Introducing Roy Buchanan! – The World’s Greatest Unknown Guitarist

“Probably the most original country style rock and roll guitar player. Has the nicest tone, the most amazing chops technically – superfast. And much neglected.” – Jerry Garcia on Roy Buchanan.

“We never heard anything quite like what Roy was doing. He interested the hell out of me. He’s not playing an arpeggio the way you learn an arpeggio. If you had studied the instrument you played straight on, the chromatic scale you’re taught in school (sic). This guy was anything but conventional – he was just out there. He was unrestricted, as far as what he played. If he felt like getting from here to there, it didn’t matter how he got there. If he didn’t pick it, he plucked it with his fingers. There were no rules with Roy. He was cruising down his own lane.” – Les Paul on Roy Buchanan

“I found something at church I don’t believe I could quite explain. A feeling within – inside of us. It’s something I can always turn to. I think it shows in my music – how I feel. It’s kind of a sacred feel. Once you get it it’s hard to ever change it. I wouldn’t change it for the world.” – Roy Buchanan

In 1971, American public television (PBS) aired a documentary called Introducing Roy Buchanan! (sometimes referred to as The World’s Greatest Unknown Guitarist.) For the great majority of us, this was our first introduction to him. This special put him on the map, at least for those of us who loved the blues. This is his story.

AllMusic: “Although born in Ozark, AR, on September 23, 1939, Roy Buchanan grew up in the small town of Pixley, CA. His father was both a farmer and Pentecostal preacher, which would bring the youngster his first exposure to gospel music when his family would attend racially mixed revival meetings. (His father was a preacher and his mother taught Sunday school. Sounds like a good country song -ME.)

But it was when Buchanan came across late-night R&B radio shows that he became smitten by the blues, leading to Buchanan picking up the guitar at the age of seven.”

As well as gospel in the pews and R&B on the radio, country music was big in Pixley, and at the age of nine Roy’s parents sent him to the local steel-guitar teacher, a woman by the name of Mrs. Pressure. Those early lessons were instrumental in the development of the awesome technique Buchanan employs today. (Thanks, Ear of Newt blog.) Gospel,” he recalled, “that’s how I first got into black music.”

Realizing he couldn’t learn all the varieties of music he wanted to learn in Pixley, he moved to LA and started his professional career in 1954 at age 15, in Johnny Otis’s rhythm and blues revue. He eventually got his own band together and traveled small towns in the South. Times were tough. “I remember sleepin’ in fields. I remember sleeping in bars. I was lucky if I could sleep in a bar.” One time he got “stranded” in Chicago and worked his way back to California making 3 o 4 bucks a night playing clubs.

He eventually began backing rockabilly great Dale Hawkins whose big hit was “Susie Q.” You are probably not old enough to remember a 1958 Willie Dixon tune called “My Babe.” Hawkins recorded it and this is Roy a pickin’ and a grinnin’. As far as I know, this is Roy’s first recording. It actually still holds up pretty well:

Spotify link

In my series on The Band, I recount how Roy auditioned (and got the job with) Dale’s cousin Ronnie whose Hawks ultimately evolved into The Band. You can hear this ensemble doing a version of “Who Do You Love” over at that post.

Buchanan spent the ’60s as a sideman with obscure acts, as well as working as a session guitarist for such varied artists as pop idol Freddy Cannon, and country legend Merle Haggard. He admits to learning a lot of chord and lead work from Haggard’s guitarist, Roy Nichols.

In 1961 he released an instrumental single called “Mule Train Stomp”, It didn’t really do much on the charts but did establish his trademark sound.

Spotify link

After moving to Washington, D.C., in the mid-’60s, Buchanan formed a short-lived band called the Snakestretchers with then-bassist turned guitar great Danny Gatton. Around this time, Roy became very impressed with Jimi Hendrix’ Are You Experienced. The two greats met and talked but to my knowledge never jammed or recorded together. Buchanan later did “Hey Joe” which you can hear on the fine Live at Town Hall 1974 album at the end of this post.

