If you were a Guitar Hero player back in its early days, then you remember a little song that you could unlock as a bonus track called “Jordan.” This, for many people including myself, was their first taste of Buckethead. The song, with its stuttering rhythm and booming tone was unlike any song, actually any THING that I’d ever heard. It was so weird and wonky, with solos that sounded like a computer was imploding on itself. But the song was the most challenging in the game and it proved to be a Herculean task for players to overcome. Despite never having heard of him in my life, his skills were undeniable. Naturally curious by this oddity, I started to dig deeper into just who was this mysterious master guitarist, and soon I took the plunge into the most fascinating rabbit hole of my musical life.
What the average listener may not know about Buckethead is that he’s prolific, and incredibly so. Born Brian Carroll in 1969, very little is known about much of Carroll’s life at all. There are very few pictures of him unmasked, and most are from his childhood. We do know he studied under Paul Gilbert, another virtuosic player of the era, and soon after he adopted the persona known as Buckethead. As to why Carroll decided to wear a KFC bucket on his head and a Michael Myers plastic mask, he is quoted as saying the idea came to him whilst, well, eating KFC:
“I was eating it, and I put the mask on and then the bucket on my head. I went to the mirror. I just said, ‘Buckethead. That’s Buckethead right there.’ It was just one of those things. After that, I wanted to be that thing all the time.”
Since those days, Buckethead has gone on to work with some of music’s best and brightest. Guns n’ Roses, Les Claypool, Iggy Pop, Serj Tankian, Bassnectar, and even Hollywood actor Viggo Mortensen are just a select few of those who have collaborated with him over the years. This fact alone was enough to baffle me. I understood he was a talented shredder, but what could possibly attract all of these artists to him? It’s only when you explore the Buckethead catalog that you discover why that is.
After about eight years of listening, I can tell you that the sheer diversity, scope, and emotional depth of Buckethead’s skills as a musician and a player is more nuanced than any solo guitar artist I’ve ever heard. His music ranges from the sweeping and epic to the intimate and very intensely introspective, to the raging and angry. He has a similar ability to pop writer Sia, who can pull melodies from her head and come out with hit after hit. Buckethead is much the same, and though his songs may not be hits, they are just one new amazing journey after another. Take for example the next song linked, “She Sells Seashells by the Slaughterhouse.” It’s title is classic Buckethead, with a penchant for the bizarre, but I haven’t heard a guitar weep like the way it does in this track. It’s haunting and peaceful, and showcases how he is just as adept at playing with emotions in a slow, methodical way as he is at melting faces.
In order to know the music in this case, I feel like you have to know the man in some ways, which is very difficult to do. The man who is Brian Carroll seems a very reclusive and guarded individual, and flashes of that come out in his public persona. He rarely speaks when in uniform, and usually uses a puppet to do so. His voice is soft high pitched, and he often appears awkward and uncomfortable. This is a man who cared for his parents very much, and who has dedicated many songs to his family. When his mother and father recently passed away, he released an album with the cover being an unguarded look at the man who, despite being faceless on stage, is a human like any of us:
In many ways, Buckethead is the uber-nerd many of us wish we could be. He has a love for giant monsters, robots, and even did a performance with nunchuks on stage. He played songs from Star Wars and Willy Wonka, and many classic horror movies. He has an absolute love of basketball and its players (and, like “Jordan” has written many songs about them.) In essence, like I said before, he is one of us. But despite his talents and quirks, he hides away and hides behind. He adopts the nature of a robot; a pure guitar playing machine. But he’s not. He lets his music speak when he cannot, and that makes the his music all the more potent. It’s perhaps the only glimpse of a man who is so talented, yet perhaps very tortured. Or not, but one can only speculate.
Buckethead has released over 253 studio albums in his career, with over 115 being released last year, and each one holds something new to discover. Remember when I said prolific? Yeah, how many artists can say “Oh I released 115 albums last year and also was in Guns n’ Roses.” Be he doesn’t. He doesn’t say a thing. Most guitarists who are incredibly talented use that to gain spotlight. But Buckethead retreats from all of this. Despite his high profile work, few out there can place him or even know who he is.
The bizarre and the beautiful are the two sides of human nature. Perhaps Brian Carroll wears a mask because he’s free from judgment, and he can be anything he wants to be. His music can be anything we want it to be. It’s creation in its purest form. Looking at a track like “Nottingham Lace,” one of his most popular tracks, takes us on a trip across a plethora of emotions, and many more than most “standard” songs can do in my opinion. It’s here that we see his skills as incredible virtuoso, soloist, and manipulator on full display.
I suppose “original” is the only word you really can use. Buckethead has created a style all his own and seems to have, paradoxically, lived more authentically through his music and performance than many people have in their ordinary lives. This is, I think, what makes a true artist. It’s the complete, unabashed “I’m going to create, perform, and live how I want. I may come across a strange, even reclusive, but despite the stares and whispers behind my back I get, I’ll be me through and through.” When you listen to any Buckethead song, you are getting a pure, undiluted look under the mask at the very human man underneath. It’s a strange and beautiful world that Mr. Carroll lives in, but one I’m happy to be a part of and hopefully others will want to explore. Because, yes, Buckethead is an American classic and a true artist. Can we ask for more?