By Martine Ehrenclou
Considering Quinn Sullivan is only 19 years old and has been performing and touring half his life with Buddy Guy, it’s not an overstatement to say Sullivan is a guitar prodigy and guitar slinger. With three albums to his name, the latest being Midnight Highway, Quinn Sullivan is a gifted Blues player and singer. He’s also shared stages with Carlos Santana, Joe Bonamassa, Billy Gibbons, BB King and others, and has appeared on national TV such as Ellen, The Tonight Show, Oprah, Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, and CBS News. Quinn kindly took time out from his busy tour schedule to talk with us.
ME: I read that at a Buddy Guy show in 2007, when you were eight years old, your dad brought you back stage to get your guitar signed by Buddy Guy. Something extraordinary happened that day.
QS: Yeah, we went backstage to meet him. That was such a great night for me because it was the beginning of everything.
ME: Tell me about it.
QS: When we walked back, he (Buddy Guy) was just gracious and so nice. It was our first time meeting. I was sort of shy so I didn’t really say much. But he asked me if I could play a few licks on the guitar and I did. Then he said to me, “You be ready when I call you.” He literally pulled me up on stage with him during the show.
ME: What was that like?
QS: It was amazing. I always think about that night because we’re such great friends now and he’s just been the absolute greatest person to me over the years. It’s been about ten going on 11 years now. It’s a very unique relationship. It’s a learning experience for me because I’ve gotten to play around the world and go to so many different places and meet new people and share stages with amazing people. It’s truly been an amazing thing.
ME: Did it sink in that night when you went up on stage and played with Buddy Guy? Were you nervous?
QS: I wasn’t nervous. I think I was more star struck at that time because I had never played with someone like that before. I was a young kid. So my thoughts were, this is one of the coolest things that anybody of any age could ever do. I was completely floored with the entire thing. I don’t think it sunk in until we started playing together more. He would invite me to play on shows with him. In those moments I thought, okay this is something more.
ME: How did that come about?
QS: At the beginning, we would show up for gigs and we’d go backstage and hang out with him and I’d sit in with him. It spiraled into him asking me at one of the first Experience Hendrix tours to play on his album. That was maybe the fourth or fifth time we’d hung out and played together. That was ridiculously amazing. I thought, oh my God, are you serious? I played on his record, Skin Deep on a song called, “Who’s Gonna to Fill Those Shoes,” which came out in 2008. That was a huge deal for me. I mean I was eight, nine years old going into a studio and recording that track and being a part of the whole thing—it was a mind-blowing experience for me.
ME: Exciting. What first got you interested in the Blues? You were pretty young.
QS: I started listening to the Beatles and The Rolling Stones, The Grateful Dead, the Allman Brothers Band and others. Those were my core influences growing up. My parents would play me different records and expose me to different things. They weren’t so much Blues fans, I mean my dad knew “The Thrill Is Gone” by BB King and famous Blues songs but he was never a solid fan of that kind of music. I discovered it on my own.
My dad played me the Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival of 2004 and there were a bunch of guitar players on that. I saw Buddy walk out on stage with Clapton, Jimmie Vaughan, Hubert Sumlin, and Buddy just totally floored everybody on stage and floored the audience. Immediately, I thought, who is this guy? That was my introduction to Blues music. After that, I was obsessed with it and researched who Buddy was influenced by—that would be BB King and T-Bone Walker, Muddy Waters and people like that. I was super fascinated by the whole thing. It just came sort of accidentally.
ME: Do you think it was mostly the guitar playing with the Blues because it’s so guitar centric?
QS: That was the initial thing I got from it. Then getting older and experiencing life, it’s more about what they’re talking about and the message they’re getting across to people. The interesting thing about the Blues is that I think it’s the derivative of every kind of music. All rap and hip-hop, R&B, soul music and rock and roll, it all kind of comes from the Blues. Not many people that listen to those styles of music would even know that. It really fascinates me because if you listen to a rap song, they’re talking about the same thing that Muddy Waters was talking about 60 years ago. It’s the same stories, the same heartache, love and heartbreak.