During an interview in the documentary, Roy admits to having an inner loneliness, an inability to really relate much to other people. He reveals he had gotten messed up on drugs, overdosed and went to the hospital, sometime in the mid-to-late ’60s’s. He realized the lifestyle wasn’t working out for him. At some point he developed a drinking problem that was to haunt him for the rest of his days. He quit music, became a barber and cut hair for more than a year. (He was by now married with five kids.) But then he missed playing music and got back into it.

At this point, although Roy had never recorded an album, his name started to get bandied about as “one of those guitarists you must hear.” Rumor has always had it that Buchanan turned down a spot as guitarist in the Rolling Stones. This sounded apocryphal to me but I tracked down a Buchanan interview where he confirms it.

“Yes. That came about through my first manager, Charlie Daniels. I never actually met the Rolling Stones, but they had heard of me some way or another. They mentioned to Charlie that they wanted me to tour with them.

The main reason I decided not to go with them—beside the fact that I don’t want to travel—was that I didn’t know the material, and I didn’t figure I could do the job right. To sit down and learn all those songs—that would have taken a lot of work. I guess I’m lazy. I figured that there were other people who knew the music better.” He also said he didn’t want to be the next casualty in the band.

Keith Richards remembers it a bit differently: “Roy Buchanan – it’s very funny. Eric and Ronnie [Wood] and I pissed in his beer once [laughs]. It’s the only time we ever got that mean with anybody. It was an Atlantic recording session in the Seventies. I said, “Go ahead, Eric, get your cock out. We’ll be pissing in that fucker’s beer. He’s being too pushy.” Eric will deny it, of course, but don’t worry about that. I’ve got Ronnie Wood to back me up.”

As mentioned above Buchanan’s life changed in 1971 when he gained national notice as the result of an hour-long PBS television documentary. Entitled Introducing Roy Buchanan, and sometimes mistakenly called The Best Unknown Guitarist in the World, it earned a record deal with Polydor Records.

The documentary – which you can find here – is an interesting pastiche of home movie-like visits back to California interspersed with great concert footage. Bill Graham introduces the band for a show that looks like it might have been filmed just for this documentary. At about 1:08, Graham introduces a young guitarist named Nils Lofgren. Lofgren has previously credited Roy with helping him develop his sound and in fact, the first Grin album is dedicated to Roy.

Buchanan’s eponymous debut album was released in 1972 and one song, in particular, became a kind of off-beat classic. “I wrote a song,” says Buchanan,” called ‘The Messiah Will Come Again.’ I had this place (Pixley) in mind. But instead of using this place I generalized the whole world. Because the whole world is like this place to me.”

Spotify link

In 1976, Roy and a hot band played Austin City Limits which back then featured all sorts of guitar players. Think SRV was checking this out? Bet he was. This is a fine and funky Booker T. song called “Soul Dressing:”

Spotify link

I mentioned the Live at Town Hall album earlier. There’s some really nice tunes on this album. If you think he’s just a country or blues guy, check out his funky version of “Can I Change My Mind.” The band gets in a groove and Roy just lays down some tasty, tasty stuff:

Spotify link

Buchanan quit recording in 1981. He said he wouldn’t enter a studio again unless he had complete artistic control. By 1985, the great blues label Alligator Records had gotten him back into the studio. In 1985 he recorded an album called When A Guitar Plays the Blues. (Which, BTW, has a song called “Mrs. Pressure.” Now how the fuck many people know why, but you and I do, eh?)

With the strange sounds, volume swells, pinch harmonics and other weird things Roy coaxes from his guitar is it any wonder why Jeff Beck dedicated “Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers” from Blow by Blow to him?

There used to be a great club in Harvard Square called Jonathan Swift’s. One night in the mid-Eighties my guitar buddy Bill and I had tickets to see Buchanan. But he never showed up. Near as I can recall he spent the night in the drunk tank. A few years later we again tried to catch his show but again, he didn’t show up. Something in the universe felt off.

Wikipedia: “According to his agent and others, Buchanan was doing well, having gained control of his drinking habit and playing again, when he was arrested for public intoxication after a domestic dispute. He was found hanged from his own shirt in a jail cell on August 14, 1988, in the Fairfax County, Virginia, Jail.

