Roy Buchanan was one of America's true geniuses of the electric guitar. Even posthumously, he commands the ardent respect of his fellow guitarists and a devoted army of fans. The Buchanan sound is unique: heartbreaking, searing solos, trademark shimmering tone, gorgeous melodies and a mixture of lightning quickness and technical creativity that mark him as a wizard of the instrument. He was a pioneer in the use of controlled harmonics, and although this technique has been used by the likes of Jeff Beck, Robbie Robertson and ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons, all acknowledge Buchanan as the master.
Raised in the small town of Pixley, California, Roy's musical fire was sparked at an early age. His father was a sharecropper and Pentecostal preacher and Roy's first musical memories were of the racially-mixed revival meetings his family would attend. Surrounded by gospel, R&B and country influences, it wasn't long before Roy expressed interest in playing an instrument. His parents sent him to the local lap steel guitar teacher, Mrs. Pressure, who had Roy picking out the Hit Parade favorites by the time he was seven years old. Six years later, Roy moved on to a Fender Telecaster. "I liked the tone," he said, "it sounded a lot like steel guitar." Soon thereafter, drawn to the blossoming R&B scene in Los Angeles, Roy ran away from home and headed for the big city. At only 15 years of age, he was taken under the wing of famed bandleader/producer/writer/arranger/impresario Johnny Otis. The young Roy studied the blues mastery of guitarists such as Jimmy Nolen (later with James Brown), Pete Lewis and Johnny 'Guitar' Watson.
The late fifties and early sixties found Roy playing for and cutting a number of sessions with musicians as diverse as pop idol Freddie Cannon, rockabilly legend Dale Hawkins, and even Ronnie Hawkins (whose band, the Hawks, would later gain fame as the Band). During his stint with Ronnie Hawkins, Roy played guitar mentor to the group's then bass player, Robbie Robertson. Then, in 1962, Roy's trademark harmonics were introduced on Potato Peeler, his groundbreaking single with drummer Bobby Gregg. In the mid-sixties, exhausted by life on the road, Roy settled down in the Washington, D.C. area, started his own group, The Snakestretchers, and began a residency at the Crossroads Club in Blades Burg, Maryland.
In 1971, already riding on word-of-mouth reputation that included accolades from Eric Clapton, Merle Haggard, the Rolling Stones and John Lennon (who made a personal pilgrimage to see Roy at the Crossroads Club), Roy "broke" nationally as the result of an hour-long National Public Television documentary. Entitled The Best Unknown Guitarist In The World, the show won Roy a contract with Polydor and began a decade of national and international touring. He cut five albums for Polydor (one went gold) and three for Atlantic (one gold), while playing virtually every major rock concert hall and festival. The major labels gave him fame and fortune, but no artistic freedom. Finally, disgusted with the over-production forced on his music, Roy quit recording in 1981, vowing never to enter a studio again unless he could record his own music his way.
Four years later, Roy was coaxed back into the studio by Alligator Records. His first album for Alligator, When A Guitar Plays The Blues, was released in the spring of 1985. It was the first time he was given total artistic freedom in the studio; it was also his first true blues album. Fans quickly responded, and the album entered Billboard's pop charts with a bullet and remained on the charts for 13 weeks. Music critics, as well as fans applauded Roy's efforts with accolades and plenty of four-star reviews. His second Alligator LP, Dancing On The Edge, was released in the fall of 1986. The album won the College Media Journal (CMJ) Award for Best Blues Album of 1986.
One year later, Buchanan released Hot Wires, his third Alligator LP and the twelfth of his career. It was hailed by the Chicago Tribune as "his best album ever." By this time, Roy's illustrious career had taken him from underground club gigs in the sixties, to international recognition and gold record sales in the seventies and worldwide tours in the eighties with the likes of the Allman Brothers. He even performed to a sold-out Carnegie Hall with label-mates Albert Collins and Lonnie Mack. Roy was thoroughly enjoying the creative freedom he received from Alligator. "Since coming to Alligator," Roy once commented, "I'm finally making the records that I've always wanted to make."
Buchanan's skill, soul and technical innovations were nothing less than marvels to his contemporaries and admirers. Without his inventiveness, the landscape of modern guitar playing would be completely different. Buchanan died in Virginia in 1988. He was 48 years old.