“When I have to go on stage and hold my own with Buddy Guy — it’s frightening,” Carlos Santana, a guitar legend in his own right, exclaimed during an October New Times interview. That says a lot about the kind of guitar player Guy is. Just a hair shy of his 80th birthday, Guy remains fierce, determined, and in total command of his instrument, putting forth a tone that cuts through steel like butter while reminding listeners of the power of blues.
Like many great blues guitarists, Guy taught himself on a homemade guitar before eventually getting a “proper” instrument. And, like many post-war bluesmen, Guy left his southern home (Lettsworth, Louisiana) for Chicago. There, Guy became part of the influential Chess Records house band, backing Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, and others.
“Buddy always had great respect for the elders while pushing the envelope with more contemporary sounds. … Buddy really took hold in the 1960s as new blood with a fiery, more modern blues sound,” Phoenix blues musician and Rhythm Room owner Bob Corritore says. “His brilliant showmanship made him a favorite on the then-new college concert circuit, as well as a home-base club draw on Chicago’s South Side.”
Ironically, label owner Leonard Chess disapproved of Guy’s live — and now signature — playing style. Thus, Guy’s one Chess release was too soulful to be considered a true blues album.
Guy’s aggressive playing style utilizes feedback, distortion, and long solos, yet he is equally adept at providing a light touch and tone as the perfect counterpoint.
“Buddy is most distinctive for his 1960s rubber-band guitar tone with his explosive, inventive, and interactive playing,” Corritore adds. “[That style] influenced generations of guitarists.”
Indeed, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page cite Guy as a major influence. While Guy — and many blues artists — stumbled through the 1970s, his future Rock and Roll Hall of Fame career was revived with Clapton’s help in the late 1980s.
Guy has released 17 studio and 10 live albums (B.B. King, by comparison, issued more than 100), yet six have garnered Grammy Awards. Here are five albums (just one a Grammy winner) any blues enthusiast should consider essential listening.
Hoodoo Man Blues: Though a Junior Wells album, Guy’s playing (credited to Friendly Chap since Guy was signed to Chess) is revolutionary for 1965, shifting from quiet, hushed tones, to loud blasts of sound, all while acting as the perfect foil to Wells’ harmonica wails and vocal shouts.
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A Man and The Blues and This is Buddy Guy: Both released on Vanguard in 1968, that latter is, in part, the live incarnation of the former. These are the first true blues albums of Guy’s career, showcasing his power in the studio and his controlled mayhem on stage.
Stone Crazy!: Guy’s only recording for Chicago’s Alligator Records yielded one of his signature tracks with a simply stone crazy, insane, shiver-inducing guitar solo. The entire 1979 album is late-period Chicago blues at its best.
DJ Play My Blues: A “forgotten” 1982 British-only release, Guy was given total control on this album of scorching, guitar-driven blues even as the title track ironically bemoans Guy’s total lack of radio airplay.
Damn Right, I’ve Got The Blues: Guy’s comeback album and first Grammy winner, this album captures Guy in full guitargasmic glory. Guy, singing and playing with total confidence, with guests including Mark Knopfler and Jeff Beck, revisits blues classics like “Mustang Sally” and “Early in the Morning.” While Guy has since issued five additional, though strikingly similar, Grammy winners (including 2015’s Born to Play Guitar), none match the emotional power of this 1991 release.
Buddy Guy is scheduled to play Friday, June 3, at Marquee Theatre in Tempe.