He’s been called the greatest living guitarist by Eric Clapton, he’s played with blues legends like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, and his new double album, Rhythm and Blues, is a powerhouse set with guest shots by Aerosmith, Kid Rock, Gary Clark Jr., Beth Hart and Keith Urban. But what Guitar World readers really want to know is....
What’s the most important thing you learned from Muddy Waters? — Marc Merriwether
That you should play music for the love of it, not for the money. It’s 57 years since I first arrived in Chicago from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and when I came here I didn’t have the slightest idea that I would be good enough to play guitar with Muddy or even make a record. I was working as a custodian at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.
But I come up to Chicago, and the next thing I know, Muddy was asking me to play. And I found out that the money Muddy was making wasn’t much more than I was making working day jobs at LSU. But here’s Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson…and they were having so much fun just playing. And I learned that they were playing for the love of music, not the love of money.
What are you driving these days? — Butch Teagarden
I’m into classic cars, man. I got a ’55 T-Bird, a ’58 Edsel and all them old cars. I got a lot of what they call “vintage” cars. Eric Clapton can spot one of them a mile away and then asks me how much I want for it. Eric talked me into buying a Ferrari about 20 years ago.
I read that they had caught him driving one in Europe, and I think he was doing 170 miles an hour. The cops couldn’t catch him. They had to tell ’em to stop him in the next town. I asked him about it and he said, “Man, you must get a Ferrari. It sits down.” But that damn thing … You know, when you get to my age, there isn’t a lot of room inside a Ferrari. It’s like a prop plane. Even them big jumbo planes, if you go into the cockpit to see the pilot, he don’t have much room to move around or cross his legs and stuff. And every time I get in a Ferrari, I feel like I’m flying a plane.
Your string bends have always been awesome. What gauge strings do you use? — Paolo Sandoval
I was using very thin strings in the early days, when I made my first record, “Sit and Cry and Sing the Blues,” in 1958. I laugh about it now because they’d break so easily, being so thin. But they were real easy on your fingers. The thing is, I couldn’t always afford new strings when they broke. I’d go play a gig at night and I didn’t have but one string and could not afford another one. So I had to get heavier strings.
Later on guys like Hendrix and Stevie Ray were using the really thick haywire strings, which would cut the tip of your finger if you bent them in the B.B. King style. B.B. King used to put glue on the tips of his fingers to protect the skin and keep them from bleeding. So right now I’m using an 11 for my first string, a 13 to 14 for the second, probably a 16 to 18 for the third. And for the wound strings I think I start around 28 and go up to 35 for the fifth string and maybe 40 for the number-six string.
What was it like opening the Rolling Stones in the Seventies? — Idriss Moussaka
In 1970, me and Junior Wells opened a whole tour for the Rolling Stones throughout Europe. And when you open a show for them, some fans are gonna look up and say, “That’s not the Rolling Stones!” Sometimes the few people there who knew us—two or three maybe—were okay.
But the rest of the 40, 50 or 60 thousand were saying, “Who the hell is this?” A lot of people weren’t ready for me and Junior back then. But I kept saying to myself, “Well, they got us out here. Play a few licks and maybe you’ll sell a few more records next time you make one because somebody saw you with the Rolling Stones.” But it was exciting. And even today I get people right now coming up and saying, “I didn’t know who you was till I saw you on a stage with the Stones.”
How and when did you first know that that Fender Stratocaster was the guitar for you? — Doug Polanski
I saw the late Guitar Slim play when I was still very young. That was the first time I saw a Strat. He had a 100-foot cord coming in the door, playing “I Done Got Old.” And I’m saying, “Is that a guitar? What the hell is that?” Later on, I played with a guy named Big Poppa [Tilley]. He had a little three-piece band, two guitars and drums, and he played a little harmonica. And he bought a Strat for me to play in his band.
That was the first time I got to play one. When I first came to Chicago, I had a Gibson Les Paul, but I was so in love with the Strat. So when the Les Paul got stolen, I got my first Strat, a ’57. One reason why I fell in love with the Strat back then was that acoustics and other guitars weren’t built so solid. If something happened, they could crack easy and all of that. Back then I couldn’t afford a new guitar if something happened to mine.
And I found out the Strat has a steel rod in the neck and it was a solid piece of wood, so if you drop it you might scratch it, but you couldn’t hurt it. That’s what made me fall in love with it. Plus, Leo Fender had that tone and that sound on it, man. So I got hooked with that experience.
How did you like recording “Messin’ with the Kid” with Kid Rock on your new album? — Peter Brown
We had a great time. “Messin’ with the Kid” was the biggest record by my late musical partner, Junior Wells. And I always said, “You know, I’m waitin’ on Kid Rock to do this song.” He laughed when I told him, and said, “Man, I’ll come in and do it. I never thought of that.” I told him, “I beat you to it.” Kid Rock and I go back a long way. He’s into the deep blues.
He was there when they honored me at the Kennedy Center awards at the White House last year. He said, “I wouldn’t miss it for the world.” Every musician you know of, even some of the hip-hoppers, are into some of the things we did way back then.
What is the real origin of the polka dots on your Strat? — Mia Sanderson
Well, I’m the oldest boy in my family. There were five of us: three boys and two girls. And when I left Louisiana for Chicago 57 years ago, my mother had a stroke and didn’t want me to go. She wasn’t even able to walk or talk right anymore, but she got to where she could understand a few things and I could understand her.
And I wanted to make her feel good, so I say, “Well, I’m gonna go to Chicago and make more money than I’m making here, and I’m gonna be sending you money back and you’ll see how well I’m doing. I’m gonna drive back down to you in a polka-dot Cadillac.” I knew I was lying to her. And when she passed away in 1968, I said to myself, “You lied to your mama and never got a chance to tell her you were lying.” That bothered me.
And one day I said to myself, “You know what? I’m gonna see if Fender will make me a polka-dot Strat.” At first they said they couldn’t do it, but then they hired a guy who said, ‘We can do it.’ They made me one or two, and then they tried it out at the NAMM show.
They made 100 or 200, just to see what would happen, and they let me know the 200 were gone before they even got there. These days, I think I own about seven or eight of them. But I got some sons and grandsons come up to see me now. And sometimes I open up a case after they leave and the guitar is gone!
“Poison Ivy” is a track you originally cut for Vanguard Records in 1968. What made you want to revisit it on Rhythm and Blues? — Mike Mulcahy
Did I record it before? I don’t remember that. I know I would sing it in person. But I wanted to do it on my new album to honor the late Willie Mabon, who had a hit on Chess Records with “Poison Ivy” [in 1954]. When we got in the studio we were doing mostly new songs, but I wanted to honor a few people like Willie Mabon, Junior Wells and Guitar Slim by doing some of their songs.
What do you think of the new young generation of blues guitarists? — Bob Andres
I think they’re great. Gary Clark Jr., he’s a young man who plays on my new album. I’m really pulling for him, because it takes young people to keep the blues alive. Like another young guy I’m promoting—Quinn Sullivan. When I first met him, he was seven and he was playing as well as Eric Clapton, me, B.B. King or Jeff Beck or any of those guys.
How did he learn all that at seven years old? Here I’m 77 and I still haven’t found some of those notes! He just turned 14 and we got a CD coming out on him soon. You know, we don’t get much airplay on the blues anymore, for some strange reason, until some young kid come along. That’s what happened with the British guys, like the Stones and Clapton. They opened the door. And Stevie Ray and all of them. Youth is the one to keep the blues going. That’s what makes the world go ’round, and that is what we need for the blues. I know it would put a big smile on Muddy’s face.