Quinn Sullivan has been hailed as the new savior of blues guitar since he was probably eight years old. That’s when the legendary Buddy Guy put the young boy on his stage for the first time and let him roar. Even before that, he had appeared on the Ellen DeGeneres Show, calm and completely at home singing a Beatles tune for the studio audience, strumming a guitar that was bigger than he was.
Fast-forward just a few years and Sullivan is a seventeen year old road veteran with his third studio album, Midnight Highway, having just hit shelves on January 27th. But don’t be so quick to permanent marker him as the blues messiah. The young man has a lot of tricks up his sleeve and they are all not blues-infused. Especially on his new record, Sullivan continues to explore all the ways of rock & roll, from his heroes the Beatles to something with a bit more pop aesthetic.
Sullivan is by no means trying to distance himself from the music that runs so jubilantly through his veins. He just wants to make it more versatilely interesting. “I didn’t want to completely break away from the blues, that’ll always be my home ground,” he said recently. “I just wanted to stretch out.”
Bitten by the guitar blues after watching one of Eric Clapton’s Crossroads with Guy performing, the Massachusetts kid was soon frequently seen at local festivals, tiny guitar slung across his shoulder, out in the crowd playing along to the artists on the stage. A few years into his teens, he made it onto the Crossroads stage himself. Until then, he practiced, played in public whenever he could and … went to school.
Midnight Highway starts off with that shaky blues experimentalism that gets you right under the skin on “Something For Me, with that hint of boogie-woogie piano and chased by the hound dog tomfoolery that keeps it from bogging down in too-deep traditional blues that could smother what Sullivan’s youthfully creative hands can do. Pushing himself to write more lyrics, there are three Sullivan compositions on this record: “Eyes For You,” “Lifting Off” and “Going.” And he also gets to play a Beatles tune, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”
Calling Sullivan “a sponge who soaks up everything that’s around him,” producer Tom Hambridge says the young player is always “listening all the time and he just so happens to be around great artists. Every time he plays, it’s a little deeper.”
Recently, Glide spoke with Sullivan about his past, present and future as he was prepping to promote his new record in New York.
So tell me, what does it feel like to be born a guitar god?
I don’t know (laughs). I don’t really think of myself as that but I started playing guitar when I was three years old and my parents had a whole bunch of music going around in the house when I was growing up, from the Beatles to the Rolling Stones to the Grateful Dead. So it was always in my house.
Yeah but not every three year old starts playing guitar
(laughs) I know, I know, but I don’t know what it was. I think it was just a combination of all the music that was going on and it was one Christmas and I think they just bought me a little acoustic guitar and I really just fell in love with it. I didn’t really have any other interests. I mean, I loved playing outside and doing normal things that a three or four year old kid would be doing but, you know, the whole sports thing never really caught my attention and I never really got into that. It was just the guitar that really sparked an interest in me. That was the beginning of it all.
What was it about that little piece of wood in your hands that intrigued you so much?
I think it was just the feel of it and seeing someone onstage, cause I used to go to a lot of shows when I was young. My parents would take me to local festivals that were going on in the area and we have so many local musicians that play where I live in New Bedford, Massachusetts, so I was always exposed to that at a young age. Seeing someone playing guitar just really made me want to do it, made me say, wow, this would be cool to get up in front of a crowd and play. But I couldn’t play at the time so I got my hands on one and it just went from there.
So your superheroes weren’t like Superman or Batman
Right, my superheroes were Eric Clapton and Jerry Garcia and John Lennon, people like that. Those were my heroes at the time.
So what happened after you got that little guitar?
The next thing I did was that I began taking lessons with a guy named Brian Cass when I was about five years old and he helped me out with actually getting to know the guitar, the instrument, and learning chords and songs and all that good stuff. I did that for a year or two and then I took lessons from this other guy named Stan [Belmarce] and that was two or three years. So those two guys really sort of helped me out a lot in playing guitar, learning a lot of the basic things I needed to know about playing guitar. Also, I always was a huge music listener so I used to play along to the records that I was listening to and would try to take what some other guy or person was doing and make it my own. That’s what I was always trying to do as a kid, still always trying to do – just listen to as much as I can listen to and take what I can take from these people.
