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Buddy Fite - Influence and Originality

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Buddy Fite is a name you must either remember or find out about.

Hopefully, to some extent we can provide both options within this humble presentation.

Sadly no longer with us, but remembered fondly by many. I am so pleased that he was brought to my attention, and moreso, as one former friend and player went to extraordinary lengths that I should be able to understand what this page should be about.

Pictured here with a Bigsby modified, Hagstrom Jimmy Oval Jazz model, Buddy was nearing the end of his time with us in person. The CD that accompanied the Mel Bay Book is a worthy representation of the special sound he achieved - often giving rise to a description of an ultimate "one man band"

As the book is now out of print, a special-one off copy was produced to send to me, and I am especially grateful.

Within the book there is a an illuminating interview which - as the book is out of print - I can reproduce for you here:

Inside Buddy Fite - an interview by Dory Hylton

Tacked to Buddy Fite’s kitchen wall is a photograph of Willie Nelson signed, “To Buddy Fite, my music teacher. Love, Willie.” A few years ago, when Chet Atkins accepted a lifetime achievement award, he tipped his hat to the genius of Buddy Fite. Jazz critic Leonard Feather wrote in the liner notes to one of Buddy’s early recordings that Buddy had been acclaimed a hero by a host of great guitarists from Howard Roberts to Glen Campbell to Barney Kessell.

This was going to be a terrific interview. Readers would learn just how wide Buddy Fite’s influence had spread, and with whom this legendary guitar player had worked.

Dory: I know you toured with Johnny Mathis, and that Joe Pass, Les Paul, and Wes Montgomery have been important in your life. Who are some of the other players you’ve worked with?

Buddy: Who I’ve played with isn’t important.

Buddy’s guitar style is completely unique in that once you hear him, you can always pick him out. His combination of walking bass line, rhythm and lead at the same time is almost unbelievable.

An interesting note is Buddy’s approach to the guitar fingerboard. He approaches it as a keyboard player would, in that he doesn’t think in terms of fret position. In fact, some of his favorite influences are Art Tatum and Errol Garner...

But readers of this book will want to know who you are. They’ll want to be able to visualize your life, to see you at work.

I was taught to go through life as a fish goes through water. It leaves no trace.

So what do you want to say to people who open this book?

When you hear words that have a deep meaning, it’s the words that matter, not who said them. I want to talk about playing music in a different way, but really, it’s the only way. A person can learn to play from the inside out, rather than the outside in. This is a different approach to learning. Everybody knows about it, but nobody ever talks about it.

Let’s talk about it. What does it mean to play from the inside out?

I was raised by my grandparents, people who weren’t born in this century. We listened to music on the radio. I loved Roy Rogers, who was a much better player than most. He’d run chords on the guitar, and play diminished chords. Jimmy Wakeley, too. I loved “I Love You So Much It Hurts Me.” That second chord was beautiful. I’d sit out in my grandparents’ car and wait for it to happen. Then I got the idea that I wanted to do that myself, instead of waiting for it to happen.

How old were you?

Eight or nine years old. Told my grandparents I wanted a guitar. They bought me a ukulele with a little book, “How to Play Ukulele in Five Minutes” or something. One day I was just playing the shit out of it. They listened to me play without my knowing it. That’s when they said, “Let’s get him a guitar.” I thought, “Oh, boy!” But instead of a regular guitar, they got me a Hawaiian guitar. It had a cowboy on a horse, and a cactus and a coyote. At the end where you tune it, it had a steel nut that raised the strings. You play a Hawaiian guitar with a steel bar.

Why did they get you a Hawaiian guitar if you wanted regular guitar?

At 22, Buddy returned to Portland and played called the Cotton Club. There he met Omar Yeoman who played with the Ink Spots. He recommended Buddy to Billy Ward and the Dominoes, Buddy went to Chicago for an audition and got the job. The other band members were Shelly Manne and Ray Brown.

For the next four years, Buddy played locally in Portland and also did yearly NAMM shows for Sunn Amplifiers as a demonstrating artist. At a NAMM show in Chicago, Les Paul walked by and heard Buddy playing. Les walked up on stage and pulled his guitar cord out saying anyone who plays that good shouldn’t be around. This started a series of four to five years of famous NAMM show jams which included Buddy, Les Paul, Brice Bolen, and Art Van Damme — to name a few…

I don’t know. But I’m glad they did. I learned to play with my fingers and still do to this day. When I changed to guitar and bass, I just used my fingers on the right hand. Well, they knew a woman and her husband in Vancouver (Washington) who gave steel guitar lessons. So I took the first lesson and when I got home I didn’t practice at all. When I went back the next week I had the picks on back wards. She thought I was a total idiot. First song I learned was “Nearer My God to Thee.” I practiced, but never did learn to play that song. I liked boogie woogie, so I started playing it. She’d get mad at me. Then she started teaching me notes, “Every Good Boy Does Fine” and all that crap. Well, a friend of mine played the piano. I’d give him the notes to read, he’d play them, I’d listen and play what I heard on the steel guitar. When my teacher found out I had it memorized, she told my grandparents, “This kid has no aptitude. He’s wasting my time and your money.” In the 1970s I was playing at the Beachcomber in Lake Oswego, Oregon. I heard a yell, “By God, it is him!” My old steel guitar teacher came up and told the story. She knew it was a big mistake to have been that far wrong. It was good to see her, though. We had a good laugh over that.

