Buddy Guy’s Burden of Greatness

Luke Epplin watches Buddy Guy, the “world’s greatest living guitarist,” combat his increasing irrelevancy with bombastic guitar solos.


Eight inches of snow doesn’t deter weathered Chicago joggers, the kind that shuffle along iced bike paths near the rough waters of Lake Michigan. Anything less than a foot barely registers in a city often dusted white by the holidays. This winter the first snowstorm came unusually late, in mid-January, but when it did, the Windy City fell into a familiar routine: O’Hare closed all runways but one, fleets of salt trucks rumbled along Wacker and La Salle, pedestrians layered in fleece grumbled about the dreaded lake effect. It was ideal weather for the blues.

As opposed to the harmonica-laden acoustic blues prevalent in the South, Chicago cultivated a plugged-in style punctuated by boisterous improvisation and onstage flamboyance, and designed to make audiences forget about the frigid temperatures outside. Many of the most innovative blues players of the past century — Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Buddy Guy, Howlin’ Wolf — migrated up to Chicago from the Mississippi Delta or the Louisiana Gulf and made their names in the clubs on the city’s west and south sides. The clubs have since closed and the players have mostly passed, but Buddy Guy’s club, Legends, in the South Loop keeps their legacy alive.

The first time I attended a show at Legends in late 2010, Buddy Guy slipped unannounced onto the stage to the stunned delight of the crowd. Guy is a guitarist’s guitarist, a one-time session player at the legendary Chess Records whose manic fretwork shaped not only the blues but also rock and heavy metal, even if Guy himself never enjoyed the mainstream success of the guitar gods whom he inspired. Onstage that night, Guy beckoned for a waitress to bring him a shot of cognac, and after downing that and leering comically at this twenty-something employee, he asked for a refill. With a drink in his hand, Guy crooned some nonsensical lyrics about a farm girl who once milked a bull by mistake. With the audience in hysterics, Guy abruptly stopped the tune and exclaimed, “Hey, don’t blame me! I didn’t write the fucking song.” Then he climbed off the stage and strode over to the bar, where he signed autographs and rebuffed our pleas to strap on his instrument. If we wanted to hear Guy on the guitar, we’d have to come back in January, when Guy held court on the weekends. I resolved to do just that.

Seeing Buddy Guy perform at his blues club in January is invariably an uncomfortable experience. In order to secure a seat at the roughly twenty-five tables blocked along the stage, it’s necessary to arrive around lunchtime and then linger for the next ten hours. On the Friday that I saw Guy play, a bouncer told me that the last seat had been claimed shortly after two in the afternoon for a 10:30 show. Several groups dealt cards to pass the time; others amassed formidable drink tabs.

When I arrived around seven, a slide guitarist who seemed to slip further into middle age with each passing moment was groaning through his joyless repertoire. He confided in the audience as a patient would in a therapist, rambling on about lean years drifting through faceless cities like Indianapolis and Milwaukee, befriending beggars with names like Crawdaddy who killed on the guitar but had little to show for it in their upturned hats. The next band to take the stage, Lil’ Ed and the Blues Imperials, couldn’t have been more different. A diminutive showman in his late fifties, Lil’ Ed sported a clown-nose red suit, glasses not seen since the heyday of Run-D.M.C., and a fez that seemed to have been decorated by a grade-schooler with an abundance of sequins and glue sticks. His band played feel-good music for an audience in the mood to feel good. We ate it up.

By the time Lil’ Ed departed, the room had become so full that security guards erected guardrails so that we’d have clear paths to the exits. The audience looked identical to one you’d find in the lower rungs of Wrigley Field on a summer afternoon: an even mix of youth and middle age, upwardly mobile, and almost uniformly white.

Almost exactly at 10:30, Buddy Guy strutted out in a red velvet suit and matching derby, a pink ruffled shirt, and dark blue pants. Slung across his chest with a shoulder strap that bore the letters “BG” in glittering jewels was his signature off-white Fender Stratocaster. Seconds after taking the stage Guy launched into a solo that had all the subtlety of a firing machine gun. His fingers slashed up and down the guitar’s neck, spraying out bursts of clustered notes. There was little concern for establishing melodic through-lines. What mattered was speed and spectacle, the kind of shredding that proclaimed, “badass at work.” It looked impressive but sounded, frankly, like a shitstorm.

Eric Clapton once dubbed Buddy Guy the “greatest guitar player alive,” and Guy has carried that burden ever since. He seemed to have internalized the need to be not merely great, but the greatest-guitar-player-alive great, lest the audience walk away thinking: “That Eric Clapton is full of shit.” Too often, Guy’s improvised jamming was all climax and no foreplay, frenzied fretwork designed to call attention to itself. And no solo could simply end of its own accord; it needed a concluding flourish. Sometimes Guy would theatrically place his strumming hand behind his back and then continue riffing on the neck with his opposite hand, raising his eyebrows as if this were occurring by magic. Other times he’d flip the guitar backwards and rub it against his chest, emitting a sort of turntable scratch. More commonly, he’d bend muscularly on the G string, his face grimacing in apparent pain, and then stagger over to the mic and drawl, “Aaaaahhhh shit!”

Even his audience banter hinted at underlying insecurities, with every sentence laced with profanity. “Will you shut the fuck up?” he snapped at those calling out requests before then smiling to signify that he was only kidding, although maybe not entirely. After particularly enthusiastic rounds of applause, he’d purred, “That’s right. I’m gonna play for you guys all fucking night long.” We rewarded each curse with whoops and hollers, encouraging Guy to feed us more.

