The rise of Buckethead is one of the strangest and most unlikely success stories in modern music. The California guitarist may have originally caught buzz touring with Guns N’ Roses as a replacement Slash (and a damn good one) throughout the early 2000s, but even long after quitting the band, his popularity as a live act endures, without him having accumulated any other measurable sort of “fame” or “commercial success” since. This is especially unusual due to the fact that at his shows, the only other musician on stage is a DJ. That’s right—Buckethead is a solo guitarist that plays to backing tracks. He doesn’t even sing; his sets exclusively consist of instrumentals. So, how the hell does a minimalist, oddball act like this manage to sell out the Cabooze on a Thursday night? Simple: raw talent.
Ozzy Osbourne once revealed in an interview with Revolver that he’d attempted to recruit Buckethead as a member of his live band, but decided against it upon meeting him—
“I tried out that Buckethead guy. I met with him and asked him to work with me, but only if he got rid of the f***ing bucket. […] I said, ‘Look, just be yourself.’ He told me his name was Brian, so I said that’s what I’d call him. He says, ‘No one calls me Brian except my mother.’ So I said, ‘Pretend I’m your mum, then!’ I haven’t even got out of the room and I’m already playing f***ing mind games with the guy. What happens if one day he’s gone and there’s a note saying, ‘I’ve been beamed up’? Don’t get me wrong, he’s a great player. He plays like a motherf*****.”
After witnessing the show last night, I can’t say Ozzy was wrong. Underneath his (meticulously maintained) novelty act facade, Buckethead is an astonishingly good guitarist—probably one of the best that I’ve ever seen in a live setting. To be clear, that doesn’t just mean he can shred really fast. No teenage Guitar Center noodling sessions to be found here. He’s a guitarist who obviously cares a lot about phrasing and articulation. However, this begs the question—what exactly is he saying? What’s the point of music like this? I think this interview with the man himself on the “Coming Alive” podcast from a few months ago (the first and only interview he’s ever done) may point us toward some answers—
“I have a heart problem where my heart beats out of rhythm. It’s been doing it for a long time, but recently it kicked up and became really intense. […] It’s been really difficult because it’s scary. Even walking across a room is difficult. […] It definitely scares me, but it’s also doing a lot of good because now I better do all the things I want to do – and I’ve been doing a lot of stuff. I feel an urgency now. I could be gone tomorrow. Anybody could be gone, but that’s a heavy experience. I want to play right now, and I want to play that experience.”
True to his word, Buckethead played like there was no tomorrow. He gave his loving, KFC bucket-sporting fans a virtuous, generous performance to be remembered, while simultaneously fighting a life-threatening heart condition. If that’s not commitment to your artistry, I don’t know what is. However, I have a feeling the fans weren’t the only ones getting something out of the show. Like he said, music is his outlet through which he’s able to express his experience. Experience isn’t usually something expressed through guitar solos, but that sure isn’t stopping him.