Quinn Sullivan, 14-year-old blues whiz, talks Crossroads Festival

"Playing Madison Square Garden was the highlight of my life. I still can't believe it happened."

What were you doing when you were 14? Chances are you weren't playing with Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy, Warren Haynes, Gary Clark Jr., Jimmie Vaughan and a dozen other blues greats at Madison Square Garden.

But that's exactly what middle-schooler Quinn Sullivan did last week when he helped close out the first night of Clapton's 2013 Crossroads Guitar Festival for an all-hands-on-deck version of Joe Cocker's High Time We Went. Earlier in the evening, Sullivan joined Guy, his mentor since 2005, along with pedal steel master Robert Randolph for arena-razing readings of Damn Right I Got The Blues, Slippin' In and Let The Doorknob Hit Ya.

"Playing Madison Square Garden was the highlight of my life," Sullivan says. "I still can't believe it happened. I went from watching the Crossroads Festival DVD in 2004 to playing it last week. That's just crazy!"

Sullivan credits Guy with maneuvering his own spot on stage to include him in the proceedings. "From what I know, you have to be personally invited by Eric Clapton to play Crossroads," says Sullivan. "Buddy kind of worked things out to get me in. It's just one of the things he's done for me. I'm so indebted to him."

On 18 June, Sullivan releases his debut album, Getting There, a rascally and reverent collection of 12 original blues tunes that also features an assured take on Clapton's To Get Better In A Little While. And once classes let out for the summer, he'll hit the road with Guy for a US tour. It's pretty heady stuff for someone not even old enough to shave, and in the following interview, Sullivan talks about how he came to love the blues, his practice routine (or lack thereof) and what it's like to rub shoulders with key figures of the blues elite.

You got into the guitar at, what, three years old?

"Yeah, I was about three. My parents had a lot of music in the house – Grateful Dead, Beatles – and I grew up listening to it. They brought me to a lot of blues festivals and shows around here in New Bedford [Massachusetts], and I just loved the music. For me, the guitar stuck out. I can play a little drums, a little bass, a little keyboards, but the guitar felt special to me.

"I got my first guitar one Christmas, one of those little First Act models, and I just loved the feel of it. Everything about playing that guitar felt right to me."

At what point did it become more than that? For many people, playing the guitar, especially the blues, is a calling.

"That all hit me when I saw the Crossroads Festival DVD from 2004. Buddy Guy was incredible on that. He played Sweet Home Chicago, which was so good. He did his thing with Hubert Sumlin, Eric Clapton and Robert Cray and all those guys, and I really thought he was amazing. His style, his mannerism, his stage presence – it all struck me as being something really cool.

"At the time, I was listening to The Beatles – and they're still my favorite band of all time – and a lot of jam bands. I didn't know too much about the blues. Getting into it was a real eye-opening experience."

I have to think that listening to the blues set you apart from a lot of your friends at school. Did you feel like an outsider at times?

"Yeah, a little bit. My friends respect and think what I do is really cool, but they're not choosing this type of music – definitely not. They're into pop and rap, which I respect, but this is the music that I choose to play."

And, of course, you've grown up in an age of YouTube and singles replacing albums. A lot of kids your age don't even buy albums.

"Yeah, it's true – records aren't really available like they once were. A lot of kids my age download music, but they don't pay for it. That's not cool for the artist because, you know, they need to get a little of the commission. I wish it was the same as it was 25 years ago, where you could go to a record store and buy an album or CD. People still do it but not like they used to. There's so much new technology that you don't have to go anywhere."

Are you self-taught on the guitar? Did you take lessons?

"I started taking lessons when I was about five with a local guy. Between the ages of five and ten I was doing the lessons. The first song I wanted to learn was Blackbird by The Beatles. I told my teacher, 'Before I learn anything else, you have to show me Blackbird.'"

Sullivan backstage at the Apollo Theatre, NYC, with Buddy Guy and Eric Clapton, 2012. © Chuck Lanza

You went for one of the hard ones right off the bat.

