Roy Buchanan was a true wizard of the guitar, conjuring a variety of sounds unheard in most players’ vocabularies with minimal tools: his six-string, a fairly transparent high-wattage amplifier and his imagination.
Listening to Buchanan classics like “The Messiah Will Come Again,” “Mrs. Pressure,” “Five String Blues” and “Filthy Teddy,” plus his rendition of O.V. Wright and Gibson Flying V legend Albert King’s blues touchstone “Drowning On Dry Land,” — heck, even the take on the hoary “Peter Gun Theme” he cut with the Gibson Les Paul Gold Top he used for 1986’s Dancing On the Edge — it’s obvious Roy had a gift. But it’s a gift that an ambitious guitarist can unwrap with time.
The key is to understand some of the basics of extended technique, playing that goes beyond the standard approach to the fretboard. Plus, Roy was not afraid to push his gear hard and leap into the unknown. Let’s take a look at 10 factors that can help you begin to scale the Olympian heights Buchanan played at until his untimely death in 1988.
• Pinch harmonics: Or as Roy called them, “squealers.” Playing with a pick in his thumb and forefinger, he was able to achieve these overtone accents at will. His technique involved striking the true note he wanted to accent with the pick and then almost instantly touching — lightly — one of the harmonic nodes on that string with the lower edge of his thumb. Since his amps were always run loud, achieving the desired squeal was no problem.
• Whammy effects: Roy never played guitars with tremolo arms, but when you hear tunes like “The Messiah Will Come Again” and his incendiary take on Neil Young’s “Down By The River,” it sounds like he’s deploying a twang bar. This is achieved by one of the easiest moves in extended technique: behind-the-nut string manipulation. Often when one of his high, ringing “squealer” overtones was in full bloom, he’d reach over the nut of his guitar and press the sounding string up and down to get a whammy bar effect. You can also hear Jeff Beck use this move. Beck considered Buchanan a peer, at the very least, and recorded Stevie Wonder’s “’Cause We Ended As Lovers” on Blow By Blow in tribute to Roy. And Gary Moore also performed this song in memory of Buchanan. Buchanan would also strike his strings beyond the nut with his pick and then push down on the strings near the base of the bridge to get a chiming, quavering tone.
• Volume: In order to make techniques like these really pop, Roy ran his amps high — often with the volume and tone controls full up. He achieved a remarkably bright sound, even when playing a Les Paul for two of his final albums, Dancing On the Edge and Hot Wires. High volume made his sailing harmonics an easy score, and exaggerated the subtle whammy effects he created. Playing loud also made his high speed hammering insanely effective.
• Tapping, hammering and slurs: Eddie fans, don’t be hating, but Roy was using two handed tapping at least a decade before Van Halen’s debut album. Through constant practicing and his desire to achieve the sounds he heard in his head, Roy became not only a proficient tapper but one of the first players to use what became known in metal quarters as the speed arpeggio. Add to that his incredible hammering skills, once again first brought to the fore on his 1972 major label debut album Roy Buchanan with “The Messiah Will Come Again.” Check out any YouTube version of his many performances of this song and you’ll see his fingers dance up the entire length on his guitar’s neck and then begin to pin the high strings over the pickups and slide up — slurring — as he speed picks to create a siren-like sound. You can grab that last move immediately, but zeroing in on Roy’s hammering zone will require a lot of practice, starting at slow speeds through an amp set loud, and gradually building up speed.
• Reverb and Delay: Like volume, Roy also never spared reverb. He kept it high and mighty, which benefited his ability to tag “squealers” as well as moves like chicken pickin’ (he was a master at that, too) and bends that seemed to make his sound refract like laser trails. Later in his career, when he was often traveling without his own amp, he’d bring along a Boss DD-2 effects pedal to achieve a similar tonal quality.
• String-bending: Roy’s “Mrs. Pressure” and “Sneaking Godzilla Through the Alley,” both from 1995’s When A Guitar Plays the Blues, offer insane examples of his bending technique. Especially “Godzilla,” which eschews any resemblance of subtlety. Buchanan routinely “over-bent” and “under-bent” his notes, using two-step and even half- and one-and-a-half step bends, as if his strings were liquid. That requires a ferocious level of familiarity and comfort with the fretboard. He also used double-stops and triple-stops while bending strings, and had a tendency to mute during his upward bends and sound the bent string while slowly moving it back into place.
• Muting: Roy not only used his palm to mute strings at the bridge, he used individual right hand fingers to mute strings as he moved his hands across the fretboard. So while punching one string into a “squealer,” for example, with his thumb and index finger, he might mute the two surrounding strings with his third and fourth or third and fifth fingers. Wrap your brain around that! Another player with a similarly free flowing and independent right hand technique was the New Orleans bluesman Snooks Eaglin, who is also well worth investigating.
• Volume swells: Listen to “Mrs. Pressure” for a one-stop clinic on volume swells, which Roy played by striking and bending notes and rolling his volume pot back with his little finger. The song is dedicated to his first guitar teacher, the Mrs. Pressure, who gave Roy instruction on his first guitar — a lap steel. Inhaling lap steel technique early on developed his ear for the kinds of bends he would later achieve on standard round neck guitars, as well as volume swells.
• Dynamics: Let’s not only consider volume here — although Roy could bring his pumped-loud gear to a hush just by the touch of his fingers — but intensity. Starting low and slow and reaching an explosive, fireworks-like climax was a hallmark of his solos. And those climaxes were often pure squalls of sounds, where notation and key became entirely irrelevant. Perhaps that’s where Buchanan intersected with John Coltrane. Check out the way he builds from a simmer to a volcanic eruption on “After Hours” from Roy Buchanan’s Second Album for a prime example, or the grand finale of “The Messiah Will Come Again.”
• Faith and Fearlessness: Some people have an innate fearlessness about the new. Most of us are more timid. Despite his bad end — a jail cell suicide — Buchanan took a Zen approach to the stage. It came from confidence rooted in practice and a comfort with his ability, as well as thousands and thousands of stage experiences. But it was also a matter of faith. Playing with the élan of Roy Buchanan, Jim Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Sonny Sharrock or any of the other true originals and greats of the guitar requires faith in one’s self, and the courage to ride that faith to new musical places when the impulse hits. Yoga? Meditation? Or just practice and performing? Find out what it takes to build that faith in yourself as a player and pursue it.