’s when Muddy started showing up at some of the bigger places, and he still didn’t get the exposure a blues player should get. We still don’t get that, and there’s not that many of us left now to keep carrying it on.
Describe the creative process in the selection of the music for the album, and what your collaboration with Herring brought to the record.
I had the demo and I didn’t know much about this stuff, but naturally, it’s a part of what I’ve been trying to study and refine. Dennis and the record company said they wanted me to be Buddy Guy on top of this stuff these hill country artists had been playing. I got there, and each time the guys Dennis put together played something, I felt better and better, because I don’t read music – I’m self-taught. Nobody ever taught me anything.
You know, I was born so far in the country myself, it was like Mississippi. Not to get off the subject, but in the early ’60s a lot of people started listening to the blues, and we started playing the colleges. And Dick Waterman found Fred McDowell, Son House, The Reverend Gary Davis. I got a chance to meet those guys and they were 80, 85 years old and drinking early in the morning! As a matter of fact, the first time I met them, they offered me breakfast, and I said “Yeah! Let’s have breakfast!” and they brought out a shotglass (laughing)! They told me I wasn’t a true blues player ‘cuz I wasn’t up in the morning drinking with them!
Can you detail the elongated lines and the one or two-chord structures of hill country blues, and how you develop them on guitar?
The best way I can explain that is I just did Buddy Guy. I didn’t go down there and try to learn what those guys were doing because if you go back far enough, it hasn’t been too many years where people had a way to write blues music. People claimed it was unwriteable. The notes on a guitar are not like a keyboard. You hit one, you hit another, and no in-between.
When B.B. starts squeezing the strings on a guitar, it’s like running one note into another one. Used to be people patted their feet to the drummer’s beat and the music just changed when the singer changed it. Going through the bars, counting like that to get a groove. James Brown did that in the ’60s. You get a groove and you just stay there. The blues players were doing that all the time.
So this wasn’t so much of a learning or studying process for your guitar playing – it just came naturally?
Yes, it was just something that brought me back home. When I learned to play, they didn’t know anything about the electric guitar. I’m from Louisiana and my parents were sharecroppers. I didn’t go anywhere. There was no television. Guitar players would pick up things from people they’d watch or they’d learn by picking up a 78 record and listening to Junior Wells or Fred McDowell.
That’s why I started with B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf – people like them.
Do you find the Mississippi hill-country blues style somewhat liberating from standard 12-bar?
I’d say the 12-bar blues you hear now actually came from and was liberated by this hill-country stuff!
How much did you use your Strat on the album?
About 98 percent of the album.
What year is it?
Oh, I got the old one. I didn’t have it down there. Somebody stole the one they gave me, which was the original.
Fender’s doing a great job now. They’ve got a Buddy Guy signature model, and I used it on the album. They’ve been making a guitar for me at least nine years or so, so my Strat’s probably about an ’89 or ’90. The polka dot one is mostly what I used.
Is that your guitar of choice in the studio?
That’s always been my guitar of choice.
And for performances?
Yes! In fact Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck told me they didn’t know anything about the blues or the Strat until they saw me jumping around with Rod Stewart in 1965 (laughing)! Every time I see Eric, he says, “You convinced me that this guitar could sound as good as it does!”
What acoustic guitars did you use on the album, especially on “Done Got Old”?
Some that were in the studio, I’m not sure what they were. You know, I was just sitting there trying to listen to a playback and they brought this guitar and I picked it up and started strumming on it. Next thing I know, a mic was at it, and it was recorded!
So you were just rehearsing and relaxing and they said, “This is good! Let’s record this!”?
I guess people know this, but every chance I get now, people come up and throw a guitar in my hand. Sometimes I’ll just be sitting there and I don’t even realize what I’m doing. But Dennis brought the lyrics of the song to me and I heard them and I just started playing. I don’t even know if they intended for me to do the song on an acoustic guitar or not, but Dennis gave me the song to look at that night and I’m back there the next morning singing, “…I’m an old man…” on an acoustic guitar they brought out. I wasn’t even in the studio. I recorded it sitting on a couch in the engineer’s room.
What do you look for in a guitar to achieve your classic tone?
I can explain that like an automobile. When I go look for an automobile, I don’t look for looks. I look for something that’s going to run. I was down at Fender about three weeks ago and they said, “We want to know what you want, Buddy.” I said, “I want a guitar that sounds good, not that looks good. I’ll make it look good if you come to see me play, and if you got the sound I want, that these guitars had when they came out in the ’50s, ’40s…” That old equipment didn’t have all the technology they’ve got now. In the ’60s they made guitars bigger, good-looking, all different colors. When the Strat came out, they only had a sunburst, but then they wanted to go into all different colors and things and they started losing the original sound.
So your preference is for vintage guitars and equipment?
If I’d have known it was going to be like it is now, I would have bought up all those original guitars (laughing)!
Every year, you tour with many venerable artists, from B.B. King to Jimmie Vaughan. Do you exchange creative ideas and teach each another?
