Perfect Sound Forever

"The Best Unknown Guitarist In The World"
The Life And Music Of Roy Buchanan

by Ore Koren
(April 2007)

I first met Roy Buchanan at my local pub- well, actually I met his music, but in this case, it's the same thing. A friend of mine asked me a couple of days earlier if I ever heard about a guitar player named Roy Buchanan. "He goes to wild places on the guitar and you can never guess what he's going to do next," he told me with enthusiasm in his voice. "You need to here him play". A couple of days later, I am seating in a pub, enjoying my beer when I suddenly hear those crazy guitar sounds, screaming gently and aggressively all together. When I asked the owner who was this divine string picker, he answered "the guy's name is Roy Buchanan." As a guitar player myself, I felt a little bit ashamed: how did I managed to miss that guy?! Like most other electric guitarists, I always thought that it couldn't get more soulful than Hendrix but now I wasn't so sure- Buchanan practically melted his soul into his guitar. If you'll listen his song "The Messiah Will Come Again" and it does not touch you deep inside, then you probably don't have a soul.

Born on September 23, 1939, Roy's life was as frustrating and tragic as his music. He spent his early years in the town of Pixley, California with his father who was a farmer and a preacher and his mother who was a housewife. His first musical influences were gospel music and early blues, which he listened to on the radio. When he first expressed interest in the guitar, he was seven years old and his parents had sent him to a local steel guitar teacher. The first pieces he was taught to play were (naturally enough, considering the time and the place were he lived) country songs.

In 1953, when he was thirteen he bought his first Fender Telecaster. This was a landmark not only in Roy's private history but also in musical history since this guitar model was his main axe until his death and since he was the most influential player in what was called the "Telecaster sound."

When he was fifteen, he left his home and learned from the great masters of guitars back then, such as Johnny "Guitar" Watson, Jimmy Nolen and others. In 1957, after playing with his own band, he went to Chicago and played his debut role as a lead guitarist on the Dale Hawkins's song "My Babe." Although he was extremly talented, he still sounded like an ordinary session player and had yet to discover what would later become his unique sound. He later went to Canada and played in Ronnie Hawkins' band, which later became known simply as "The Band." Robbie Robertson - their famous lead guitarist was the bass player originally and studied guitar from Roy. He later became their lead guitar player after Roy left.

Roy tried to break out as a guitarist for both sessions and live bands - during the early '60's but failed to find success. In the mid '60's, he settled in Washington D.C. and started his own band, The Snakestrechers. The band played in clubs in D.C. and became known through "mouth to ear" reputation for Roy's incredible sounds and techniques. A lot of great guitarists such as Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck came to watch him and were astonished by his playing. During that time, a journalist wrote an article about Roy, describing Buchanan as "the best unknown guitarist in the world."

But despite his minor success, Buchanan had to find a way to support his family and music just wasn't enough, so he enrolled in barber school (!). During that time, he bought the guitar that became his best known ax until his death and named her "Nancy." The story of the guitar's purchase can tell you a lot about his special relationship with it: he saw a guy walking in the street with a butter-colored 1953 Telecaster and went out of the barber shop in the middle of a haircut. He exchanged a purple Telecaster for it and remained loyal to "Nancy" for the rest of his career. He once said during an interview "I knew it was mine... it was like he knew it was my guitar too."

In 1971, he won national fame through a one hour TV documentary entitled that's right The Best Unknown Guitarist In The World. That show won him a recording contract with Polydor and Roy "went to the mattress". During the me-decade, he recorded five American albums and three for Atlantic distribution (two of which went gold) and toured the U.S. and abroad. But Roy hated the fact that the company tried to make him "some kind of a pop star"(a quote) and over-produced his music. He quit recording in 1981 and resumed in 1985 with Alligator Records on the condition that he was given a full artistic freedom. He then recorded When The Guitar Plays The Blues which went straight to the Billboard chart and remained there for 13 weeks. By 1987, he recorded another three albums. Then in 1988, he was arrested after he came back home drunk and aggressive. His wife called the police and the sheriff transfered him to the county jail in Fairfax, Virginia were he lived. During that night, he committed suicide in jail, although there are those who believe that he was killed by a strong hit to the head.

Buchanan's music influenced a lot of famous guitar players. Clapton was amazed by his ability. Jeff Beck imitated his pinched harmonics and volume swells. Danny Gatton another D.C. player played with him and was influenced by his obscure sound. And of course, Robbie Robertson learned most of his "guitar thinking" from Roy.

Buchanan's special sound came from different technics and guitar mannerisms, some of which were his own invention. The most famous was probably his pinched harmonics that were imitated by almost every guitar player from the early '70's and on such as Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Eddie Van Halen and thousands of others. That sound is produced by blocking the string with the thumb right after picking, resembling a sudden squall of high frequencies. The first time it was recorded was during a session in 1962. Although this term is confused with artificial harmonics, they are basicly different. His other "instrumental invention" is volume swells, which is basically lowering the volume fast and raising it slowly when playing. Volume swelling is also a common trick by other players, being used by players such as Van Halen and Yngwie Malmsteen. Roy discovered the swells actually by accident when he hit the volume knob with his hand during session.

The third and most important part of his playing was his amazing ability to pass his thoughts from his brain and feeling from his heart, through his hands to the guitar and on to his crowd. Yes, a lot of players have this ability, a lot of players are doing it but probably none could match his amazing ability to mix sounds of crying and laughter, happiness and envy and of life in general, baking them with a hot overdrive tuned to max and serving them to a hungry audience. That's why he was probably (and not just in my humble opinion but for a whole lot of other music lovers) one of the best soul guitar player that ever lived.

If you want to start listening to Buchanan's music, you don't have to be a guitar player just a plain music fan. For starters, I recommend that you buy the album Sweet Dreams The Anthology Of Roy Buchanan (Polydor, 1992) or any other of his collections. Sweet Dreams was the first Roy album that I ever heard but every collection is a good one because you can here his amazing musical flexibility. There are songs from '69 where his music sounds like Genesis later did in their Selling England By the Pound period (years before they even knew what they want their sound to be like) and songs from the '80's where his music sounds like '50's guitar legend Lightning Slim.

Roy's life was both ordinary and legendary. His music was never fully commercialized and that kept him authentic. He passed through a dark time for himself and refined it into musical gold. He just wanted to play in his own unique way and that made him a giant. He melted himself into his guitar and became some sort of wonderful cyborg. Like Prometheus, he gave us the fire and was burned by it. Take that fire.


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