We all know musicians who can’t play without having the music in front of them. Is that what you mean by learning from the outside in?

Yes, that’s one way.

Someone once described the experience of hearing you for the first time. He walked into a nightclub and heard a terrific band. When his eyes became accustomed to the dark, he looked around for the group, but all he saw was you on the stage, playing the guitar. “This guy is unreal,” he wrote. “He keeps a bass line running, along with the greatest changes you’ve ever heard, topped off with wild single string playing.” Leonard Feather put it another way. He said you had the ability to sound like a guitarist and a bass player simultaneously. On your early recordings, some tracks are overdubbed, and on some you play the bass lines along with the melody lines and chording. Feather defied anyone to tell the difference. How do you do that?

The way I arrived at playing the chords and rhythm at the same time was, when I practiced I couldn’t stand playing without some kind of rhythm going on. So I started doing that.

Let’s go back to you as a little kid. Your teacher quit. Then what?

One day, a guy came to the door and told my grandparents if I got an electric guitar I could play in his band. I did and we did. That was it. So the first band I ever saw I played in it. It was 1948, and we played for dancing in grange halls, which were everywhere then. People brought bottles in their cars. They got stamped on their hands and could go in and out. I made fifteen or twenty dollars a night. I was ten years old.

My first night club job I played five nights a week. It was the biggest night club in Portland. My grandparents drove me there and they’d stay. Oh, they loved it! At intermission I had to go into the kitchen because I was eleven years old. Then I took ajob with Claire Musser and the Powder River Ramblers. We’d all go in his little bus to play out of town jobs. It was a country band, western swing, kind of like Bob Wills....and his Texas Playboys. So no more lessons. You just played by ear.

Well, I played what I heard.

Now we’re at the part about learning from the inside out?

When asked about his philosophy at playing the guitar, one of the many things he will mention is that he would always learn which notes wouldn’t work in a song first, then he was free to play all the others. He feels we all have the music inside and if we really listen to it, it will come out.

When asked how he got to be so good, he answers that he plays the way he does because nobody ever told him he couldn’t. — Denny Handa

Yes. Those people who want to take lessons to learn how to play will find the lessons are already there, inside themselves.

So let’s talk about how to play this music we all have inside ourselves. Where does a person begin? How do we get it out from inside?

The easiest time to start is when you go to bed at night. Just think of a song, and then think about what kind of a band you want to play it, and then they’ll play it. Back when I was a little kid I’d hear voices inside, and they’d ask me, “How big is big?” and “Would I be any different if I’d had different parents?” So when it came to music, I’d listen to the music playing in my head. That’s how I started listening in there, instead of out here. I could take a song in there, and they’d play it for me, and I’d listen to how they played it. Then I’d duplicate it.

Just like that! Easy for you, Buddy Fite!

When I hear the notes inside, if I want to know what they are, it’ll stop there and give me the tonic note, and then the next note, so I can see how far away it is from the tonic. And then I can see what the other notes are. I believe that anybody can do that to learn to play. I bet even people who have never played this way have heard a band playing in there at one time or another. That’s what I’d like to say, that if you’d work within your mind, at some point you’ll become the listener instead of the player. Every musician who’s been at it long enough knows that at those times the magic goes out into the air, and people stop talking and start listening. Now when the magic happens, don’t stop to think about it, because once you start thinking, it quits, and there you are on your own.

When we learn to play music from the outside in, we usually learn some method or technique, a sequence of steps from a starting point to an endpoint or goal. If your idea is to begin inside one’s own mind, can you be more specific? Is there a sequence of steps for the learner to take?

Well, let’s say there are three parts to it. First, you have to get still enough to become aware of “The Feeling of I.” We all know what that is. It’s inside all of us. I believe that to become aware, really aware, of The Feeling of I is the reason we’re here. That’s one part of us that is actually God. I don’t think this goes against anyone’s religion, or this person’s god or that person’s god. The Feeling of I is different from the feeling of you, which is what separates us. It makes us individuals. And to become aware of that is to know you’re alive. All things, in real life, occur in the center of you. That’s how it is with music. When you ask, it will play in there for you, like that band I was talking about before.

Buddy Fite grew up in the country, in the small towns of western Washington state. His first brush with a musical instrument was with a ukulele at the age of six.

At eight years of age he started taking lessons on the Hawaiian steel guitar (six string). Buddy refused to read the music; instead, he would have a friend play the lessons on the piano and Buddy would then memorize them. When his teacher found out about it, she told him he was a waste of time. He continued on anyway.