Buchanan’s last show was on August 7, 1988, at Guilford Fairgrounds in Guilford, Connecticut. His cause of death was officially recorded as suicide, a finding disputed by Buchanan’s friends and family. 

Sources: AllMusic, Rolling Stone, Wikipedia, PBS documentary

38 thoughts on “Introducing Roy Buchanan! – The World’s Greatest Unknown Guitarist

    1. Actually I honestly don’t know. I wasn’t following him too religiously in his last days. I posted one tune I found and liked from one of his later albums. As to the rest, couldn’t say.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. I own “Loading Zone” (1977) and it’s a fine album. The sleeve art is great, too, and prophetic – he’s sitting alone in a bar, a beer and his banged-up Telecaster on the table. But you’re right, much of his later stuff is weak, and it doesn’t help that he tries to sing.

      Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes, and if you watch the documentary, you see that he was a very humble guy from very humble beginnings. He wanted to make music, not necessarily money. He turned down the Stones! So yeah, that kind of fame and fortune wasn’t for him..

      Liked by 1 person

  1. The man who could “make a guitar cry.” I had a chance to see him here in Cincy around 1985. My friend at the radio station, Downtown Scott Brown, emceed his show, and they supposedly enjoyed “incense” together backstage.

    I’m sort of curious how Rolling Stone magazine ranks him on its “Best Guitarists” list, but I’m also afraid to find out.

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    1. Yes, Pete, you will be sorry you asked. 🙂 There were actually two different “100 best guitarist” lists from RS – one in 2003 and then for some reason, another one back in, I think, 2015. Roy was number 57 on the first one and has completely disappeared from the most recent one. Therefore, when you Google the list, you get more “Rolling Stone’s unbelievably fucked up list” responses than anything else. It’s really hard to fathom especially when you take into consideration the fact that most of the voters were NOT RS editors, they were guitar players. I’m talking about people like Brian May, Carlos Santana and Warren Haynes. So, go figure.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Well, guess I’m not surprised about RS. As to musicians choosing their peers as being the “best,” I’m not sure they’re the most reliable voters, either. They’re so busy creating, recording, touring, and doing publicity that their opportunities to listen to different things are limited. (Not always, but often.) In interviews from the ’70s, John Lennon was always mentioning Bowie and Elton as being representative of ’70s rock music, probably because he worked with them. But as we both know, there was a lot more going on.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Some great cuts there, Jim, but I’ll need to spend some time with that live album – exceptional stuff there. Tragic story, though… and an unexpected end.

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    1. To finish my thought – a hammer drop for sure. An especial shame because if you watch the documentary he was just a sweet, non-arrogant guy, Keith Richards notwithstanding. 🙂

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        1. It’s probably 30% biography and the balance an odd mixture of live performance. It’s interesting to see a young Nils Lofgren in it.

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  4. I pop Roy on once in a while.Like Bruce I also like what he was doing on the early records. I have ‘Live Stock’ and the ‘Second Album’ plus an anthology called ‘Sweet dreams’. It does a good job covering his career. I like his sound and it comes clear on the ‘Soul Dressing’ cut. Good choice.

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    1. Consider giving that ‘Live ’74’ album a spin on one of your walks. I stumbled on it and it’s got some pretty good tunes, a couple of which are in the post including ‘Soul Dressing.’

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I think I seen that show before. He reallly does bust loose. Roy always looked like someones uncle playing the guitar. He was cut from the same mold as JJ Cale as far as the low keyness goes. You know it’s about the music for me but I do enjoy some of the back story. The thing is Doc people always talk up the drug bit in music but I think we both know booze is the biggy. Sad that he was fighting those demons. To bad he couldn’t have shook loose from it. He could play. I see you and Pete doing the “list” thing again. I’m not a player but he does have a good sound for my ear. How about you?

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        1. Yeah, the list thing probably ruined Pete’s day. And if you watch Roy play on stage he has very little real stage presence. Really just a skilled player who probably would have been just has happy to be in the background.

