For almost fifty years, Buddy Guy has been one of the greatest guitarists in Chicago blues — in fact, Eric Clapton once called him the best guitarist alive. Guy has played with everyone from Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf to John Mayer. At sixty-eight, Guy remains an electrifying performer, as liable to summon up the sound of Jimi Hendrix as that of the blues greats he grew up on, such as B.B. King or Guitar Slim. Last year, he released eleven live double CDs from a month-long residency at Legends, his own Chi-town club. “My kids didn’t know who I was till they turned twenty-one and saw me in that club,” says Guy. “Then they said, ‘My God, Dad, I didn’t know you could do that!'”
Guy has sat down with Rolling Stone many times over his career. Below are excerpts from our two most recent chats:
How do you feel about being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
Better late than never. Blues players are the last at everything. Last at airplay, last at everything. I guess that’s why we sing blues and play blues. It was a surprise, and I’m very proud. I don’t have words to express how I feel about it — it’s almost like an explosion waiting to go off. It will set in more after the 14th. I hope they don’t ask me to make a speech because I get emotional. My family visited me for Christmas and one of my nieces was at the table and I came down and said, “This is the most happy Christmas I’ve had since I left Louisiana.” And she busted out and went to crying. I said, “What you cryin’ for?” And she says, “I’m crying cause I’m happy.”
Younger rockers have certainly championed your cause.
I got quite a few good friends I think I got the support from. I’ve seen some quotes from Jeff Beck and other people who are all ready in [the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame], who said that I should’ve been in there. They said they learned a lot of their stuff from me. Hendrix said that, Keith [Richards] and all those guys said that, but I don’t pay that no mind. I still have to go out there and play, so that people know I can play.
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Do you remember the first music you ever heard?
Church music out in the country in Louisiana. We didn’t have keyboards or anything, so you’d just have to put voices together. Later on, my dad got one of those wind-up toys, a phonograph. Then we heard Arthur Crudup and Lonnie Johnson and Lightnin’ Hopkins.
Later in life you met Crudup, Johnson and Hopkins. What was that like?
I never felt I was good enough to shake hands with those guys. I met Lonnie Johnson onstage in Toronto in 1968. I just about fell out! I was so shocked I couldn’t turn his hand a-loose. He had to shake it loose. But looking back on it, I must’ve played something right for those guys to say hi to me.
How do you rate yourself among the guitar greats?
There’s no comparison. It’s like stacking up a boxer of today against Ali, Louis or Marciano. I got a chance to see and play with guys like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and B.B. King — those shoes will never be filled. They had something. If you were interviewing Muddy or Wolf, you’d be tapping your feet — because they talk the music. I don’t have that.
Have you ever been scared or intimidated at a recording session?
[Laughs] I get scared at my own. I always doubted myself and took a back seat. I made a lot of good records behind Muddy, Junior Wells, Wolf, Little Walter and all of ’em. But I’d just sit in the corner — until Muddy taught me how to drink cognac, I wouldn’t say nothin’. Muddy used to call me “motherfucker” and say, “Get over in the goddamn corner and play!” [Laughs]
What’s the craziest stunt you’ve pulled onstage?
I think the worst was in 1968, Central Park in New York. I jumped off a stage that was too high and fractured both of my ankles. When I came to Chicago, there were very few guitar players standing up and playing — all of ’em had chairs. I said, “Shit, I can’t sit!” I got the Baptist-church happiness! I feel like I got to shout when I play!
What goes through your mind when you play a nasty lick?
My dad’s last words to me: “Son. Don’t be the best in town. Just be the best until the best come around.” If someone thinks enough of you to come see you, whether it’s cold or it’s ninety-eight degrees, I owe myself to them. I’m gonna give you everything I know, and it might not be worth a shit, but it was the best that I’ve had. I’ve never canceled a gig.
How was touring with John Mayer?
He can play my music, he can play Stevie Ray Vaughan, he can play Hendrix, he can play everybody. Right now he’s on top, and he’s got a good head on him. Let’s put it this way: He can get down.
Do you ever watch MTV?
Yeah — my youngest daughter, Shawnna, is in a video with Ludacris and one with Mariah Carey. Her face is more famous than mine!
What instrument do you wish you could play?
You made so many great records with Junior Wells — he didn’t teach you how to blow a harp?
To learn an instrument, I think you really need to start young. If you’re forty years old and pick up a guitar, I don’t think you’re gonna be able to play the B.B. King licks. You have to spend more time with that guitar than you do with your wife. That’s why I’m by myself now. I had to come up with a divorce, because my wife would tell me, “You’re putting too much time into the guitar and ain’t givin’ me none.” And I said, “You go, I’m keepin’ my guitar.”