Zakk Wylde and Buddy Guy Talk Hendrix, Touring Together

(Image credit: Jimmy Hubbard)

Zakk Wylde and Buddy Guy, two titans of guitar from entirely different worlds, take some time out of their Experience Hendrix touring schedule to sit with Guitar World and riff about guitars, the blues, copping licks and their common love of Jimi.

Buddy Guy is smiling, but even so, there’s something about his eyes that indicates he’s lost in his thoughts. He seems preoccupied and distracted, somewhere other than here in the moment.

Backstage at Jacksonville’s Florida Theater, the venerable blues legend sits on a stool wearing a shirt adorned with his trademark polka dots and holding a crème-colored Stratocaster on his lap. He doesn’t say a word.

Behind him, leather-vested Zakk Wylde—a telephone booth of a man compared to most mortals, but his enormity appears even more considerable next to the relatively diminutive 79-year-old Guy—effortlessly peels off liquid riffs on one of his brand-new Schecter/Wylde Audio War Hammer guitars. Wylde’s mouth is all but obscured by an overgrown mustache, and his unruly, nearly foot-long beard could gain him easy entry to a number of hirsute-friendly clubs: newly minted fourth member of ZZ Top, long-lost cousin of the Duck Dynasty clan, or that varmint you didn’t see in The Revenant or The Hateful Eight. He peers darkly into the lens of photographer Jimmy Hubbard as his fingers dance like butterflies along the fretboard. Guy leans in, trying not to look away from the camera, but he clearly hears something that captures his attention. He still doesn’t say anything.

After the shoot, the two guitarists put down their axes and settle down for a Guitar World interview. Without much prompting, Guy explains his silence: “When we were doing the photos, I was smiling, but see, I was really listening to him. I’m hearing everything he’s playing, and I’m thinking, Now I’ve gotta figure out what the hell he’s doing.”

For a moment, Wylde looks vaguely astonished. Then he lets out a laugh and says, “That’s what we’re doing every time you play, Buddy. We’re just trying to cop your licks.” Guy nods and accepts the compliment graciously—it’s understood that he’s heard this kind of thing before. Wylde adds, “That’s what Jimi Hendrix was doing. He was copping Buddy’s licks before me and everybody else on this tour. That’s where it all comes from. If you’re a rock guitarist, blues is your foundation.”

“That’s true, but I don’t want to take credit for someone like Hendrix,” Guy says modestly. “He was so creative, especially everything he did with the special effects. He took it all to this other place, and he could really play. He was one of a kind. Hendrix puts us together, everybody on this tour.”

Guy is referring to the latest installment of the Experience Hendrix tour, the brainchild of historian/archive producer John McDermott and Jimi’s half-sister, Janie Hendrix, that features an array of guitar all-stars performing the music of the late six-string master. Guy is a permanent fixture on the annual tribute trek—with the exception of one leg in 2012, he’s done every Experience Hendrix tour since its inaugural run in 2004; Wylde, who signed on for the 2014 outing, is making a return appearance, and he stresses that it won’t be his last. “Oh, I wouldn’t miss this,” he says. “Hendrix is like the meeting ground for everybody here. No matter who’s onstage, we all have Jimi in common. It’s a blast.”

Wylde is performing three of Hendrix’s best-known numbers in the set—“Manic Depression,” “Little Wing” and “Purple Haze”—while Guy is dipping deep into the catalog with the Band of Gypsys’ “Who Knows” and Muddy Waters’ “Louisiana Blues,” which Jimi had covered. “I always ask John McDermott what the other guys picked, and I’ll see what other songs are around,” says Wylde. “Sometimes John will ask me if I want to do certain songs, and that’s fine by me. I’m cool with doing obscure stuff too, or if the other guys wanna jam on stuff. It’s all good.” He lays an affectionate hand on Guy’s knee and adds, “Of course, I think Buddy’s allowed to get his pick of the litter.”

Guy’s eyes twinkle as his face breaks out in a Cheshire cat grin. He lets Wylde’s supposition sit there for a second, and then says, “Well, you know, I’m just happy to play it all. I enjoy hearing these younger guys, and then I do my thing. It’s a learning experience for me—even though I can’t learn it all.”

Buddy, you met Jimi in 1968. What did you remember about the first time you saw him play?

