Guitar Stories

Bugs HendersonBugs Henderson
The Times Have Caught Up

reprinted from Vintage Guitar

Story and photos by John Southern

Born in 1944 in Palm Springs, Florida, Bugs Henderson was dubbed “Bugs” by an adolescent band member who insisted everyone should have a nickname. After refusing to be called Bunny (for his speedy playing), he opted for bugs, and it has been his trademark ever since.

Although considered an “overnight success,” Henderson has been playing guitar professionally for over 35 years. Only now, however, does it appear his style and the sound of the times are finally merging.

Henderson built a successful reputation as a blues guitar impresario, mostly south of Mason-Dixon, but he has also toured Europe. Although his demeanor is more like that of a good interior-trim carpenter, his chops on electric guitar would make Hendrix take notice. VG caught up with him backstage at the Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Vintage Guitar: Were you a musical child? Did you take music lessons?

Bugs Henderson: I remember wanting to play the clarinet. I don’t know why my parents rented me one. It was good for about a month in the band at school. I never could get the damn thing to make any sound. This was in junior high, I think. I was probably 17 or 18 before I had a real guitar and was tuning it and learning to play chords.

VG: Did you take guitar lessons?

BH: No, but I saw Elvis on TV and saw a guy named Ronny Wice in a band called Mouse and the Traps at an assembly in high school and the bug just kinda got me. I didn’t realize it was probably hitting 8 million other people at the same time. I thought it was just me.

VG: When was this?

BH: Late ‘50s, early ‘60s.

VG: Was there a special kind of music that grabbed you then?

BH: It was rock and roll that got me into it. I wanted to play the guitar, and at the time I hadn’t given any though to this “artist” thing. You know – the name out front. The bandleader, the songwriter, any of that stuff. That’s great, but I just wanted to play guitar!

People asked me about my style and who I studied. It’s hard to remember. The radios weren’t formatted, there was just music. I’ve said this a million times, but it’s the gospel truth. I  would literally go out and buy any album that had a guitar on the cover, then go home and learn whatever it was. I bought a lot of Chet Atkins stuff. I never thought, “What kind of music is this?” I played a lot of jazz, a lot of country, and a lot of Ventures ‘cause they always had guitars on the covers.

VG: You listened and copied by ear?

BH: Yeah, slow the record down and find the notes. And had a lot of guys show me stuff. I remember figuring out an A chord – a fifth-fret A chord – from the cover of a Drifters album. I remember learning “Johnny B. Goode” from that. When I hit that chord I could hear the intro to that tune on the two high strings. And I still do – I soak up anything I hear. I can’t stand to not know how to do a lick – it drives me crazy ‘til I learn it.

Ideally, I would [play guitar] three nights a week and then be in a serious country band. Maybe do a jazz gig another night. A little piano and stand-up bass, you know, where I just had to be the guitar player.

VG: That's a bit unusual. Usually, players seem to see the star thing along with the musician duty.

BH: I was in a band called Nitsinger, and Freddy King and us were managed by Showco. I'd played with Freddy several times. He stopped me in the hallway once and told me I ought to get my own band and be doing my own thing. It was difficult for me to do that at that time. It was nerve-racking, I was scared to death. It's much easier to just show up and plug in and be the hotshot guitar player, get paid, and go home.

VG: What year was this?

BH: 1972 or '73. More and more, I couldn't play [material] I wanted to do with bands. I'd have to strike out on my own to do that. It seems now the blues has become such a pop thing. They're playing blues on every beer commercial. There's blues clubs and blues societies. Some guy on every street corner's got a Strat and a tweed amp and is playing the blues, but back then it was really an underground deal. Only black guys played the blues. I'm not exaggerating when I say people used to throw #@!* at us. We'd play gigs and people would holler at us to play ZZ Top and Lynyrd Skynyrd. But I'd try to slip blues tunes into the show. And club owners would say, "Don't play that sad blues crap. We want to hear rock and roll."

I was still wearing the suite and tie, the patent leather shoes and playing a big hollowbodied Gibson, but people didn't want to hear it. They wanted to dance and hear songs that were on the radio.

VG: It's still that way to some extent, don't you think?

BH: Yeah, but you know there was still that underlying pride knowing I was different and the world was against me. You were part of a small group of guys trying to get that music through, and nobody wanted to hear it.

Many times I'd go to hear B.B. King or Freddy King, and I'd be the only white guy in the room. It was just unheard of for people to mix back then. And now the blues is such a big pop deal (laughs). I have people saying all the time that I'm not really doing the blues. The real blues. It's funny to me now, cause I went through that for so long and then took it somewhere else 'cause I wanted to. There are guys like Anson Funderburgh, who are so true to that form, stay to it, and carry on. But I wanted to do something else. I did it for several years, but I spent my life learning all the old stuff. I don't play it anymore 'cause I'm burning everything to be a complete guitarist again, so I went on and started writing my own stuff and doing original music.

Then, of course, the blues hit real big. From the time I got into the blues it never left me and it's just there in everything I play. But nowadays people think of the blues as a three-chord format played in a certain way, or it's not the blues. Of course that's bull - if it's coming from your heart, it's the blues. No matter how many chords you put with it, it's an emotional thing. When you see B.B. King sing "Every Day I Got the Blues," which is a real uptempo song, it's not a sad song. Put the words on a piece of paper and read them, you might think they're sad. But it's a joy, it's almost a gospel feeling.

