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Chris Duarte - Texas blues great talks guitars, his early years, and the future of live music

Austin’s Chris Duarte has long been one of the most highly regarded blues guitarists in the world, sharing stages with the likes of Buddy Guy, John McLaughlin, Ted Nugent, and Mick Taylor, an early member of the Rolling Stones.

He has recorded 14 albums and after the 1994 release of his first LP, ‘Texas Sugar/Strat Magik,’ he finished fourth in Guitar World magazine’s ‘best blues guitarist’ ranking behind Eric Clapton, Guy, and B.B. King.

“That was quite a banner year for me, 1995. They rated the album as one of the Top 10 albums that year, then they put me fourth on this list. If I had only held on to that position,” Duarte said, laughing.

“Something like that is almost surreal. You don’t ever expect to be compared to guys like that. You just never think about it. If I were to say that some days I didn’t let the hype go to my head … you know, you sort of puff your chest out about yourself.

“In the end, I know how far I have to go.

“I still have a long way to go. Especially after this past year. My skills have kind of atrophied a bit, and I don’t think they’re going to come back until I get a couple of tours underneath my belt. That’s how I practice and get better – when I’m out playing in front of people and I’m trying these ideas.

“I can sit in my bedroom and practice all day, and all that will do for me on stage is help me loosen up and be ready to try out ideas. It’s me getting in front of people and trying new things that allows me to really learn. I need to start playing a bunch again.”

Early in his career, Duarte played at different clubs in central Texas, and still plays a monthly gig with girlfriend, Beth Lee, at Fire Street Pizza in Belton. He has not played around these parts in a while, but still recalls fondly some of those early gigs.

“It’s been a while since (the central Texas scene) really popped up on my radar, but sure, I remember some of those clubs. There was Sandy’s (on FM 439). There was a club or two I played in Belton a long time ago. I remember the Water Works in Waco.

“I think what the scene there has moved to is … there’s probably a lot more clubs that have Americana or country-western – country-flavored type of music – instead of a blues club or rock club.”

Growing up in San Antonio, Duarte – who is mostly self-taught – got his first guitar at age 13, a Supro, but never made any headway learning how to play. Two years later, when his brother got a Takamine acoustic, the magic began to happen.

“I had no idea what to do with that Supro. It was a red Strat-looking model with three humbuckers (pickups) on it. I didn’t take lessons, so it promptly went under my bed. I really wish I still had that guitar because it would probably be worth a little bit of money now.

“When my brother got his classical guitar, I was constantly picking that thing up. I’d be learning Beatles songs out of books and stuff.

“I noticed right away that I was a really quick learner. When everybody around me couldn’t pick up things, I could. So I just decided to really work on that. Even when it comes to music theory and all that, you just have to ask questions and read a few books. Get some pointers from other musicians.

“My first real guitar was a Takamine acoustic, and I put electric strings on it so I could bend them and stuff. I remember the first solo I ever picked off a record was the ‘Gimme Shelter’ solo. It’s a great solo.”

When he decided he was ready to take a serious shot at becoming a musician, Duarte moved to Austin, also known as The Live Music Capital of the World. He dropped out of school and headed up Interstate 35 when he was just 16 years old.

“When I realized I was picking up things faster than (other) people, and I played in front of a few people here and there – little parties – I liked the whole feeling of it,” he recalled.

“When I started realizing I could pick out songs off of records, and I was playing some of the things I wanted to learn, and I saw how it moved me and how it moved some other people – and I realized I could write songs, too – from then on, I wanted to be a musician.”

After hearing legendary jazz fusion guitarists John McLaughlin and Al Di Meola for the first time, Duarte decided he wanted to become a jazz player. That ambition was short-lived.

“I was, like, my God, I want to be like this. I really started gearing toward jazz. I couldn’t play jazz to save my life, but I wanted to be like that.”

About a year or so after he landed in Austin, young Duarte got a gig with his first band, Bobby Mack and Night Train. They played blues, and the rest, as they say, is history.

“I was so naïve,” Duarte said. “I thought blues was this easy form music, no problem. But then when I tried to sound like the songs on the records that I was going to be playing, I didn’t sound anything like that. I didn’t have the correct emotion.

“But I thought, ‘There’s something here. I’ve just really got to work on this to get it right.’ It’s always been my work ethic to be good at what you’re doing.