Buddy Guy: When I first met him, a left-handed guitarist, I thought it was a trick. He had something that all those other guys had. Otis Rush, Albert King and all those guys—they had the tone. Hendrix came along and perfected that. You could hardly match what he was doing. I knew I couldn’t.

I’ve seen a video of you playing at a club that same year. Jimi was in the audience, and then he came onstage and jammed with you.

Guy: That’s right, but I didn’t know who he was at all. To be honest, I was trying to chase a lot of hippie chicks back then. [laughs] That night was no different. Somebody came over and whispered in my ear, “That’s Jimi Hendrix over there,” and I said, “So what?” ’Cause I didn’t know who he was. He had his reel-to-reel with him, and he asked me if he could tape what I was doing. Somebody else was taping him at the same time. But I wasn’t paying attention—I was too busy watching these long-haired girls on the other side of him.

Zakk Wylde: [laughs] Buddy had his priorities. Worry about what’s important.

Zakk, when did you “experience” Hendrix for the first time? Do you remember, or was he always sort of floating in the air?

Wylde: It was through my guitar teacher, Leroy Wright. He was a huge Hendrix guy. From the mothership of Jimi, he turned me on to everybody else—Robin Trower, Frank Marino and guys like that. Then you go further back and you hear Buddy and the Kings—Albert. B.B., Freddie. It’s interesting when you go through the family tree. Jimi didn’t start it, but he’s like one of the most important roots. You look at him and say, “Well, where did he get it from?” So you do your history and find out.

Guy: You say, “Where did he get it from?” This whole country thought he was out of his head whacky. He had to go to England to get recognized. People didn’t know what to do with the special effects he was puttin’ on everything—he must be crazy! Same with Earl Hooker. He was a great slide guitarist, and he had a number called ‘Wah-Wah Blues.’ And I thought he was crazy! But he was creative, too, just like Hendrix, and just like B.B. King. Man, they all took the guitar to a level that was so high, and then we just tried to take it a little higher.

[Pointing to Zakk] These young guys, when they play Jimi’s music, they’re adding something else to it. They’ve got a little more juice. You know, I was born on a farm. Whenever my mom would make chicken, she would put gravy to it. The chicken is good by itself, but with the gravy it’s better. That’s how I feel about these guys.

Did you two jam together on the 2014 Experience Hendrix tour?

Wylde: Yeah, I think we did “Red House.” I got out there with Buddy and a couple of the guys. It’s always a complete honor playing with Buddy. I remember I took a picture of one of my cabinets because he put his cup on it. I was like, “I’m never washing that cabinet again!” [laughs]

Is it at all intimidating to play with Buddy?

Wylde: It’s not intimidating. It’s just…you feel proud. You look at him walk onstage, and it’s like you’re witnessing history. I get chills every time. That’s what’s amazing about it. I don’t even think about my own playing. I just love watching him. Every night, it’s crushing.

Buddy, were you familiar with Zakk’s work before you met him? Do you have any hard rock or metal records in your collection?

Guy: I’ll answer it like this: I didn’t know what hip-hop was. My daughters are into hip-hop, but I told them, “I can’t play that stuff.” But I would find myself tappin’ my feet to it. So what Zakk is doing is like the same thing. Whatever he plays tonight, tomorrow night—I can’t play it myself, but I’ll try to find something in it. Like when we took the pictures just now, I’m listening.
That’s how I taught myself to play. I couldn’t do the vibrate thing on the guitar until I saw B.B. King. I told him, “These people makin’ the special effects pedals—they should call you.” Because he didn’t need ’em. He had a vibratin’ left hand, and he could take it forever. I couldn’t figure it out. So when I look at Zakk or any of these young guys, I’m lookin’ at ’em. I always think, Why didn’t I find that lick before he did?

Wylde: [laughs] You found enough of them, Buddy! That’s why everybody watches you.

Guy: Oh, I don’t know about that. Some of you guys—I can’t believe what you’re all doing. Stevie Ray was another one. He was a great player. And I could never tell what Albert King was doing, either—he’d turn his back on me all the time.

So Buddy, what do you think of Zakk’s guitar, the War Hammer? You ever seen anything so crazy?

Guy: [laughs] Oh, yeah. I’ve come up with people who kept tryin’ to get crazier and crazier with the way their guitars looked. Even I came up with a polka dot guitar. I lied to my mother after she had a stroke. I told her that I was goin’ to Chicago and that I’d buy her a polka dot Cadillac. I knew I was lying, and she passed away before I could explain. I thought, What can I do? I didn’t buy the Cadillac, so I came up with a polka dot guitar. It only took ’em 20 years to find a way to perfect the dots on it, get it to look right.