VG: When did the blues permeate your style?

BH: I was playing in Mouse and the Traps and I was having domestic problems. David King, a friend of mine who was our road manager, and I went out drinking one night in Kilgore, right outside of Tyler, Texas. There was a place called the Rose Room, and it was packed - cars everywhere, and we could hear B.B. doing "Rock Me Baby." We thought it was a jukebox, but we were so into hearing black guys play and knowing where it came from, there wasn't any of this uptightness on our part about mixing. So we went in and we were the only white guys.

The place was packed, we went in and he was onstage. We never had any problems, we were welcomed in, and I was transfixed by the moment and the wine. And my life was just miserable enough that I went up to B.B. - I don't know how I did this, 'cause there were no white guys playing the blues - but I begged him to let me get up and play with him.

"If you let me play with you, I don't need anything else the rest of my life," I told him.

For some reason he did it. I'm he thought it was very strange. I had been listening to his records but I didn't really get it. But I got it when I heard him. Those black people, the way they received music, it was like nothing I'd ever seen before. White people didn't get into music like that - white people danced and picked up women and fought. But this was an ocean of people who were into the music. People were sighing and moaning and groaning for the music, and I wanted to be part of that.

Anyway, he let me get up and play Lucille, and he sang "Eyesight to the Blind," and it was just an amazing moment in my life. In the first place I was really welcomed by the audience. I'm sure it was real odd for them to see me get onstage. But when they heard I could play, they gave me a real warm response, and B.B. was nice. I've got a picture on my wall, B.B. with his arm around me, and I've got his guitar on.

Man, it was a big moment, and up until then my life had been Stones songs with Mouse and the Traps. I showed up the next night, I had on patent leather shoes big Black Diamond strings on my guitar, and I didn't want to play any more of that stuff we were playing. I just lived for the one or two blues songs we could play. From then I became completely immersed in it.

VG: What year would that have been?

BH: 1967 would be a real good guess. And for several years after, I was just a blues man. I didn't want to hear about anything else. I hated anyone who had success or money, I just wanted to play the damn blues, and that's all the counts. Then it just kinda came out of me. There wasn't anything major that happened. I just thought, "I've learned this, I love it. I'm going to play it the rest of my life but, I want to play some other stuff too! I want to write, I want to sing, and start my own band." That was 22 years ago.

VG: What guitars have you had from the beginning until now?

BH: I've had so many, if I saw anybody who was a good player, I'd go trade my guitar and get whatever they had. I went through everything - Pauls, Teles, Strats. They'd be worth a fortune now. I had a couple Mosrites, a Danelectro I wish I still had, and my wife bought me a Gibson 345 Stereo, like the one B.B. used to play. I played that for years and still have it. But I've been playing the Paul Reed Smith for 10 or 12 years. This red I got in '86 or '87.

VG: Is he making them custom for you?

BH: He made a couple for me. I've got this red one, and I've got a McCarty I love very much. The old Gibson's maybe a little sweeter because of the hollowness but the two are very comparable with what that old Gibson is worth. You can't afford to take it on the road. No, the red PRS, that's my axe.

VG: How many hours a day do you play?

BH: It's hard to say, I work hard with this band. We go on the road for two or three weeks, then come back and work regionally two or three night a week.

VG: Have you ever done anything for a living other than play guitar?

BH: No, not for any time. I got in trouble with the police in the early '70s and I just played on weekends and I worked on a road crew for the county in Tyler for a while - a month or two. But no, I never did the music store thing. And nothing against the guys who do that, but I always knew for me, even when times got the hardest, that if I took something else  I probably wouldn't come back to this. After a few weeks of a steady check, and not traveling around with a band, I'd probably get a little comfortable and go, "Well, this is pretty regular and maybe I ought to keep doing this." I was always afraid of that. This is just what I am meant to do and I'll do it 'til the day I die.

I've been really lucky to know a lot of the greats, and play with them. Freddy, B.B., Albert Kings. Albert Collins, Clapton, Roy Buchanan, Johnny Winter, James Burton - who is really one of my idols. I always wanted to play with Scotty Moore but haven't got to do that. I never played with Chet [Atkins], I tried to talk him out of his thumbpick, he wouldn't give it to me. Apparently, he has them special made. I've idolized Chet, even though I'm a performing artist now, I'm still a guitar player at heart.

I'm one of those guys who's not in it to get big record deals and be on MTV. The guys I'm into the most aren't at that level - they just want to play for the love of playin'. Most of the dreams I had I accomplished years ago - meeting my idols, playing with them. A wonderful family, making a good living, everything beyond that has just been gravy. Especially now. This band is so good, and there's so much energy. My son, who is now 18, has been with us for three years. And the bass player, Keith Jones, has been with me for six years I just don't have an interest in playing with anyone else. This is the best it's ever been for me. Even at the worst gigs, it's beautiful being up there. And surprisingly enough, I pay these guys more than I've ever paid anyone, and nobody's looking at their watch. They play for the love of it, too! We play 2 1/2 hours nonstop and just eat it up. It's funny...about the time you feel you've finally got it, you begin to worry about losing it. You don't want it to ever go away.

John Southern and the staff at VG extend their condolences to Bugs on the loss of his wife, Dutchess, who passed away November 12, 1998. We wish him continued success in his musical pursuits.

John Southern is a writer/photographer/musician/luthier making custom guitars under the brand name of Lyric. You can reach him at (918) 747-7380.