          As far as his sound, that’s the elusive “tone” that guitar players are always seeking. As much as I like his playing – especially for this style – I’m a bigger fan of “warm” tones like Allman, Clapton, Gilmour.

          Liked by 1 person

        2. Smooth, warm – sure. BTW, Duane’s is the first solo, Dickey’s the second. I think they’re using the same model of Les Paul but I have always found Duane’s tone warmer. Not that Dickey isn’t a superb guitarist. He is, no question. But I will tell you that among guitarists, professional or not, tone is the big discussion. I’ve seen entire guitar magazines consumed by discussions of it.

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        3. I have a small amp and I’ve been working on tone lately. Something warm, smooth but with some bite on top. That’s the sound I like. Too smooth, and rounded, you sound like a jazz guitarist. Too much bite and it sounds too harsh. Back in the day, they used to refer to Clapton’s supple sound as a “woman tone..” Although that said, I don’t really know what that means.

          Liked by 1 person

        4. Here’s one that’s guaranteed to send CB’s IQ soaring up ten points to 90. I know you dig these guys. Gilmour’s playing (and tone) starting at about 2:10

          Liked by 1 person

        5. i absolutely love his playing (That album is sitting in the wings ready to go). I remember saying to you that i didn’t think he got the love he should. And you said among guitarists he does (which didn’t surprise me). You are more on top of that than I am. I think people get lazy and just ape what certain so called expert lists say. I seen ‘PF Live at Pompeii’ when i was a kid and was blown away when he ripped into ‘Echoes’. I still get off on it. But hey, what the hell do I know? Play one Roy.

          Liked by 1 person

  5. Surprised you didn’t add his version of “Green Onions” onto the list. This is the song that turned me onto Roy back in the 70’s. Sorry to hear that you never saw him as he was a outstanding live artist. I went t see him every time he came out to Northern Califronia.

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    1. No, i never heard his version of that. My attempts to see Buchanan live would be a comedy of errors were it not for the tragic ending. We were thisclose.

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  6. This is an excellent piece! I am a big fan of Roy Buchanan. At school, it was like …”Roy, who?”
    I got into his music via Rory Gallagher who was / still is my ultimate music hero.
    (Would you object me ‘Re-pressing’ this article on my LOUD HORIZON blog … full credits and links back to your excellent bog, of course. No sweat if you’d rather not.
    (Comment made relative too my loudhorizon.com blog and not Cee Tee Jackson as shown)

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    1. Well, firstly welcome and secondly yes, by all means feel free to reblog this. Fine with me. Spread the news about Roy. And comment on this blog at will. That’s why I started it. 🙂

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        1. I’ve now re-blogged Jim. Thanks for that. It diverts back to your blog, but on mine I’ve added a link to the You Tube video of Roy playing ‘Roy’s Bluz.’ It’s my favourite song of his and the guitar solo on this is epic! Even when he’s taking a drink!
          Cheers again.
          🙂

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        2. Yeah, that’s great, thanks. It informs me not only that you re-blogged but also commented. I don’t know what your readership is but hope they dig it.

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  7. Reblogged this on Loud Horizon and commented:

    I have taken the easy option here, because I know I couldn’t do any better! This post is reproduced with the kind permission of JIM S who runs the excellent MUSIC ENTHUSIAST blog / site.

    I can’t say definitively how I came across the music of ROY BUCHANAN, but it would likely have been encouraged t explore more Blues material by the recordings of my ultimate musical hero, RORY GALLAGHER. Or perhaps it was the late night radio shows of JOHN PEEL.

    Either way, my enthusiasm for the blues and ROY’S distinctive guitar playing style st me aside from my school pals who were all into the ‘accepted norm’ bands of the time like YES, DEEP PURPLE and PINK FLOYD.

    This post by the MUSIC ENTHUSIAST is a really succinct piece on yet another tragic blues player (I’d say ‘star’ but Roy was not the ind to go for that terminology) taken from us to early.

    (Thanks JIM S.)

    Liked by 1 person

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