Zakk, do you know if Randy Rhoads ever talked about Buddy Guy? Maybe that’s where he first saw the polka dots.

Wylde: Hmph. I don’t know. Nobody ever told me anything like that.

Are you playing anything other than the War Hammer on this tour? Any Les Pauls?

Wylde: No, I’ve got the War Hammer and the Viking VF. Just the two guitars.

Because you’re playing Hendrix’s music, did you think about possibly using a Strat?

Wylde: I have Strats at the house, at the Black Vatican, but no, I didn’t think about bringing any out for this. I think the beautiful thing about this tour is everybody's interpretations of Jimi's music, you know what I'm saying? Everybody up there can play the same exact lick their own way, and that’s what’s important. You can hear everybody’s expression is going to be a little different. To me, that’s what’s so cool about it.

This reminds me of those revue-type shows they used to have in the Sixties. They were like radio packages—everybody would travel by bus.

Wylde: I just call it the Experience Hendrix family—I’m going out with my Experience Hendrix family once again. It’s great—you know everybody, you catch up with your friends. It’s like going back to summer camp or something like that.

Guy: My first tour wasn’t by bus; we were in a station wagon. We had so many people in the hotel room at one time, you didn’t know what to do.

Wylde: Sounds like those old pranks, where they’re cramming 40 people into a phone booth.

Guy: It was tight. One hotel room is what we had. Now, when you’re on a bus, you couldn’t put your guitar anywhere—you had to keep it on your lap. At the hotel you’d have to share beds, all these people taking up the space. You couldn’t stretch out. Somebody would get up to use the bathroom, and that was your only chance to get a little room on the bed. Muddy Waters traveled that way. I did my first trip from Chicago to Texas with Elmore James in a station wagon.

Buddy, your latest album, Born to Play Guitar, has songs dedicated to both Muddy Waters and B.B. King. What are your first memories of them?

Guy: We were drinkin’ pretty heavy back then. I remember nobody had any money. [laughs] When I went to Chicago, there was Little Walter, Muddy, Howlin’ Wolf and all those guys. They were doing very well, but there still weren’t any musicians making money worth a dollar. B.B. King told me he used to make just enough money to get from one gig to the next. Think about that.
When I met Muddy and Wolf and Walter, they were all living in Chicago—Jimmy Reed and all those people were there. The first thing Little Walter said to me was, “Can you buy me half a pint of gin?” That was 90 cents. I bought it, but I told him, “I can't believe you asked me to buy you gin when I'm waiting for you to show me this big house.” All those guys, they were being ripped off the record companies back then.

Zakk, did you ever meet B.B.?

No, I didn’t. I saw him play, but I never got to meet him. That would’ve been cool.

Zakk, you’re about to release Book of Shadows II. It follows the first Book of Shadows by 20 years. Didn’t want to rush things, huh?

Wylde: [laughs] No, that would’ve been the obvious thing to do. I just figured [Guns N’ Roses’] Chinese Democracy took 15 years—I gotta beat the record somehow, you know? Once we got to 20, I said, “I think now is the time.” I still can’t believe it’s 20 years, but you know, as we’d be touring around the world and hooking up with the Black Label extended family, whatever chapter it is—whether it’s the Canadian chapter, the Boston chapter, the Stockholm chapter or the Australian chapter—everyone would ask, “Zakk, you ever going to do one of those Book of Shadows records again?” They wanted to hear some of the mellower stuff. But you know, I was in between changing diapers, going on a dog run and mowing the lawn and whatever else, trying to get world peace, trying to be Mother Theresa over here. [laughs] I was just like, “Yeah, I’ll see if we can fit that in before brunch.”

We actually did a run from New York to L.A. doing the Unblackened stuff—you know, the mellower thing. Considering it was 20 years and we beat Chinese Democracy by five years, I figured that it was safe to do the new chapter. The next Book of Shadows might be 25 years from now. We’ll take a nice little break.

Guy: 25 years? That’s a long time. [laughs] I’ll just be in the way if I'm living that many more years. I look at life like it’s time to move over and let some of these young people take over. They can do their own thing with the music. The scary thing about what I’ve dedicated my life to is, they don’t hardly play much blues on radio anymore, regardless of who played it. People don’t hear my music out there.