By the time he was 10, Buddy was playing steel guitar at grange halls in Orchards, Washington, with a six-piece country band. Two years later he was playing with Claire Musser and the Powder River Ramblers country band. At 13 he formed his own band, playing fairs. It was during this time that he met Willy Nelson, who was a disc jockey at K VA N—a radio station in Vancouver, Washington...

Also, there is a feeling of time. The way we experience time is that we can never be in two places at once. And we’re always thinking of things that have happened in the past, or what will happen ten minutes or ten years from now. But it’s really always now. And that’s the second part of God. We all have now. It never stops being now.

The way to begin to learn to play music, then, is to get still enough to sense what you call “The Feeling of I.” And then to get in the moment, to sense the feeling of time happening right now. What is the third part?

That’s where all this takes place. When I was a little kid, those voices would ask me, “Where is that big screen that we see on? And where is the eye that sees that?” The most important question they kept asking me was “Where are you?” I really wanted to know where the hell was this? That was in my mind when I was a little tiny kid.

What was the answer to that question?

I - am - here. If in your mind you stop time from going by, the feeling of “am” takes over. Then you’re not thinking about what you did in the past, or what you’re going to do, or what’s going to happen two minutes from now. If you just slow time down to right now and keep aware of that “I am,” then you can find out where you are in there.

It seems you’ve taken us back where we started this discussion, to getting still.

Yes. It’s like those religions that tell you to try to stop thinking. The ancient Egyptians said that in the Temple of God, what God hates most is too much talking. When you close down your thoughts and become quiet it’s easier to have a relationship with what is going on inside your mind somewhere. The better you get at that, the better results you get back from it. In other words, when I want to hear a chord, or I want to hear a band play, I just let it happen. Rather than try to force having an experience, the more we just work with what it feels like to be alive...

the feeling of I am here...

..the more that will happen to us. If you listen in there enough, you’ll be able to hear what is yours in there, and what is not yours in there. So if you want to play an instrument, go inside and listen to the instrument you like playing something. As long as you keep doing that, remembering to do that, then if you duplicate it, there it is.

I’d like to end with this, one more thing. I talked in the beginning about what to do to hear that music inside yourself, and so when you play music and you become the listener instead of the player, then that thing inside hooks up with you outside, and you don’t know what’s going to happen. Well, that magic is the other end of the part about being inside in there. And, of course, those are the times we all remember playing our best.

When it happens to me as a singer, I just stand there and open my mouth and the music comes through me. I’m not doing anything, just standing there. It is magic.

Yes. Some of the older musicians, and me, too, got caught up in trying to get that feeling back by drinking, by smoking, by sniffing, doing something. I think probably all musicians, they’ve all struggled with that. And so that’s why a lot of them end up drinking and smoking and sniffing stuff.

Knowing that feeling and trying to keep getting it?

When he was 14 to 15 years old, Buddy played Friday and Saturday nights at Tiny Dumont’s park. During this period, Willy Nelson was hired on as a guitar player to replace another band member. The next year, Buddy was playing steel guitar on the Louisiana Hayride. Some one on the show recommended Buddy to play on a Bob Hope USO tour for $500 per week, but Buddy didn’t fill out the papers.

While working in a machine shop in Portland, Oregon in the years between his 16th and 18th birthdays, Buddy bought a Johnny Smith album and listened to it day and night. He remembers loving the har monies and then practicing them relentlessly.

Around this time Buddy began to play both regular guitar and pedal steel at a country club in Portland called The Grove. Later that year, he went to Oakland, California and played at another club, called the Hi-Hat. The owner-manager of a band, called The Naturals, heard Buddy and asked him to play bass with his band. He bought Buddy the gear, but Buddy didn’t even know how to tune the bass, so he tuned it to the top four strings of the guitar...


I’ve never heard it put that way. I think you’re right.

Me, too.

That’s why some musicians have resorted to artificial means...

...in order to get back that magic. It’s a hell of a feeling. And that’s what I’ve been talking about.

Where the real feeling comes from.

That’s how we got started talking about it.

Musicians who read this bio...

Well, they identify with that, because it’s happened to every one of us. Some more, some less, but we’ve all had that experience. And that’s my reasons for wanting to do this interview. I feel that going inside, discovering that “I am here,” is far more important than what I did somewhere or who I played with. If it works this way for me, it’ll eventually work for other people.

You’ve said that you’ve asked yourself not why you can play the way you do, but why other people can’t.

Well, you know I spent three years roaming in the woods and seeking answers to all the questions those voices had asked me when I was a kid. That’s exactly what I was learning, although it wasn’t something on my mind at the time. I got this by listening inside, and that’s the difference. That’s all there is to it.

Simple as that, huh?

Yes. That’s all it is. And I like this way of putting it, to say that’s all there is, because that brings us full circle from the beginning to the end. It really is everything.

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Dory Hylton is a historian, biographer, and jazz singer who works with Buddy Fite. This interview was conducted exclusively for Mel Bay’s book, Buddy Fite Fingerstyle Jazz Guitar Solos, in August 1996.



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