When did you first notice you were not just playing what you were hearing but starting to put your own personality into it? How early did that start?
I think that started probably when I was about seven or eight, or nine maybe. A lot of it was just listening and basically playing the same exact solo as the guy who was doing it on the record. Then as soon as I got to master that and as soon as I was able to play along doing that, then I started to kind of say, okay, let’s see if I can make this my own and do this in my own way. So that was like by nine or ten where I was getting to do that more. And hanging out with guys like Buddy Guy, of course, greatly helped and that’s a whole other story (laughs).
Was it always the blues?
You know, it’s funny because it wasn’t so much the blues when I was growing up, it was more the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and the Allman Brothers Band. That was the influence when I was like really young, four or five. I still am a huge Beatles fanatic. They’re my favorite band of all time. But that was mainly the music I was listening to around my house on my own. The blues music didn’t really come about, and I didn’t really start getting into it much, until I saw Buddy Guy on Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Festival that he did in 2004. That was like the first moment that I heard blues music and that just really caught my attention. I mean, seeing Buddy on that really caught my attention because it was everything: from his stage presence, his guitar playing and singing. His electrifying guitar playing was just, in itself, something that I’d never seen from anybody else. So that was different for me. I was five or six years old seeing that and it was like, God, this is so cool, I’ve got to go check this out.
How does Buddy Guy make you a better guitar player?
I think watching Buddy over the years every night has made me a better, not even just a better guitar player but a better person and musician. You just learn so much over the years of being on tour with somebody and being so close to someone for nine or ten years now. I like to think of it as every single time you go see him, whether he’s sitting in a dressing room or on the bus or wherever, I always think of it as going into like a history class, cause you really learn something so interesting every single time you’re in his presence. He’s taught me so much about life in general, about the music business and about being a good person, always aware of things around you, always aware of what’s going on.
And being happy when you play. He always looks like he’s having a great time.
Oh absolutely, the stage is his home, his second home. His first home is where he grew up in Louisiana but I think other than that, he doesn’t like to spend too much time at home. He always says, when he’s home for too long he needs to get back out on the road cause that’s really where he is feeling most comfortable is onstage and I admire that so much.
Do you feel like that now too?
Yeah, absolutely. When I’m out for like a week or two, or more than that, I come home and it’s nice to be home for a minute and then you kind of just go, I want to get back out and do it again. It’s an addiction, you know, a healthy addiction. But it’s definitely something that you always want to do or always want to be doing. The responses I have been getting lately have just been great and you just crave that all the time and you crave playing. So to me it is definitely something that I consider my second home.
You have a new record just coming out, Midnight Highway
Yeah, Midnight Highway was a record we did in Nashville, Tennessee, at Blackbird Studio, amongst many other studios. We also recorded at Sound Stage and the Tracking Room. It was produced by Tom Hambridge, which is Buddy Guy’s producer and he’s also produced for Susan Tedeschi and Lynyrd Skynyrd and ZZ Top, Johnny Winter, a lot of different guys. So he’s got a lot of credibility as well so it was just great to work with Tom on this new record. It was a great experience. I got a lot more involved with the songwriting process and everything. I got to hang out with some really cool guys in the studio, a lot of great, great studio musicians that play on this album. It was really a joy the whole time. And we did it in sections. We’d go to Nashville for a weekend and we’d do four or five tracks in a day or two and then take a few months off and then go back and do it. So over the course of a year we did this album. I’m so glad it’s finally out and people can listen to it. It’s something that I am proud of.
In the studio, are you more of a knob fiddler or a gadget experimenter?
I’m a little of both. As far as getting a tone, there’s really endless options when you’re in the studio to get different tones for different things you’re doing. I remember when I was at Blackbird in Nashville, they had a whole bunch of vintage gear and I’m a huge vintage gear nerd so I was very excited to be able to use some of those guitars and amps. I used a couple of vintage Strats and vintage acoustic guitars, vintage Teles and some vintage Fender amps and Marshalls, so that was really fun. I think I had like three or four consistent sounds throughout the whole album that I didn’t really change too much from cause I wanted to just keep it as stripped down as I could and not add too many weird things. That’s kind of how that went.
