Photo: Michael Weintrob
Engineer/tour manager Michael "Max" Maxson
Photo: Michael Weintrob
“I can't do the things I used to do.” After listing a few old-age — related miseries — “I can't walk like I used to walk, I can't love like I used to love” — Guy returned to his refrain. “I'm an old man,” he sang again, and then, after a pause, added with mischievous emphasis, “A very good old man!” The crowd broke into laughter as Guy fired off a riff on his guitar.
A legendary blues man known for helping pioneer the genre on the electric guitar in the late '50s and '60s (and for influencing Jimi Hendrix, who, in turn, influenced him), Guy may be past official retirement age at 68, but he shows no signs of slowing down. Playing in the club's large showcase room, where paintings of blues masters like Lightnin' Hopkins, Muddy Waters and B.B. King himself hang on the wall, Guy appeared on the club's 30-foot stage wearing simple clothes and a baseball cap, holding an acoustic guitar and fronting a modest-sized band. Smiling, whooping, cursing and coaxing through his songs, he revealed the blues as they really are: not a tired 12-bar form, but a living, breathing animal made up of equal parts lust, love, joy and pain.
While Guy is famous for his electric work, he is currently on an acoustic tour. “It's very quiet,” says Michael “Max” Maxson, Guy's sound engineer and tour manager for the past two-and-a-half years. “We have an acoustic bass, whereas with the electric tours, we have a B3, piano, sax and electric bass. The volume is way louder on electric tours. On this tour, it's kind of fun because it's easier to deal with.” In addition to the acoustic bass, Guy's current tour includes drums and a second acoustic guitar.
The main challenge for Maxson is Guy's wide dynamic range, which can go from a low mutter to an all-out blues holler. Maxson says it's mostly a matter of “just riding the faders, especially for his vocals. The volume is so down, it's more of a feel than a sound. A lot of the songs are so quiet you don't really hear the instruments; they're just kind of there. It's trying to get the vibe more than the actual sounds.”
Guy's rider comprises almost entirely Shure microphones: a Beta 91 for the kick, two Beta 56s for snare top and bottom, an SM 81 for the hi-hat, three Beta 98s on the racks and the floor tom, two KSM 27s as overheads, an SM7 on the bass, a KSM 32 for one acoustic guitar, a KSM 137 for the other, and a Beta 87C and wireless SM58 for Guy's vocal.
Guy's dynamic range, as well as his crowd-pleasing antics, helped inform Maxson's vocal mic choices. “[Buddy] sings away from the mic a lot and I need something that's going to pick it up,” Maxson says. “He's a really good entertainer — his dynamics are really great. He'll just kind of step away and sing to the crowd.” As a result, Maxson chose the Beta 87C, which is more “natural-sounding,” Maxson says.
Guy also uses a Shure wireless system for vocals and guitars with an SM58 for his set's closing number, when he finally “goes electric” and walks through the crowd singing and playing his signature Fender Strat. “The new Shure stuff sounds great,” says Mark Messner, Guy's guitar tech, who follows him into the crowd with the system. “Through the years of trying different wirelesses and long cords, the new wireless sounds just as good as the cord.” Messner notes that the addition of a distribution amp onstage greatly helps. “We were trying to do it with just the regular antennas and it would start cutting out about 50 feet from the stage when he was surrounded by people. But with the distribution amp and amplified antennas, he could go out on 42nd Street right now and probably still be as clear as day.”
Guy's acoustic guitar is a Martin J-40. “The Martins — there's something about them,” Messner says. “If you hit the high E string on the 12th fret, there's still a thump to it that some of the other manufacturers just don't have.”
Guy's signature electric guitar is a polka-dot Strat; the one he currently plays was custom-made for him by Fender. “He had a '57 Strat — I think he still has it — and I think they tried to make it as close to that as possible,” Messner says. “It's just that ‘sting’ that the Strat has. That was the sound. He talks about those old days all the time: There was a Strat in a basement and that was it — that was all you needed.”
Though Maxson mixes on whatever board each venue has to offer — tonight he's using the club's Yamaha 3500 — he carries with him two API preamps and a Summit DCL 200 compressor, which he splits between Guy's vocals and his acoustic guitar. Carrying his own compressor and preamps means a greater consistency in sound throughout the tour because he doesn't have to deal with each individual board's preamps. “I figured for the acoustic tour, I'd just try to make his voice sound as good possible,” Maxson says. “I've been really happy with the API — it's really warm-sounding. And because the show is so dynamic and I'm trying to keep everything in the pocket, the compressor smoothes the vocal out enough to make it work really well.” He notes that for the acoustic tour, he uses an easily manageable 17 inputs on the board, whereas electric tours required 25 or 26.
B.B. King's is a particularly good venue, according to Maxson, because of the curtains on the walls. “Plus, it's got a low ceiling, which keeps everything in tight, and a lot of carpet. And when people come in, it gets even more dead.”
The room may have been dead, but the show was anything but. Filling the room to its 1,000-person capacity, the audience cheered loudly as Guy walked among them playing his polka-dot Strat. “Oh man, I got the blues!” he sang as he walked past them.
Gaby Alter is a freelance writer, songwriter and musical composer based in Brooklyn, N.Y.
More pics of Buddy Guy live at New York’s B.B. King’s Blues Club
• Find out more about Guy’s album, Sweet Tea, here.
• Click here for June tour dates and more pics of Buddy Guy live.