ME: You’ve played with so many greats and you’ve accomplished so much at a young age. You’ve performed not just with Buddy Guy, but BB King, Eric Clapton, Joe Bonamassa, Derek Trucks, Los Lobos and more. I’m wondering what it’s like for you to play with that caliber of musician?
QS: For me, it’s just learning from them, that’s what it comes down to. You become fans of these people over the years and you love their music and what they do. To be able to stand in a room or on stage with them, it’s an out of body experience. I really couldn’t say what it feels like to be on stage with those people. It’s a very in-the-moment feeling. It doesn’t hit me until a week later and I’m like, oh my gosh, that actually happened.
ME: How did you become a virtuosic guitar player? Lessons? Did you practice 24/7?
QS: I started playing when I was three and then started taking lessons when I was around five. I didn’t really practice 24/7 all day every day. I did practice, obviously everybody has to practice, but I didn’t focus much on the practice–I focused more on listening to albums and playing along with the albums. The theory part of it and all the technical aspects of guitar playing never appealed to me as a kid. It was always just, I love music and I love guitar and I love seeing a guy or girl on stage with guitar. I think that’s the coolest thing in the world and I wanted to do that. Years later, I became interested in other parts of it but the early stage was just jamming and playing a lot. I had two great guitar teachers along the way that showed me a lot. One of them showed me the basics of guitar and chords and the other person showed me improvising and how to jam. With the second teacher, we would just jam and play Cream or just play Blues together. It wasn’t like he was teaching me chords or phrasing, it was just jamming one-on-one with someone else. It’s one thing if you can play scales and you can technically be great. But if you can jam and leave space for the other guy’s playing—it’s almost like what you don’t play is what makes it really great.
ME: You also have a great voice. I listened to your album, Midnight Highway, and really liked it. Did you start singing around the time same time that you started playing the guitar? How did it come about?
QS: I always sang around the house, in the shower, the car. I’ve always been a singer, but I guess the guitar came first. I was singing when I was five or six years old—not well, but I was singing. [Laughter] Later on I took vocal lessons because my voice started to change when I was 13 or 14. I needed a vocal coach to help me through that. I was touring a lot and I needed guidance to show me how to sing on stage, how to project more, and how to get an overall better voice.
ME: Let’s talk about Midnight Highway, produced by Grammy winner, Tom Hambridge. Can you tell me about it? Did you have a concept for it?
QS: I wanted to make an album that showcased the many genres that I love. I wanted to show people that I wasn’t just one thing. Me and Tom worked really well together, and he’s done the last three records, Cyclone, Getting There, and Midnight Highway. We have a great musical friendship and a personal friendship that’s very cool. He’s played drums with me for years on stage. And I’ve been super grateful to have him in my corner through this whole process.
At the time we were recording the album, we went to Nashville. I was in school so I couldn’t go to Nashville for a month to record. I had to go home to school, so I’d go back on weekends. It was a great experience. We recorded it at Blackbird Studio Nashville, which was great and amazing that millions of amazing records have been recorded there. You can feel the energy right when you get in the studio.
ME: What did you take away from that experience?
QS: I was around 16 or 17 and just being around guys who had done it for many more years than I had, it beats anything I was doing at the time in school. [Laughter]
QS: It was really fun, we had a ball, a lot of laughs. There were people playing on it like Reese Wynans on keyboards, Michael Rhodes on bass, Rob McNally on guitar and Tommy McDonald was also on bass. It was my first time having writing credit on some songs, which I was really happy about. I’m getting more into writing songs and music. I have three songs on that record that I co-wrote with Tom.
ME: Is one of them “Going”?
QS: It is, yeah.
ME: That’s a beautiful song.
QS: Thank you so much.
ME: And “Eyes For You”?
ME: Also beautiful.
QS: Thank you so much. One more was “Lifting Off.” I guess the concept was to have a record that showcased what I could do musically and took you on sort of an adventure. I’m super proud of it.
ME: Tell me what you love most about performing live.
