George Thorogood Explains Why He Plays So Fast

By , Contributor

George Thorogood and the Destroyers are best known for the 1982 hit “Bad to the Bone,” but they have toured and recorded constantly throughout their long career. They have played with blues legends Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, and have opened for the Rolling Stones.

Now they’re released their 15th studio album, 2120 South Michigan Avenue, which was the address of Chess Records. I recently had a chance to talk to George about the beginnings of his career and his roots in the Brandywine Valley, just south of Philadelphia.

George, I’m talking to you from Chadds Ford, PA, just up highway 202 from Wilmington. Do you ever go back to Wilmington?

I used to play sets at the Chadds Ford Tavern, where they would pass the hat… I used to do pretty well.

 I mention Wilmington because I’d like to take you back to some of your early experiences with music. You have a lot in common with Eric Clapton, and I’m wondering if you ever had an experience like the one Eric describes in his autobiography. He says that one day when he was listening to a Robert Johnson record that building on Robert Johnson’s legacy would be his life’s work? Did you ever have an experience like that when you were listening to the radio or listening to a record in Wilmington?

I had it in mind when I was a teenager… I was listening to music and all of a sudden I said “I want to be a guitar player.”  Then I saw John Hammond in Greenwich Village… The thing is, he was successful doing something that wasn’t huge, like Led Zeppelin was at the time. But he was successful doing it.

Did you ever have friends who said something like, ‘You gotta listen to this guy with the funny name--Muddy Waters?

No, I would say that I just drifted into it. I remember [tv variety show] Shindig... in...1965.  I was listening to The Rolling Stones and they came out and said that these were their idols.  It was like delta music with electric guitars. So I thought, “I gotta pay attention to Muddy Waters.”

Speaking of great blues artists, you know that somebody recently discovered a new photograph of Robert Johnson.

I don’t care about that. You’re not supposed to know what Robert Johnson looks like.  I talked to Robert Lockwood, who had known him. He met a guy who was an artist, one of those guys that the police use to draw sketches of criminals. And he wanted Lockwood to help him make a sketch of Robert Johnson. But Lockwood refused to do it, and I thought that was cool. It doesn’t matter what Robert Johnson looked like.

Did you listen to WMMR in Philadelphia?

No, I stopped listening to the radio in 1967 or 68.

So when you were listening to music, it was on records or live in clubs?

Yeah.

You’ve opened for Howlin’ Wolf, who was born in West Point, MS, right on the edge of the delta. I like to say that Howlin’ Wolf is sort of a test for white people. If white people can appreciate the power and drive of Howlin’ Wolf, then they can appreciate the blues.

Muddy Water said one time that if it weren't for the blues, there wouldn’t be a Muddy Waters. And if there wasn’t a Howlin Wolf, there wouldn’t be a blues.

The other day I listened to your version of “Who Do You Love” and then I listened to Bo Diddley’s version, and I noticed that you play it a lot faster than he does. Is that difference just the difference between two generations of guitar players?

It’s a faster generation now. Everything is faster now. If you watch a movie like The Matrix and then watch something like The Grapes of Wrath  you notice that The Matrix is a lot faster. Everything is faster.

You use the address of Chess Records in Chicago as the title for your new album, How would you sum up the meaning of fifties music for the twenty-first century?

The big thing was that when rock and roll hit, it was the first statement for young people. Prior to that, if you were under 18, you were an afterthought. What Chuck Berry had an eye for was the teenage market, so he wrote lyrics that had something to do with kids. And then Brian Wilson and Bob Dylan did that. They took a cue from Chuck Berry. 

So what does the future hold for George Thorogood and the Destroyers? Are you going to make another record? Are you going to be touring?

I’d like to have a return engagement in Chadds Ford!

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