Which song on the record changed the most from it’s original composition to it’s final recorded version?
That’s a good question. I think the song that changed the most was probably the song “Going.” That started off as just an acoustic guitar track that I had recorded on my phone and it was just a few chords I had written down. At first it was just going to be an acoustic song with no band or anything. It was going to be me doing a kind of unplugged version of it. Then we decided to add instruments and drums and bass and keyboards to it to make it a full mastered song.
How close in terms of writing a song do lyrics come to you after you’ve got some chords or a melody? When do you start hearing words?
When I go to write a song or record a song or anything like that, it mostly starts off with chords or a melody that I have on guitar. Then, as soon as you have that, then I find myself just humming a melody or humming a verse with no lyrics, and you record that. Then you go back to that and go, okay, and you start thinking of some ideas and writing them down and it’s almost like a metronome melody. You’re kind of just working fast-paced. Sometimes it works like that and then other times you might have to wait a while to think of something. I have so many songs that are unfinished cause I haven’t figured out what I wanted to say in that song yet. So the melody is there and the chords are there but the vocal itself isn’t quite there yet.
The lyrics are the hardest part to write because, to me, that’s what you have to think the most about. The melody is hard too, it’s certainly not an easy thing, but I think the kind of way you got to do it is just have time on your hands and be kind of freed up and not rush it too much so things just come naturally.
Is there a line or lyric on the songs that you wrote for this record that you are especially proud of?
Yeah, it’s actually the same song I was talking about before, “Going.” The last verse to that song, “How does someone lose their best friend and just walk away.” That to me is one of my favorite lines on any song that I’ve recorded cause I wrote that with Tom. That to me stuck out. It’s a pretty personal song and it was written probably a year and a half ago.
You start the record off with “Something For Me” and that’s very bluesy but then you start evolving. The whole record doesn’t have a sense of being the same song over and over.
That’s what we were trying to do cause that’s kind of the crossroads that I’m at, I guess, right now with which way I want to go. We had different ideas and I have so many different influences, it’s so hard to just write one type of song because there are just so many different styles that I do and play. So yeah, it’s a mixture of things. It does open with a bluesier kind of song and sets you up and then “Tell Me I’m Not Dreaming” is a bit poppier and then as you go through it gets to be kind of rock oriented and then a little bit of that jamband kind of vibe at the end with “Buffalo Nickel.”
Were you thinking of something in particular when you did that instrumental, cause songs without words you sometimes have to feel it?
Absolutely, “Buffalo Nickel” was actually done in one take. That was something Tom had and it was kind of a rough track of just a couple of chords and the band and I were just kind of checking it out. This is eight or nine o’clock at night and I remember it was like the last song we recorded for the record and it was done probably in like forty minutes, half an hour. We recorded it one time, a one shot kind of deal, and we just jammed on it for like eight or nine minutes. We decided that this is so cool, let’s just put this on the record. So that ended up being the last song that we ended up putting on. I feel like it’s a good finale of the record in a way because it has this really dramatic thing at the end, this really rock & roll thing at the end. It wasn’t really a song that I had heard before or knew what it was going to sound like when it came out. It was one of those spontaneous, exciting things.
In terms of the blues, what do you think is the most important element in playing the blues? What do you need to put in there to feel it?
There are a lot of different things that people come up with. My interpretation of it is that blues is so history-oriented, if that makes any sense. People nowadays that play contemporary music that is out now, it all stems back to blues to me. I mean, everything kind of just goes back to a lot of the older blues guys that were out in the twenties and thirties, and even before that, so that whole thing is like an everlasting thing that just keeps going and going and going. I know a lot of people get a lot of not-so-good feedback sometimes when they see a kid that’s coming out and playing some blues stuff and it’s like, oh, he doesn’t have it, and all that stuff. But I think everybody has it, the blues, because everyone lives different lives and everyone experiences different things. You know, a five year old kid could experience something traumatic in their life, the same traumatizing thing as a fifty year old guy could experience. So to me, age is just a number. It’s not so much you have to be older and have life experience. I think it’s just the way the music is and the way it sounds and the excitement of it and the love you have for it.
