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."
It was the mid-Sixties British Invasion, though, that fueled Guy's career trajectory. "I was shocked when the Rolling Stones recorded Muddy Waters's music and made a million dollars," Guy says, still faintly bemused. "And then came Eric [Clapton] and those guys. They knew all about Chess. It was a funny thing, because it took those British cats coming over here for white America to pick up on what we'd been doing all along and give us a boost. I thank God they did."
Indeed, Clapton -- a Guy disciple who has long lauded him as the greatest living blues guitarist -- was instrumental in launching a series of European tours for Guy in the late Sixties. (The late Stevie Ray Vaughan would repay his creative debt to Guy by exposing him to a wider audience in the Eighties through tours and shows together.) "I first came over here, to England, in 1965," Guy recalls. "And you know who my valet was on that first tour? Rod Stewart. Sure enough. He was just struggling then. Tomorrow I'm fixing to chase him down."
Throughout the Seventies and Eighties, Guy continued to tour across the globe and record as a sideman and a bandleader; he also devoted himself to his rapidly expanding family and opened two clubs in Chicago, the Checkerboard Lounge and Legends. In 1990 Silvertone offered Guy a contract, and over the next five years he released three star-studded albums -- Damn Right I've Got the Blues, Feels Like Rain, and Slippin' In -- each of which won a Grammy Award; they sold a combined two million copies worldwide. Guests on the albums include everyone from Bonnie Raitt and Travis Tritt to Jeff Beck and John Mayall, but it's the durability of Guy's playing and the urgency of his vocals that make his Nineties recordings worthy additions to his vast canon.
For Live! The Real Deal, his latest release for Silvertone, Guy runs through some old classics and new cuts at Legends, with white-hot backing from G.E. Smith & the Saturday Night Live Band. "I was on the show a couple of times and the folks at the record company said it sounded real good," Guy notes. "So we did a live record with a full band. I wanted that live sound because you hear so much fake stuff these days. I listen to some records and say, 'What the hell is that?'"
Though he turns 60 next month and has to incorporate an afternoon nap into his daily regimen, Guy performs with the same sweat-soaked intensity he did years ago: "I got a guitarist on this tour, a young fella, and he came into my room the other night and said, 'Mr. Guy, I want to ask you something. How do you go out every night and never have a bad show?' I said, 'Son, if you're playing for someone else and have a bad night, that's when you put down the guitar.'
"See, that's the reason I like to come off-stage -- so the fans can shake my hand or put their arms around me. That's like my way of saying, 'You made me. You can break me.' I wouldn't like to be like no Michael Jackson, so isolated. I like to go to my club and sit and answer questions all day, though you gotta let me take a bath [after the show] or you're gonna smell me. But just because I got a little name for myself don't mean I'm different from you."
In keeping with that thinking, Guy will be taking part in an upcoming benefit concert for San Francisco's Milarepa Fund, which is designed to help promote and preserve Buddhist philosophies and practices. The concert is being organized by the Beastie Boys and features a motley crew that includes Sonic Youth, Santana, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. "I love doing benefits, 'cause that's the way I was brought up," Guy explains. "If all of us who could help would help, the world would be a different place. When I talk like that, my sister tells me I should go into preaching. But you got to know the Bible backwards and forwards to do that. It ain't right to preach if you don't know the book, and there's already too many corrupted preachers out there.
"No," Guy concludes, "it was the Good Lord who sent the man that bought me my first guitar, and I expect He knew what He was doing. So I'll stick with my guitar and just keep preaching with that.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.