To be honest, when I go out with B.B. King or whoever else, they call me out and say, “When are you all gonna jam together?” (laughing). I say, “You know, I can’t learn when I’m jamming. I like to get out there and watch B.B., Eric, or whoever, play”. But they’ll start laughing and say, “Well, we want to watch you, too!”
When I’m onstage I don’t learn, because I learn by listening and looking. But we have fun every once in awhile. Sometimes I go out to jam because the fans want us to jam together. They want to see us all play together. People love watching several guitar players out there.
Who are your influences?
B.B. King, Muddy Waters, T. Bone Walker, Lightnin’ Hopkins – all those great guys whose music you don’t hear much anymore. B.B.’s still around, but you don’t hear Lightnin’ Hopkins, T. Bone Walker, and Guitar Slim on the radio much. But when you come see me, you’re gonna hear it because I go back and say, “Here’s where we all got it from,” and I’ll play a few licks from some of those great people.
You’re not only renowned as a blues player, but you’ve also often crossed into the boundaries of blues rock and straight-up rock. How does your blues rock playing differ from your traditional blues and the heavy blues rock of “Look What All You Got,” on Sweet Tea?
What rock is…from my point of view, rock came out when the amplifiers got bigger, louder, with all the effects. You just turn it up with distortion and feedback and you get rock. In other words, if you turned the volume down on your guitar and amplifier, you have what you hear on Sweet Tea.
So it’s not so much in terms of your picking technique and how you play the guitar, but the effects and the amps?
Yes, but the guitar player does have something to do with it, too. You can’t take a rock player and put him on a vintage blues amp and make him sound like he does when he’s got all those effects. No. I don’t think he can get that out of a guitar.
If you go back to the roots, you got B.B. King licks in all rock guitar players. I tell him every time I see him, we all should put two Bs on our guitars because he’s the first one that started squeezing those strings! And the rock players do it, the blues players do it, we all do it. But special effects and special people create rock.
Jimi Hendrix was wild, but he had to go to London before they recorded him. That’s where they signed me. This label I’m with now, a guy out of London signed me.
What creative paths or projects do you hope to explore in the future, and as one of the great craftsmen of the blues, how and what roads do you hope to pursue in continually redefining and developing the blues?
I hope this record opens up a few more young people’s eyes, and if it does, I want to just say, “Wait a minute! Bring me the vintage stuff back!” Let’s go back and do that because actually, out on the road, B.B. and myself, it’s all about the vintage stuff. If somebody could go in and make those amps like they were in the ’40s and ’50s…you got a tone there you can’t find in an amplifier now. And that’s what Dennis did in the studio on Sweet Tea. He had these old amps and he plugged them up. I said “You guys! All I want to do is play!”
You’re renowned for performances and regular touring. How do you creatively, mentally, and physically prepare for your live shows, and how do they differ and challenge you artistically, from recording in the studio?
Eric Clapton made a comment once, “I don’t know why Buddy Guy doesn’t make hit records, but if you come see him in person you’d say he should have a hit record every time you go hear him.”
When I go out and play in person, I learned from Guitar Slim and some of those guys to add a little showmanship. They didn’t just stand there, and I think that has something to do with it. I have to move. I’m from the Baptist church!
When I get happy I have to shout. That’s what my family used to say, “You have to shout and let it all come out!”
It’s ironic, they call it the blues and some of it is sad, but some of it’s the reverse. It’s really embracing life – it’s joyful, actually.
When I started coming to New York I had a ring on my finger that said “Blues” and a husband and wife was checking me into my hotel and they saw it and said, “Blues makes you cry.” It just hit me and I said, “Okay, you guys come on out and cry tonight. I’m gonna give you two free passes.” The next morning, I got ready to check out and they said, “Now we’re gonna cry ‘cuz we danced all night! We thought blues was sad.”
That’s the saddest part about not letting people hear Muddy Waters on the radio anymore, singing “Got My Mojo Working.”
Who does your charity organization benefit?
I’ve been trying to find out everything I can about the artists that were never discovered or had any hits. I found out that quite a few of the great blues players who are no longer with us are forgotten and don’t have decent headstones on their graves. Guys like Dick Waterman went and found out who was who and what was what. I hadn’t heard of some of these people, and the first time I ever saw a Strat was when I saw the great Guitar Slim and even he didn’t have a headstone. And when I found out, he was the first one I wanted to do. You not only have to locate the gravesites, but you have to get permission from their families. Myself and The Buddy Guy Charity also give concerts once a year for Lou Gehrig’s disease, cancer…
Clapton has spoken of you with very high regard, even proclaiming you one of the greatest guitar players ever. How emotionally and artistically satisfying is that for you?
Coming from Eric… we’re good friends – the best of friends. When he says something like that, it’s almost like, “You did a good job. I’ll pat you on your back,” and I thank him for that. But that means I got to step out on the stage now, and when I go out there, I can’t make audiences listen to me from what he said. I got to make them listen to me, for what I do. I still got a job to do, and I got to go out there and prove to whoever heard or read that…I want them to say, “Well, Eric didn’t lie.”
This article originally appeared in VG‘s July 2001 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.
Eric Clapton & Buddy Guy – Sweet Home Chicago