“So, I started working on the blues. Bobby Mack would tell me to learn solos note for note – go learn this Freddie King solo. Go learn this Muddy (Waters) song. Go learn this Hubert Sumlin song, note for note.

“That helped me learning the blues … to get an idea of the cadence.”

By the time he was 25, Duarte was married and after working various jobs over the years to help pay the bills – loading dock, mall department store, driver for an office supply company – he decided it was time to find out how far music could take him.

“I was with my first wife and I told her, ‘I know I have something here. If you can just let me stay at home, I’ll practice all the time so I can get good and get in a bunch of groups, and I’ll be able to pay rent.’ Rent in Austin was cheap back then. You could live in an OK place for like $500 to $700.

“So, she let me quit my (day) gig at the age of 25. After about a year, I was in enough bands to make rent. She had a state job, but I was making more than her.

“After that, I’ve had very, very few jobs and I’m 58 now, so …”

Last year, the COVID-19 pandemic hit Duarte hard in the pocketbook, just like it did most every other working musician in the world. Venues are starting to reopen and so he is lining up gigs again and planning tours, both here and abroad.

“I wish I could have been more productive this past year. It was like a real gut punch with everything being wiped out from underneath me. There goes my living, you know? I don’t do anything else but play music. I haven’t had a day gig in 20-some-odd years. This is what I do – I play music.

“I had a little bit of money in the bank, so I was able to live off that pretty much the whole last year. The state wouldn’t give me unemployment, even though I applied for it.

“The Austin scene just closed down. What happened was, everybody started to live stream on the Internet and then put up their Venmo or PayPal information, and ask for donations through that. That’s what a lot of musicians did. I did it. I did it with my girlfriend, Beth Lee. We’re in a group together, and that’s what we had to do to make a little money here and there. Sometimes you make a lot of money; sometimes just a little bit. But it felt good to at least be playing.

“I was real fortunate that I could live like a pauper and make money stretch for a while.

“It got to be a little bit of a sadness thing going, but finally the last couple months I’ve been digging myself out of it.”

He is known primarily as “a Strat guy,” but Duarte says the popular Stratocaster model he plays most all the time is actually not his favorite type of guitar.

“The Strat is just a really versatile instrument. When it comes to playing and being electric, I still love a Stratocaster.

“But if I were to have my druthers, I would have the big ol’ jazz boxes. I love those guitars. D'Angelico New Yorker is my holy grail guitar. But that's a six-figure guitar, so ... I actually have a re-make, which is a couple thousand dollars. It's a nice guitar.

“I had this ’63 Strat that was a dream guitar. That was my first real guitar after the Takamine. I wanted a ’63 because that’s my birth year. This guy in San Antonio had one and I bought it for $500, in 1979.

“Then, that guitar got ripped off. My fan club president sought some guy out who was selling a ’63 Strat. He went and met him, and the guy said, ‘Look, I’m going to sell it to somebody who’s gonna play it. I don’t want to sell it to go on a wall or to a collector.’

“He met him in a parking lot at nighttime, and he had several guitars. He said he used to manage the portfolios of George Harrison and Eric Clapton, (and) he had gotten in a bit of trouble – or he was dying of cancer or something – and he needed some money, so he was selling off guitars that those guys had given him.

“He bought the ’63 for me, and that’s the one I have now. It’s in the closet – I retired it.”

With the shuttered live music scene starting to make a comeback, Duarte says he is ready. He plans to go into the studio fairly soon and record another album or two, and he is itching to get back out on the road.

“I want to get back over to Europe and get back to Japan. I really like playing over there. I love playing in Japan – they’re so knowledgeable and so dedicated; great listeners.

“Everybody is saying it (live music) has changed for the worse, and I think people will still live stream to a certain extent, but I really think it’s going to get back to the way it was. As I’m booking myself on tours around the States, the clubs are opening back up and the groups are coming out of their hibernation, so to speak.

“It just feels like things are going to kind of get back to normal. I mean, when will that be? I don’t know. It could be sometime next year, but we’re going to have some kind of normalcy with everybody out playing.

“I’m hoping by next summer, things will be pretty much back to normal.

“I’m going to do another record. I’ve been signed with Mascot Records out of Europe for the last four or five years. I am going to get in the studio this year and put out another album. If that one does fairly OK, then I know we’ll put out another album.

“I just want to keep writing better songs and continue playing music. It’s really the only life I have, and fortunately, I love this type of life. I love getting out and playing on the road – what can I say?”

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