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The instrument seems such a natural fit in his large, graceful hands that it's hard to imagine a time when Buddy Guy wasn't playing the guitar. Truth is, the 59-year-old blues legend had no idea what a guitar was as a child. "I grew up on a farm near Simmesport, Louisiana, and we didn't even have electricity in the house till I was about thirteen," recounts Guy, speaking over the phone from Birmingham, England, a stop on his recent European tour. "I just took rubber bands or string and stretched them tight as I could across the wall and banged on them to see what sound I could get. Then I saw a picture of a guitar in a magazine and I tried to make my own. I used to take a Prince Albert tobacco can and attach a stick to that and run strings along it. Or I'd take a can of lighter fluid and cut a hole in that and string it up. You could cut your damn hand playing that, if you didn't watch it.
"Finally, my dad found a guitar with two strings and paid a few bucks for that. Well, one day I was on our porch banging on that thing when this gentleman passes by. A stranger, I mean. He saw me playing and took me straight downtown and bought me my first real guitar, a Harmony. To me that was a God-sent man," Guy says, his raspy lilt a bit dreamy at the edges. "I spent years trying to track him down, to thank him. But I never did."
Thanks to that man might just as well go out from the swelling legion of fans who have followed Guy's career. His style, which weds finger-flying abandon to forthright lamentation, has ranked him as one of the finest electric blues guitarists in the world. His work is notable mostly for its stylistic range: Whether as a Young Turk sitting in with the Muddy Waters Blues Band at Chess Records or an elder statesman making his own star-studded recordings, Guy's fretwork accommodates both showy arpeggio runs and sustained single notes, squalling outbursts and soft melodic interludes. His virtuosity, and the raw Southern grit of his best recordings, have made him a role model for a legion of players, from Eric Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughan to Johnny Clyde Copeland and Robert Cray.
Much of Guy's genius lies in his ability to absorb styles from a variety of mentors, a skill established early in his life when Guy's parents managed to purchase a radio-phonograph. "They had a program on the radio every afternoon that played B.B. King, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, and when I heard that I said, 'This is it.' I taught myself to play for the love of the music."
By the time Guy was in his early teens, however, his family's economic woes forced him to quit high school and seek work. "We were sharecropping cotton and corn," he remembers. "Whatever else we had to eat we grew ourselves. Peaches and figs and tomatoes. I look back every day and I don't know how in the hell my parents managed with five children."
In 1957 Guy struck out for Chicago, hoping to find a day job, and, more remotely, aiming to make his name as a bluesman. But the city that greeted the young country boy was, in his own words, "a jungle," with a cutthroat blues community overpopulated with ace guitar slingers. "They had so many guitar players there already I just about gave away my guitar," he recalls with a husky laugh. "Fact is, I did give up my slide. I went to watch Guitar Slim play one night, and after the show I came up to him and said, 'You just go ahead and take my slide. I got no use for it after what I seen. I'll just work with my fingers.'"
With the market for fret men glutted, Guy knew that he needed some kind of gimmick to make an impression. That's when he hit on the idea of giving himself a 150-foot lead on his guitar so he could walk around while he jammed. His break came in 1958. "I was invited to play at a battle of the guitarists," he recounts. "This was at a club called the Blue Flame, at the corner of Drexel and 39th. I had my lead hooked in and I walked in that door banging on my guitar and everyone in the room hollered, 'Where is he?'" The trick -- which was to become Guy's trademark -- along with an incendiary solo won him the attention of veteran players Magic Sam and Otis Rush, who took Guy to Cobra Records, their Chicago-based label, where he cut his first single, "Sit and Cry and Sing the Blues."
Guy soon earned a reputation as one of Chicago's preeminent session players. His fiery style A which incorporates the influences of Elmore James, Guitar Slim, and B.B. King A helped shape some of the classic Chess Records sides by blues pioneers such as Howlin' Wolf (check out the scorch on Wolf's "Killing Floor"), Muddy Waters, and Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller). He also collaborated frequently with youthful contemporaries such as Junior Wells, the harp man with whom Guy cut the seminal 1965 album Hoodoo Man Blues. His soulful vocal style was showcased on a series of solo singles and albums released on Chess, including "My Time After Awhile" and "Stone Crazy."