Blues icon Buddy Guy’s guitar playing is instantly identifiable because it’s loud, vibrant and a heck of a lot of fun.
The same could be said of his taste in decor, with a polka dot motif appearing not only on the shirts he often wears onstage but most notably on his signature Fender Stratocasters and Jim Dunlop Cry Baby wah pedal. Randy Rhoads only played one black guitar with white polka dots; Buddy has made it into an entire statement. And it turns out there’s a deep family connection behind the look.
“The polka dots are because that’s the style of my mother, Isabell Guy,” Buddy told me in an unpublished excerpt for an interview in 2015.
“There’s a long story behind that,” he says. “I promised her that I was going to buy her a polka dot Cadillac to make her feel better, because she had had a stroke and she never saw me play, so I always felt I was lying to her about being a musician! I was going to get famous and drive back to Louisiana in a polka dot Cadillac to show her I’d made it.”
It’s sad to imagine that the woman who gave us this blues great never saw him perform, not even once.
“She saw me with an acoustic guitar at home but she never saw me play after I left Louisiana and moved to Chicago,” Buddy shares. “As a matter of fact, she never saw me play in Louisiana either, because she had a stroke before I left and I had made no records yet until after I got to Chicago in 1957. So I finally got the guitar company, Fender, to make me a guitar with the polka dots, and they’ve made quite a few of them now.”
Guy donated his original Harmony acoustic guitar to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but the Fender Buddy Guy Standard Stratocaster is still going strong in the Fender catalog. The current iteration has a soft-V neck profile, 9.5” radius maple fingerboard and standard Strat pickups. You can also order a Fender Custom Shop version, as actor Jason Momoa recently did.
Like his fondness for polka dots, Buddy’s love affair with the Strat goes way, way back.
“What happened was, Eric Clapton and the other British guys, they saw me and in 1965 and they'd laugh about it! Him and Jeff Beck, they said 'I didn't know a Strat could play blues!'” he recalls.
“I said, 'What do you mean, man?' Because it became so famous. They got hooked on it because they saw me throwing it around on the floor, you know what I mean? I was kicking it with my feet and it was still in tune, man.”
Guy went on to tell one of his favourite Strat stories: he was on tour in Africa and his guitar was strapped to the top of the car. It blew off in a gust of wind and hit the road.
“I said, ‘Well, that's the end of my guitar,’” he laughs. “We turned around, went back and got it – I had to jump in the street to keep a truck from running over it. I picked it up and it had one key out of tune. The E string was a little flat. And until somebody stole it from me it was still good!”
While Jason Momoa's Custom Shop Buddy Guy Strat replica was a heavily relic'd job, Buddy was something of an early trendsetter in that department.
“After the British guys made it more famous than we did, they started making them look like they was smashed up,” he says.
“We had them scratched up because we couldn't afford to get a new one! We didn't scratch them on purpose! As a matter of fact, we used to smoke a lot, and them tuning keys, that was our ashtrays. If you're going to play a solo, you pop your cigarette under the string there, and you'd forget sometimes and it'd burn down and put burn marks all on the tuning knobs. Then some of the British guys saw it and fell in love with that, and then the company started making them like that!
“But the way I look at it, that first scratch on your guitar, your new car, your shoe, after that you don't have to worry about it being scratched because you've already got it.”