|Buddy Guy is one of the last real bluesmen in America. His journey from a farm in Louisiana to the streets of Chicago to international superstardom was not accomplished without a lot of hard work, tribulation and perseverance. Many of the guitar heroes of the past 40 years sat at the feet of Buddy, learning from the master, including Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughan. But Buddy, himself, is not done learning, as he tackles songs by the late Junior Kimbrough. He explains to Guitar Center in a recent interview, the secret to the sweetest tea is in Mississippi.
GC: What can you tell us about your new record Sweet Tea?
Buddy Guy: I thought at one point I'd met everyone from Mississippi. I met Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, B.B. King, Fred McDowell, Son House and all those great old players who taught Muddy Waters. Most of those guys passed away a few years ago and I said to myself, "Well, I got it all." Then folks said, "Wait a minute now, Buddy, you haven't heard it all." When I heard Junior Kimbrough doing his stuff, I said, "There's still something I haven't heard in Mississippi. Let me see what I can do with this." My impression was, "I don't want to play this because I'm going to mess it up." My record company said, "No, we're fine that you want to play Buddy Guy on top of it." So, that's what you got.
GC: What do you think about the modern-day technology involved in making music?
Buddy Guy: The studio I recorded in is like a vintage studio. It doesn't have all the technology. You can hear what was lost when Chess (Buddy's former label) started going tech and Fender was sold to CBS. That's when they lost that tone for looks. Around that point in time, I was in New Jersey at Guild and they were making a new amplifier. The engineer said to me that this was a tubeless amp. I kept saying that I don't care how much tech you've got or how big an engineer you got, there's something I don't hear. That guy came back to me 30 years later and said, "You were right."
GC: What amps are you using now?
Buddy Guy: The Fender people came up with a Cyber-Twin amp. You'd think that's what I use in the studio because it's so close to my sound and I'm very thankful to them. I was smiling when I played it. It sounds so similar to what we got in the studio. I used to say to them, "Man, you've lost the tone of the blues." But these guys got it back from CBS. When Fender sold to CBS, we lost that tone that Otis Redding had.
GC: So the Cyber-Twin recaptured some of that old sound?
Buddy Guy: As close as I've ever heard since they lost it. I still have two of those old Fender Bassmans and I've got some guy trying to redo them now. He's had them a couple of years, so I told him, "However long it takes, just keep them."
GC: Do you use the Cyber-Twin on the Sweet Tea record?
Buddy Guy: No. We had different amplifiers in the studio there.
GC: Old amps?
Buddy Guy: Yeah. With the (Rolling) Stones, Clapton and people collecting all those damn things, you can't hardly find them any more. Every time I come up with one of those fancy Strats, Eric Clapton will come to me and say, "Where did you get that?" And I'll say, "Don't worry where I got it. I'm not going let you have it!"
GC: Do you ever use anything like pedals or effects with your set-up?
Buddy Guy: Sometimes if I want to play a few licks from Hendrix, I may use the wah-wah pedal. B.B. King is one of my favorites. I like shaking the wrists. You know, you'll never see a blues guy with that little microphone around his ear, dancing and playing at the same time. When you see a bluesman, he's ringing wet and giving you the best he's got. I've been doing that all my life. A couple of times, a radio station disc jockey would be in a club and they would put a microphone up. I'd be up there pretending I'm singing the song the DJ's playing. That's just not me. I can't do that. I got to be for real.
GC: I think most people would rather hear the real thing anyway.
Buddy Guy: Of course. Show me that you do it. Don't tell me. Don't come show me this technology and you couldn't do it if you tried. In the fifties I think, a guy speeded up a record and called it the Chipmunks. That record sold so many copies. I used to go up to Leonard Chess (Chess Records chief) and ask, "How the hell is a guy going to perform that?" If you come hear Buddy Guy play, you're not going to hear note for note from the record. I'm going to play it in a way that you're going to know it's me playing.
GC: You talked about the Cyber-Twin and talked about using the old vintage stuff in the studio. Do you normally use different guitars or amps when recording as opposed to doing a live show?
Buddy Guy: I play my Strat 90% of the time. I was kind of educated with that thing.
GC: You've been known for a more distorted, high-volume sound and use of feedback. When you started playing, what led you to start playing that way?
Buddy Guy: We used to play clubs in Chicago and there wasn't a bandstand where we played. As a matter of fact, at some of the clubs you would play behind the bar. So we'd play with everything level to the floor. I forgot to turn my guitar off one night and a lady walked by and her dress hit it. The jukebox was going with a tune and she hit the G string. The record on the box was in the same key and my Strat just sat there and carried this note until the record ended. I looked at it and said, "Wait a minute, I just found something." I've been doing that ever since. But Leonard Chess wouldn't let me do that. I've tried like hell to record that. Just before he died, he called me into his office. He bent over and said, "I want you to kick me in my ass." He'd been listening to Eric and Hendrix. He said, "You've been trying to sell me this (sound) and I've been running you out of the studio calling it noise. Now it's making millions!"
