INTERVIEW: Buddy Guy

Blues legend. That’s all there is to it. Buddy Guy is one of the pioneers of the Chicago blues sound, a continually amazing guitarist, highly energetic performer, and a prime influence on one Mr Jimi Hendrix. At 75 years young, Guy is nowhere near slowing down, playing Australian dates in Sydney and Melbourne with Jonny Lang, as well as a standout set at Bluesfest. I spoke to Guy prior to Bluesfest and just after he finished up a string of dates on the Experience Hendrix tour in the USA.

“I’ve can’t count the times I’ve been to Australia,” Guy says. “I started coming down there in 1972. That was my first time coming down and I had never met [Delta Blues legend] Arthur Crudup before. I think it was the guy who created the Newport Jazz Festival, George Wein – he was taking it around the world, and that was my first visit to Australia. And what a country, man. I just fell in love with it.”

Guy has a unique perspective on the international blues scene, touring as much as he does, playing on as many diverse bills as he does, and hosting the world’s best blues acts at his Legends club in Chicago. “People are the same,” he says simply. “People often come to my club in Chicago from Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and to me it’s not where you’re from, it’s who you are that counts. And when I come down there, I feel welcome like I’m at home, especially if I can make someone happy with my music. Music speaks its own language. When I first came down there I worried, but now I’ve learned that, Buddy, you’d better go down there and make somebody happy, because the whole world is mad. And music has a tendency to make people smile for the little time they’re listening to you. So hopefully I can keep doing that.”

That’s part of the magic of the blues, Guy says: even if it’s a downtrodden kind of a song, it can help you out of a funk.  The blues doesn’t have to be sad. “A lot of people who really don’t understand music, who come up to me and say ‘Oh blues, it makes you sad,’ after they see my show they say ‘Wow, man, your blues are not sad. We clapped our hands and tapped our feet and got to dance a dance all night. I was misled about it!’ And we don’t sing about everyday life. I’m not coming to Australia to tell you “Oh, I had a hard time all my life.” I come there to make you clap your hands and give me that big smile!”

Naturally, if you see Mr Buddy Guy live, you see him live. No backing tracks, no autotune, no mining. What you see and hear is what you get. And he wouldn’t have it any other way. “Nowadays with all the technology, you see some entertainers – and I won’t name names – they lip sync,” Guy says. “And you know, I can’t even do that. If you come see a blues cat, man, you get the real thing. I can’t even play my own record like I recorded it! You know, I can’t even lip sync it, because when I come down, if I’m happy, man, I might even add a verse to my song! And if I lip sync I can’t do that. If you’re all feeling good and clapping your hands and laughing and enjoying, I might play it twice as long as the record!”

Guy is of course known for his brilliant Stratocaster work, and Fender offers production and Custom Shop variations on the Buddy Guy model. “What happened was, Eric Clapton and the other British guys, they saw me and in 1965 and they’d laugh about it. Him and Jeff Beck, they said ‘I didn’t know a Strat could play blues!’ I said ‘What do you mean, man?’ Because it became so famous. They got hooked on it because they saw me throwing it around on the floor, you know what I mean? I was kicking it with my feet and it was still in tune, man.” Guy goes on to tell one of his favourite Strat stories: he was on tour in Africa once and his guitar was strapped to the top of the car. I blew off in a gust of wind and hit the road. “I said that’s the end of my guitar. We turned around, went back and got it, I had to jump in the street to keep a truck from running over it. I picked it up, and it had one key out of tune. The E string was a little flat. And until somebody stole it from me it was still good! After the British guys made it more famous than we did, they started making them look like they was smashed up. We had them scratched up because we couldn’t afford to get a new one! We didn’t scratch them on purpose! As a matter of fact, we used to smoke a lot, and them tuning keys, that was our ashtrays. If you’re going to play a solo you pop your cigarette under the string there, and you’d forget sometimes and it’d burn down and put burn marks all on the tuning knobs. Then some of the British guys saw it and fell in love with that, and then the company started making them like that! But the way I look at it, that first scratch on your guitar, your new car, your shoe, after that you don’t have to worry about it being scratched because you’ve already got it.”

Guy’s signature polka dot Strat is not the only piece of custom gear he uses: Jim Dunlop also offers a Buddy Guy Crybaby wah wah pedal, with two sweep modes (the bass-heavy ‘Deep’ mode and the more bell-like ‘BG’ setting) and the blues legend’s iconic polka dot design. Guy was one of the early pioneers of the use of the wah wah pedal, especially in a blues setting. “I’ve been fortunate enough to have the Dunlop company work with me,” he says. “I don’t know if they were the first one to make it, because Jimi Hendrix was so creative when he first started using the wah wah, him and the late Earl Hooker, people asked ‘What the hell was that?’ And they just kept banging away on it.”

Hendrix isn’t far from Guy’s thoughts at the moment, having just completed the Experience Hendrix tour. Guy’s influence on the Voodoo Child is well documented, and the inspiration obviously flows back the other way too. “Jimi Hendrix was so creative, man. And when he died, the British people that brought him out were like, ‘Hey man, whatever your’e doing, bring it on’.” Guy says that at first, European audiences weren’t quite warming to tours by the likes of Big Bill Broonzy and Muddy Waters. But the influence of Hendrix changed all that. “Whatever you’re doing, do it well,” he says. “And that’s why Hendrix made himself so famous. He was just doing what he was doing. And the people in New York was booing him for playing like that. Y’know, when Hendrix came along, he was playing for a living with Little Richie. And y’know, back then we didn’t look up and see we could come to Australia or Japan or wherever we go around the world, and make a decent living. It was just the love of music that made us play those guitars like that. Nowadays, young people say ‘Man, if I can be like Jimi Hendrix or Eric Clapton, I can get rich!’ And we didn’t see that. Matter of fact, it wasn’t there! It wasn’t there when I learned to play guitar. I just wanted to learn how to play so I can be different, ‘cos can’t nobody else play yet. And that was a lot of us: the great Muddy, BB and all us felt like that.”

This is an alternate edit of an article originally published in Mixdown magazine.