[Laughs] "Yeah, I know! I just always liked the song, and I had to figure it out. My teacher was really great; he taught me all the major chords and a lot of licks. The rest of it I kind of did by myself. I listened to a lot of people, a lot of different guitar players, and tried to make it my own."

Did you woodshed for hours and hours? What's your practice routine like now?

"I really just played when I felt like it. I didn't feel like I had to practice scales for six hours a day or anything. I just pick up the guitar and play when I feel like it. I don't think it's good to force yourself to practice. It should feel good, not like work."

Your phrasing, vibrato and even your restraint belies your age. [Sullivan laughs] Would you say that you're a natural on the guitar?

"Almost… yeah. It's more of a listening thing; you have to listen to a lot of players and take in what they're doing. If you have a good handle on what you're doing on the guitar, it's easier to listen than to read. I guess I had an early jump on things because of when I started taking lessons."

Was your first good guitar a Strat?

"Yeah. I got a Strat when I was about eight or nine. My first guitar was that First Act guitar, an acoustic, and then I moved up to a Fender Squier – not a full-size Strat but something a little smaller. So I hooked up with Fender through Buddy, and they gave me a white American Standard Strat. I still have it. I got it signed by so many people: Mick Jagger, Lenny Kravitz, Jeff Beck, Billy Gibbons, Joe Bonamassa, all of these different people. And, of course, Buddy Guy. [Laughs] It's really, really cool."

How did you get hooked up with Buddy?

"He was playing at a theater in my hometown. I had no idea that I was going to play or meet him, but my dad made some arrangements with the people at the place for a little meet-and-greet thing. We went backstage, and I had my Fender with me. He was so cool. He signed my guitar, and then he asked me to play a few licks. I did some stuff, and then he said, 'You be ready when I call you.' That was pretty surreal.

"I walked on stage that night, played a couple of blues songs – it's still amazing to me. One of those incredible nights. Buddy has done so much for me. What a gracious man he is. He's one of the greatest guitarists in the history of music. It would be nice if the younger generation knew more about him."

Guys who have played in bands for 10 years are petrified the first time they play Madison Square Garden. What on earth was going through you mind last week?

"The only thing I was thinking was 'Don't mess up, Quinn.' [Laughs] Obviously, I had some nerves going – there's 20,000 people in the place. But I don't really get nervous before shows."

So who did you get to meet backstage? C'mon…

"I did meet Eric, but actually, I met him last year at the Apollo Theatre when Buddy invited me to play the tribute show to Hubert Sumlin. I got to shake Eric's hand then and we had a picture taken. It wasn't too much. This time, Eric shook my hand and said some things, but it was sort of loud, so I didn't hear everything.

"The finale at Crossroads... I got to play with 30 of my heroes; it was so crazy. At the end of the night, Clapton was hugging everyone and thanking them for being there. He hugged Buddy, and then Buddy gave me another introduction to him. I think Clapton said, 'Great to hear you play.' It was such a cool moment."

Sullivan on stage with Guy at Buddy Guy's Legends in Chicago, 2013. © Chuck Lanza

Besides Buddy, who else would you say has been an influence?

"There's so many. I'd say my top influences have been Eric Clapton, Buddy, Derek Trucks, Warren Haynes, Frank Zappa –"

Zappa? Wow, that's interesting.

"Yeah, I like the jazz-fusion guys, all the people who stretch things. I also like David Gilmour, Carlos Santana, Jeff Beck. Those guys really know what's going on with the guitar."

You know, most kids your age haven't heard of most of those people.

"Yeah, well… I don't know what to say. They should! [Laughs] I just love great music, great guitar players."

You have your own album coming out, you've played Madison Square Garden, you're touring with Buddy Guy – do you have any kind of normal teenage life?

"Oh, yeah. I hang out with my friends, try to normal kid stuff. Of course, I still go to school and everything. It's not good to build success up and let things go to your head. I always want to stay humble."

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