GC: How is making records these days different from the way it was done back in the '50s and '60s?
Buddy Guy: Well, Chess' first year was in something like a warehouse. It was reel to reel. This new record wasn't reel to reel, but we used about the oldest board there is. You know, there's too much technology. I get questions from people like, "How come you don't sound like you used to?" The equipment is not there. But, I don't care how well you play a blues record, the biggest problem you have is if you're black. I'm trying to open the doors to some of these big stations which refuse to play a version of this tune while Led Zeppelin can play it and burn it up. They'll call it classic. I would just like to know why. We play the same stuff.
GC: On this latest record are you going back and doing it the old way to a degree?
Buddy Guy: No, I'm just still playing Buddy Guy. The equipment in the studio captured what I've been doing all my life. But you know if you bring up all this new equipment and this new technology in the studio, what you got on CD is me through technology. This is the closest to the old sound as you can get.
GC: You've also designed the Buddy Guy signature Strat?
Buddy Guy: Yes.
GC: Why did you pick that style of guitar with those features?
Buddy Guy: It's the closest thing to the original. Back in the '60s you didn't just go to a store and say, "I got to have a Fender or a Marshall or something." You just say, "I want an amplifier." You'd plug that son of a bitch up and you had exactly what you were playing out there. Muddy Waters and his whole band would go to a gig out of town and everything was in the car. The amplifiers were so small.
GC: In one car?
Buddy Guy: Yeah. Now you need a truck and a trailer and a bus to carry the amplifiers.
GC: A lot of the places you're playing these days are probably going to be bigger.
Buddy Guy: Yeah, but the first time I went to California, I went out with that one Bassman in my hand. When they were setting up for sound check, everybody was criticizing me and saying, "Where you going with that?" They had all these big Marshalls, these stacks. I said, "That's alright. When it's all over, I'll still be here." So, before we played the Avalon Ballroom in 1967, I heard a commotion because nobody wanted to go on first. I had never been to California before. I had my four-piece band and I said, "Man, I come out here to play." The next night the promoter said, "What the hell you got in the amp?" because nobody wanted to come on behind me anymore. I said, "Nothing but Buddy."
GC: Do you do anything differently if you're playing a really big place versus a small place? Is it just having the right P.A.?
Buddy Guy: No. What happened back in those days we didn't have soundboards and the mic that you sang through would pick up the drums and everything else loud enough to make it perfect. If you go to my club in Chicago now, they've got everything mic'd. We didn't have all that stuff. Albert King used to unplug it all. Unplug the bass, the drums and everything. We were in Italy once and I saw him do that. I said, "He's mad now!" When he went back out there and struck his guitar, it was perfect.
||GC: Do you think it's louder these days?
Buddy Guy: It's much louder. You know, Hendrix and the British groups, I curse them. I tell Eric and them, "You're all the cause the Stratocaster is so expensive and you have to buy all this other stuff to play with." I suppose at these big outdoor theaters you're going to have the sound system, but I don't think the drums should be louder than the lead guitar. I don't think the foot beat on the bass drum should be making the speakers jump. But that's what you got. That's what people got kind of used to now. I got offered to play in Dallas not too long ago and the guy told me, "The tickets are $100." I said, "I don't feel comfortable because my fans shouldn't pay $100." The guy called back and said, "Listen, your fans will pay $250 to hear you play a club where the blues used to be played," because you don't hear that when you go out anymore. People come up and say I don't get close to you when you're in the big ones. I just want to see you where you can see the smoke. You know, smell the whiskey or something. That's where the blues started, and a matter of fact all of it, not just blues. Forty years ago you didn't have the big outdoor theaters. I think George Wein at Newport was the first one.
GC: So you think it's better for the audience to see music performed in a smaller place?
Buddy Guy: Yeah, but the whole bottom line is you make a decent living at these places. I'm not criticizing them because it made me live more comfortably.
GC: More people make more money.
Buddy Guy: For the promoters, for the audience and everything else, it's economics. More people get a chance to see you, but if you want to compare that to the early days, you can't go back. But you can go back with instruments.
GC: Do you have a wish list for instruments?
Buddy Guy: (Laughing) Used to be, you could go down and buy this original Fender Stratocaster for, I think, $179 with the case. I told somebody the other day, "If I would've known what I know now, I would've done nothing but buy Strats and put them in a warehouse because some of those things are worth forty, fifty-thousand dollars now."
GC: If you had a truckload of those, wow, you'd be set!
Buddy Guy: Oh if I had a truckload of those, I don't think I could sell one now.
Buddy Guy: No, man, because I would look at that thing and say look what I got.
GC: It's worth too much to sell it.
Buddy Guy: I just fall in love. Every time I think about it. I only had one before I got this one and they broke into my house and stole it. So, if somebody asked me to put this one in the Hall of Fame or something, I would say, "Wait a minute, let me give you another one. Not that one." That would be too far away from me.
