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Buffalo Nichols: “As a teenager, I was more into metal and punk. Skip James always felt heavy and haunting, and I connected with metal in that same way”

Buffalo Nichols performs at the Ryman Auditorium on October 04, 2021 in Nashville, Tennessee.
(Image credit: Jason Kempin/Getty Images)

The plaintive howl and ominous, minor-key blues played by Skip James has more in common with the apocalyptic worldview of grindcore bands like Napalm Death than you might think, at least for 30-year-old Austin folk-blues artist Carl “Buffalo” Nichols.

“As a teenager, I was really more into metal and punk than I was into the blues,” Nichols says of his upbringing in Milwaukee. “Skip James always felt, like, heavy and haunting, [and] I connected with metal in that same way.”

All the time he spent spinning CDs by Son House, Keb’ Mo’ and James from his mom’s record collection finally caught up with him in his early 20s. Inspired by those American bluesmen and West African guitarists like Ali Farka Touré, he set aside his ESP LTD MH shred machine, picked up a Recording King resonator and a slide and developed his rhythmic approach to fingerstyle guitar playing.

“I just used what I knew from there and applied it to what I was hearing on the blues records,” he says. “A lot of it matched up and seems, not the same techniques, but once you learn that stuff, everything else, even the separation of the thumb and the finger, it all comes together.”

Nichols spends a lot of time in D minor, the tuning used by Bentonia, Mississippi, blues artists like James, Jack Owens and Jimmy “Duck” Holmes, as well as Adia Victoria – a decidedly different take on the genre than the Chicago style played around Milwaukee when he was growing up. Only one song on his 2021 self-titled Fat Possum debut, These Things, is played in standard tuning. 

While recording the album, Nichols kept his approach to gear straightforward. He mounted a Lace pickup on his Recording King Tricone Resonator and ran it through a Fender Twin Reverb for many of the tracks, and balanced it with a sustainable-wood Gibson B45 and Blue Ridge acoustic guitars

He recently picked up a Mavis Mule solid-body resonator to play live, where he’s been supporting Drive-By Truckers and others, in addition to playing his own shows.

“I’ve been on this journey for half my life, trying to come to terms with the blues as a genre and trying to understand it and what it means to me,” he says. “What I’m aiming for is to just keep the essence of that music without falling into clichés and nostalgia. That’s always on my mind. I think that will be a lifetime struggle. But, you know, it’s fun.”

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Jim Beaugez has written about music for Rolling Stone, Smithsonian, Guitar World, Guitar Player (opens in new tab) and many other publications. He created My Life in Five Riffs (opens in new tab), a multimedia documentary series for Guitar Player that traces contemporary artists back to their sources of inspiration, and previously spent a decade in the musical instruments industry.