What was the first song that you obsessed over to play on guitar as a kid?
The first song I ever obsessed over was a song by the Beatles called “Blackbird.” That was the first song I learned to play on the guitar. The other day I was hanging out with my old guitar teacher and we were talking about that and how fun that was to work on that and play that. But for me, that was the most fun song I think because it was just this really complex acoustic guitar song. I didn’t think I’d ever learn it so quickly or anything but I ended up mastering it probably like a week after he taught me the song. I remember kind of working on it every day after school when I’d get home, cause it’s a weird thing. You don’t use a pick on that song, it’s just finger-picking, and you’ve got to know the certain finger-picking style and you’ve got to know, obviously, everything else about it. But I was just so into it that I listened to that song so many times as a kid. So I guess the combination of listening to it and knowing the song so well in my head, I kind of just picked it up pretty easily. So for me, that was my favorite song that I learned how to play.
You’ve done Experience Hendrix. What do you think was his greatest quality as a guitar player?
I think he had so many. I think what he did was modernize electric guitar and really make it known to the world. He took things that Buddy Guy did and BB King and Muddy Waters and Albert King, all those guys that came before him, he took all that stuff and made it his own and made it really loud and electrified the whole thing and kind of made it a mainstream type thing. He took blues music and made it popular so I think a lot of people owe that to Jimi. He made it so the younger crowds would understand it and dig it. I mean, he had to go to Europe before he made it here and when he got back here he was all of a sudden the biggest thing ever. So it’s pretty cool that one guy could do that in such a short amount of time and leave such a legacy.
What is something new that you want to try?
The goal that I have as an artist is to translate music in different ways. Right now, it’s me playing guitar and singing and doing what I do but I’d love to learn about piano and playing piano more. I know how to play a little bit but I haven’t obviously mastered piano or anything so it would be nice to be able to sit down and just play a song on the piano. That is something that I’ve always kind of wanted to do. Another thing is mastering the voice and singing with a stronger capability and that is something I am working on right now. Bettering myself as a guitar player, listening to more and more people that I can listen to. I want to appeal to as many people as I can appeal to and better myself as a singer and a songwriter and all that good stuff. So that’s really what my goals are.
And to also just always put on a great show. I think that’s probably the most important thing out of all of this is to be able to go onstage and give people what they’ve paid for because that to me, if you don’t do that then it’s kind of just blowing smoke. If you have a good record, it’s good, but if you can’t do the same thing live, I don’t feel like it’s worth doing. That’s what I’ve always tried to do lately and throughout my whole career is just always play with a hundred percent of what you got and give them what you got. That’s really why I’m doing it.
You sound so level-headed
(laughs) I’ve got a lot of really good people surrounding me. I grew up playing music and I’ve grown up touring around the world and I’ve gotten to see all these really cool places and it’s amazing and it’s thanks to people like Buddy Guy and also thanks to my parents that actually let me do that. You know, I owe it to them. If it really wasn’t for my dad and my mom and my family and my close friends, none of this would really be possible. So I owe it to them for helping me out and doing all they do.
What’s happening for you in 2017?
The record’s out so we’re going to be touring throughout the US in March and April, May, June, a little bit of a spring tour thing. We’re going to Europe again in August; we’re also going in May, but we’re doing this really cool festival in Norway in August. There’s more stuff coming in that we’ll be announcing soon and we’ll have all the tour dates on my website, http://quinnsullivanmusic.com/ I’m so excited to get back out. I haven’t toured since this past summer. We’ve done some one-offs, we just went to Chicago to play Buddy’s club, but we kind of do that anyway and it was fun to do that again. But we haven’t really done a full tour in a bit of a time so I’m ready to go, ready to do this.