GC: If you're writing songs or anything like that, do you have any kind of a home studio that you record song ideas on?
Buddy Guy: No, no. But most of my stuff comes from being in restaurants if I'm out, or on a plane. I just hear conversations. I'm not a great writer, but I hear conversations. I listen to a lot of other people play music. I pick up stuff like that. I'm sitting up here now and my radio is on the spiritual station.
GC: So, in other words, if you come up with an idea or something, you just have to try to remember it until the next time you have a guitar in your hands?
Buddy Guy: Yeah, but I don't remember just like I heard it. I just want to go get the guitar and have an idea of what I heard. Then when I grab my guitar and play, you get a Buddy Guy lick. If I just go straight after what I heard, then I'm gonna be too much like Tom, Dick and Harry.
GC: Yeah, just copying somebody else.
Buddy Guy: Right, right. So that's what I did. I was born so far in the country. I think I was about fifteen years old before my mom and dad had a radio. But if you know what is in your mind and what you heard in your soul and body, you didn't need it from a radio. Then when you hear the radio, you get an idea. You don't just say, "Well let me go get that." That's already got. Like I tell people, you'll never hear me listening to a Buddy Guy cut. I don't play Buddy Guy because that's something I already know. Every time you hear me listening, I'm trying to learn something that maybe might help me on my next session, on my next gig.
GC: Do you practice a lot?
Buddy Guy: No, and that's a bad habit I got. I don't recommend that to anybody. I got a very bad habit. So, I sit here and listen to this radio now and tomorrow something will cross my mind. As I said, I don't want it identical to what I was listening to. I don't read music, so I just want what I heard to stay in my mind. Even if I don't get it exactly the way I heard it, I know what I'm looking for and something else will pop up.
GC: So you're kind of practicing by just listening to other stuff?
Buddy Guy: Right.
GC: Do you have a songwriting routine?
Buddy Guy: No. The biggest record I ever wrote was "Damn Right I Got The Blues." I was in my club one night and about four guys came in. I wish I could've learned how to shoot pool, but I was born on a farm. The only stick I had was a fishing pole. I couldn't shoot pool, so the four guys asked, "Are you going to play some damn blues?" And I said, "You damn right I'm going to play some blues," and something hit me. "Damn right you got the blues," you know, and I just went from there.
GC: Before a performance do you warm up?
Buddy Guy: Sometimes I take out a little guitar and it warms my fingers. Like if I'd been off and the calluses on my hand stayed in water too much, I lose them. When you go back out there for that first week or so, somebody has to stick needles in your fingers. But all that is a part of the job. I learned to deal with that.
GC: So, what advice would you have for a young player who might want to model their career after yours?
Buddy Guy: (Laughing) I don't like to answer that question, to be successful like me. They tell me only 5% are going to make it. I wouldn't have ever thought I was in that 5%, especially if I heard B.B. King, Earl Hooker, Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf and Junior Wells playing. But I still would've played it because I loved it. I'm trying to help kids now have patience.
GC: Do you think that breaking into the music business is different than it was back in the '50s and '60s?
Buddy Guy: No, but I think back in the '50s if a record company made a record with you, all the radio stations played. They could play what they wanted to. Then, in the '60s there was payola and it was tough to get it on the radio.
GC: Now you got things like the Internet where people are listening to music.
Buddy Guy: But you have to get it in there too, right? Before, I could turn an AM station on and hear Frank Sinatra, Count Basie, Woody Herman and they could pop you a Howling Wolf or a John Lee Hooker.
GC: More of a mix.
Buddy Guy: The disc jockey could play what he wanted. Now, I understand the disc jockey deals with a program director that gives him ten records to play. Then the next DJ comes on and gets the same ten. You're not going to get in there.
GC: Back then, you could make a record and it would probably get on the radio.
Buddy Guy: Right. You had only yourself to blame if it wasn't good. I don't know anybody except the Stones and Eric that touch something and it turns to gold. Every time we get together, I say to those guys, "Please keep touching me!"
GC: Are there any young blues players today that you're listening to?
Buddy Guy: I look at Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Johnny Lang and I'm wondering where the hell these guys are coming from. Johnny Lang says, "I'm from the country just like you. I'm a farm boy." I said, "Damn, man," because I couldn't do that when I was 16, 17 or 18.
GC: We're getting down to the end here, but I wanted to know if you ever shop at Guitar Center?
Buddy Guy: I got my picture up (at Guitar Center) and I've been there several times because my kids were ready for instruments and they say I'll get a discount if I go. But I love to go to them anyway.
GC: Thanks a lot for doing the interview.
Buddy Guy: Thank you so much. And always, if I can say or do anything to help the blues out, just let me know.
Web addendum: Check out Hollywood's RockWalk pages of Buddy Guy, B.B. King & John Lee Hooker!