QS: For me, I think performance is just an extension of thanking your fans for appreciating what you do, because you see people out there who come to your shows, you see people who are really into it. I love the people that come out, but in particular the people that really take it all in and you can tell by looking into their eyes. You can see the people who are totally involved and that makes the show better.
ME: I’m curious how much the audience has an effect on you when you’re performing live.
QS: A huge effect. We always give people 100 percent for every show, whether it’s ten people or a thousand people. A great quote from Buddy Guy is, “You never know who is in the audience so you have to give it your best.” If you have a bad day, it’s my rule that I keep with me, you just always have to leave it behind for an hour and a half. But if the audience isn’t engaged, it kind of affects how you feel on stage. For the most part, 90% of the time, they’re always responsive and super into what you’re doing.
ME: You’ve performed with stellar musicians who are older than you are. I’m wondering what that’s like for you with the age difference. Have you ever felt intimidated by some of the musicians or have older musicians ever been competitive with you because you’re so much younger and so good?
QS: I can’t say I’ve had any competitors. When I was a kid and playing with the 50-year-old guys on stage, they were so helpful to me. For music it’s great to learn from people who have been doing it way longer than you. Not only do they teach you stuff music-wise but they teach you about what it’s like to be in the industry and what it takes. I’ve had so many unbelievable people that support me and love me, and I’m super thankful to have that. I’ve learned you’ve got to stay humble and appreciate it every day because that’s how you have longevity and stay relevant and stay learning. You can’t stop learning from other people because if you feel like you’ve learned everything you need to, then take a step back and listen to another album. [Laughter]
ME: [Laughter] That’s the truth. You’ve surrounded yourself with really good people. How did you manage to do that as a young kid? Did you get help from your dad?
QS: My dad tours with me all the time so having him in my corner is an amazing thing and I’m super grateful for that. I think it wasn’t an abnormal thing because I started when I was a kid, I didn’t have any other reference point. I just thought, well, this is how it is. I’m a very relaxed person most of the time, but I’m pretty shy. You have to be level headed in this business. I admire people like Derek Trucks and Joe Bonamassa and a ton of other people. They’ve done it for years but remain the same person.
ME: They have their feet on the ground.
ME: What’s next for you with your tour through the Fall?
QS: We’re doing a lot of opening slots for Buddy Guy in the South part of the US in September and October and then I’m doing some headlining shows in Boston, DC and Connecticut. I think we’re going to focus a lot of November and December on getting my new album made so I’m going into the studio soon. I’ve been doing a lot of my own stuff lately, branching out a bit more from the Buddy Guy tour and doing my own thing, which is really exciting. I have new guys that are part of my band that are incredible musicians.
ME: Can you tell me about your new album?
QS: I can’t say too much because it’s in the works right now and I’m writing a lot. I’m really excited about recording again and being back in the studio. The cool thing about it is I’ll have writing credit on all the songs on this album.
ME: That’s great.
QS: Thank you. That’s a big step for me.
ME: Just to wind up here, I saw your show with Buddy Guy a year ago and noticed something between you. You seem so happy playing with him. Can you tell me a little about that magic that happens between you?
QS: Whenever you’re with Buddy, you just get this feeling of appreciation because he’s had a very unique life and a different life than a lot of people because he’s had a lot of life experience that a lot of people don’t deal with and also being African American and dealing with that in the 50’s and 60s’s and probably his whole life. You feel that every time you’re with him, you feel his struggle and the sacrifices. You feel all of that when you’re on stage. It’s more than being on stage with a legend—everybody knows he’s a legend, that he’s one of the greatest guitar players in the world. For me, it’s different. We’ve had dinners together so many times, and I’ve been in his company thousands of times now, so it’s more like on a friend level, and it’s a beautiful thing. When we’re on stage together, it’s just like two old friends playing guitar together. Sometimes you forget that you’re playing with Buddy Guy and then sometimes you go, oh crap, that’s Buddy Guy.
ME: I really appreciate you making the time to talk with me today.
QS: Thank you so much.
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