“This time, I’m gonna talk my way…”
Roy Buchanan is the father of instrumental rock guitar, an inspiration to both his musical peers and successors. His playing combined technical prowess and heartfelt emotion, using his Fender Telecaster to elicit unwieldy screams and whispering squeals. These sounds would be used to replicate the gospel music of his childhood, disguising traditional arrangements with new excursions into harmonics and lightning fast runs up and down the fretboard. This had much to do with his beginnings as a pedal steel guitar player, his incongruous musical background in gospel and R&B music, and a childhood taking him from the Ozark Mountains in Arkansas to northern California. Having the biggest rock acts of the 20th century come to admire his mastery did not translate into mainstream success as a solo act, as his sound could not be refined to meet the standards of mainstream rock radio. His success was much more culturally relevant and long lasting, time has shown, as guitarists from Jeff Beck to Steve Vai to Robbie Robertson have recognized him as a major influence on their careers and modern music in general.
What Buchanan lacked in record sales, he made up for in mystique. Over the course of his career, Roy Buchanan became as much a legend for his temperament and uncompromising attitude as for his undeniable talent. He first came to attention as the lead guitar player for Ronnie Hawkins, igniting his early singles and live shows with incendiary guitar solos punctuating Hawkins’ own growling vocals. The bass player in the Hawks was a teenage Robbie Robertson, inheriting the lead guitar position when Buchanan vacated and eventually relocated to Washington D.C. Robertson often discusses his years with Buchanan as a daily tutorial of how to be an effective instrumentalist in a live setting, garnering reactions from the crowd with dynamic lead lines and a quiet, burning intensity. Once in the nation’s capitol, Buchanan’s legend grew, famously turning down the open guitar chair in the Rolling Stones and appearing in a 1971 documentary “The Best Unknown Guitarist in the World”. He recorded several albums for Polydor and Atlantic Records throughout the seventies, with his signature instrumental, ‘The Messiah Will Come Again’, appearing on the 1972, self titled debut. The song became his trademark, something akin to Peter Green’s ‘Albatross’, in its ability to summarize his entire oeuvre of guitar expressions into a singular artistic statement. Beginning as a gospel sermon, it explodes into a frenzy of guitar pyrotechnics and unabashed heart and soul.
After a self imposed break in the early eighties, Buchanan had become disillusioned with the music business. He reorganized with a trio of albums for Chicago blues label Alligator Records, garnering strong sales and the best reviews of his career. One of Buchanan’s main road blocks was one experienced by many guitarists, which is the lack of a quality singer. Much like Jeff Beck and Carlos Santana, many of his albums featured different band lineups and while his instrumentals soared, the vocalists could not measure up to his musical backing. The Alligator albums, however, relied on some heavy hitters to vocalize (Delbert McClinton), as well as Buchanan’s own spoken word delivery that would be used to great effect on the classic ‘When A Guitar Plays the Blues’. In the midst of a career renaissance, Roy Buchanan was found dead in a Virginia prison cell in 1988 at just 48 years old. As in life, mystery also surrounds his death…it remains under investigation to this day. His inspiring recordings continue to surprise and delight musicians, only hinting at the powerful showmanship he displayed in his element, the concert stage.