No song better encapsulated Guy’s compulsion to dazzle than “74 Years Young,” the opening track on his latest album, Living Proof, and a popular selection among the crowd. The song opened with a thudding minor chord riff over which Guy boasted of sexual conquests and gigs with A-list bands: “I been all around the world/ Everywhere’s home/ Drank wine with kings/ And the Rolling Stones.” It was a well-earned tune, the sort of nostalgic pat-on-the-back that aging rockers give themselves, but midway through Guy grew restless with the laidback rhythm and unleashed a tumultuous solo with all the virility of a man a quarter century younger. He played like someone trying to set the Guinness world record for most notes squeezed into a single moment. It was astounding in its dexterity and technique. It was also mostly unlistenable.

Throughout the evening, Guy alluded to the marginal niche that blues occupies in the contemporary music landscape. Between songs, he urged audience members to buy his latest album at the club’s gift shop because they wouldn’t be able to find it at Target the next day. After several fans booed, Guy snapped, “Don’t tell me, I already know. Go tell it to the fucking people over at Target.” He also lamented that radio stations rarely aired his songs anymore, preferring instead to cycle through the same syndicated tunes. And while he was at it, Guy took a good-natured swipe at rap artists, whose explicit lyrics, in his mind, didn’t come close to matching the artful double entendres common in most blues songs.

It’s tempting to dismiss this sort of rhetoric as the ramblings of a superannuated musician who’s lost touch with youth culture. But to me, Guy sounded more like a proud pioneer who recognizes that his popular stature never has been commensurate with his path-blazing accomplishments. Guy’s vaudevillian showmanship and bordering-on-chaos playing might seem like shtick to an audience raised on flamboyant shredders ranging from Jimi Hendrix to Eddie Van Halen, but even Hendrix himself admitted that he was able to play guitar with his teeth and while writhing on the floor because performers like Guy had planted those ideas in his head. Guy may swear fealty to the blues, but his onstage pyrotechnics became staples of head-bangers across the country.

Leonard Chess, the co-founder of Chess Records, famously dismissed Guy’s playing as “motherfucking noise,” and while I don’t wholly disagree with this assessment, what Chess failed to comprehend was that the electric “noise” that Guy was experimenting with would become to a new generation not merely cool but also musical in its own right. On early tracks like “The First Time I Met the Blues” and “Stone Crazy” Guy’s playing is raw, propulsive, and at times imprecise, but it was exactly this type of unvarnished veneer that made his music sound authentic, full of ostensibly unrehearsed bursts of creativity.

While Guy’s genius on the guitar has never been in question, he hasn’t been able to water down that genius into easily digestible hits. He lacks a signature tune that would give him the commercial recognition he apparently seeks, a song akin to B.B. King’s “The Thrill Is Gone” or Howlin’ Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightning.” In many respects, Guy’s influence on blues and rock overrides his actual output. Of course, rock and roll has eclipsed the blues since the genre’s inception, packaging styles and sounds for mass consumption that had been cultivated for decades in clubs like those in Chicago. Rock gods such as Eric Clapton to Jeff Beck have taken pains to credit blues players like Guy, but as Guy lamented, that hasn’t necessarily led to airtime or shelf-space.

Guy’s overeager shredding in the concert I attended seemingly arose from two intertwined desires: bolstering his proclaimed greatness and staving off his own perceived oblivion. His expletive-laden speech and balls-to-the-wall playing suggested someone who was trying too consciously to amaze, which often tipped his solos into dissonant excess. For the most part, the audience cheered on Guy’s theatrics, excited to be witnessing the expressions of a so-called “authentic” bluesman. And even I found it tempting while watching Guy perform to imagine that we had been transported back to a gauzy past in which scores of blues clubs still lit up Chicago streets, and Guy’s guitar wizardry was still novel and shocking.

Toward the end of the concert, Guy decided to feel the audience’s love firsthand. While enmeshed in a lengthy jam, Guy slipped off the stage and slow-walked around the club, an extra-long cable trailing behind him. With his guitar thrust forward and his eyes closed as if in a trance, he looked from a distance like a crazed killer brandishing a chainsaw to mow a path through the shrieking crowd. Guy made certain to stride through each corner of the room, granting everyone equal opportunity to snap photos of him on their iPhones.

Climbing back on stage, Guy embarked on a mini-tour of the blues, mimicking snippets of tunes from John Lee Hooker, B.B. King, and the Rolling Stones. Once he got to Clapton, Guy used the familiar riff from “Sunshine of Your Love” — dum, dum, dum, dum, DA, DA, DA, dum, DA, dum — to run through his remaining repertoire of tricks: one-handed, over the head, behind the back, and so on. The riff concluded with Guy smashing the guitar against his butt and stroking it back and forth, which produced a curiously pleasant percussive beat. In my mind, he should’ve ended the show there. It’s hard to top playing the guitar with your ass.

When I finally stepped out into the biting Chicago wind after Guy’s nearly three-hour set, I was struck by how quiet the streets were. Continuous snowfall had muffled the city; even the taxis lined up nearby were empty, their drivers huddled against the club, smoking cigarettes.

A good deal of Guy’s playing had brought to mind the last five minutes of a Fourth of July fireworks show: virtuosic, garish, and somewhat assaultive. It takes a great showman and even greater guitarist to induce such an effect, and it was heartening to see that after all his accolades Guy was still trying hard to thrill his audience. All the same, the emotion that I felt as I slid into a cab was not so much exhilaration as it was exhaustion.

Photo by PedalFreak

Luke Epplin has written for The Atlantic, The New Yorker Page-Turner, n+1, and The Daily Beast. When not scouring YouTube for Michael Jordan clips, he tweets at @LukeEpplin.