It’s true that blues doesn’t get a lot of radio play. Even so, people come to see you live.

Guy: They do. I got children and grandchildren who didn’t know who I was until they turned 21, old enough to get into a blues club. I got two sons and two daughters, and they used to hate the blues. They would put on a Michael Jackson record or whoever else they had, long as it had that beat, and the second I put one of my records on they would run away as fast as they could. Off they went. But when they turned 21, they came to a club and saw me play. They were like, “Wait a minute, Dad. I didn’t know you could play like that!”

Wylde: Don’t feel bad, Buddy. When I come home from the road, my wife and kids don’t know who I am at all. They look at me and it’s like, “Hey, Uncle Frank, how you doin’?” [laughs] Then when I’m with the immortal beloved and we're going for it, she’s like, “Oh, Andy—I mean, Joe, Tom…” I’m like, “Barb, it’s me. It's Zakk.” She goes, “Whatever, just keep going!” [both laugh] It is what it is. As long as I bring something home, they’re happy.

Guy: That’s a good story.

Zakk, is Buddy something of an inspiration longevity-wise? The fact that he’s still playing at the age of 79?

Wylde: Oh, without a doubt. You keep doing what you’re doing ’cause you love it. I saw Buddy play with Eric Clapton when I first joined the band with Oz [Ozzy Osbourne], back in 1988 over in England. Buddy was in town and we came down to see him play—Eric got up and jammed with you.

Guy: That’s right. I’ve played with him.

Wylde: It was awesome. Buddy was absolutely killin’ it. The way Buddy plays blues—it’s all in his attack. That’s the difference between him and other greats like B.B. King. Buddy’s got a more aggressive thing going on. When we were watching him that night, I was like, “Oh, wow, this guy’s really digging in.”

Guy: I just play what comes out.

Wylde: But the longevity thing… The thing is, if you still love it, and you’re blessed that you can still do it, why shouldn’t you do it? It’s really the truth. It’s like what Keith Richards said when they asked him if he’s ever gonna retire. He said, “Retire from what? If I enjoy planting my tomatoes in my back yard, why should I give that up?”

Guy: That’s true. I got a garden wherever I go. [laughs]

Buddy, you mentioned before that you were studying the way Zakk plays. Is there some aspect of his technique that sticks out to you?

Wylde: Here’s what he likes about my playing: The second right before I play, and five seconds after I’m done! [laughs]

It’s that middle part he has a problem with.

Wylde: Exactly. He’s like, “You hear that silence? That’s the part I really like!” [laughs]

Guy: You know, that’s a hard question for me to answer. I'm just going to take it each night while we’re here and see what he’s doing. I do listen to him and I say, “Let me see what that is. Can I find that?” It’s very seldom you find out exactly what this other guy is doing. I don’t know how he does it, and I don’t know why he does it, but he does it well, so that’s all there is. Sometimes I try to figure the stuff out, but then I just throw the guitar away. I go get a cup of coffee and I come back later to give it another try. You can always learn something from somebody else.

Wylde: See, I just love his whole approach. Like I was saying about when I saw him play in England, he’s got such an attack. That’s what separates him from everybody else—that super-aggressive thing. What you bring attitude-wise to the game.

And what’s funny is, Buddy, you’re such a low-key guy. Yet you play with such fire.

Guy: That’s what they always told me: “Buddy, you attack the guitar.” I said to ’em, “Attack the guitar? What’s that?” Back then, Jeff Beck and all of them—I met those guys in England in 1965—and they looked at me and said, “Well, man, we didn’t even know a Strat could play blues. We didn’t know it could sound like that.” Beck and I did a Guitar World magazine cover some 20 years ago, and he reminded me of that: “I didn’t know Strats could play blues till I saw you in England.” I went over and played there, and they told me they thought a Strat was a Country Western guitar. I said, “What are you talking about? This guitar plays the blues!”

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Joe Bosso

Joe is a freelance journalist who has, over the past few decades, interviewed hundreds of guitarists for Guitar World, Guitar Player, MusicRadar and Classic Rock. He is also a former editor of Guitar World, contributing writer for Guitar Aficionado and VP of A&R for Island Records. He’s an enthusiastic guitarist, but he’s nowhere near the likes of the people he interviews. Surprisingly, his skills are more suited to the drums. If you need a drummer for your Beatles tribute band, look him up.