Lopez commands the stage when he steps behind the microphone. His dark sunglasses, black cowboy hat and PRS guitar resting next to his hip make him look more like an outlaw than a Texas bluesman. He can feel the blues as his hands slide across his guitar's neck. He's been channeling them since he was a child, jamming with neighborhood kids in Shreveport, Louisiana. Sharing the stage with the likes of Lucky Peterson, Buddy Miles and soul-singer Johnnie Taylor has helped Lopez to create a progressive blues sound. And he's opened for B.B. King, Jeff Beck, Steve Vai and ZZ Top. His version of "Red House" with Andy Timmons is awe-inspiring, and his benefit for Bugs Henderson in 2012 redefines what it means to channel the blues.
Legend has it that Stevie Ray Vaughan's mother cried when she watched Lopez play at a benefit concert for her scholarship foundation at a VFW in Oak Cliff. "I don't know if she was crying," Lopez says, "but I do know she was very emotional and very thankful to me for helping out that charity early on." He still plays the Stevie Ray Vaughan Remembrance Ride.
Last year, Lopez released his sixth studio recording, Handmade Music, an album that Lopez calls "a blues record with a major rock twist." Songs such as "Hard Times" showcase his roaring pipes, and his version of the classic "Traveling Riverside Blues" is haunting.
Lopez began playing guitar when he was 8 years old. "I grew up around a lot of guitar players," he says. As a kid, he ran around with the likes of Kenny Wayne Shepherd. "It was like a hobby or sport," he explains. "Everybody rode his bike, everybody had slingshots and everybody played guitar."
When his father took him to a local pawn shop, Lopez saw his first dream guitar: "It was a 1957 Stratocaster, a Buddy Holly-style sunburst." Lopez asked if he could see it, and as he held it and played it, he knew he'd found his calling. "That's when I knew. I was just like, 'Oh, man.' I just caught it immediately, just feeling that old Strat, playing it."
Lopez eventually received a "really crappy acoustic" for Christmas and immediately began playing it. "I took it directly from under the Christmas tree, into my room and closed the door." His father served in the Army with Elvis Presley and became friends with the King. He brought those songs home, so Lopez's first guitar experience was learning early '50s rock music. "It was very one-four-five pattern, but I didn't realize I was playing blues."
Then his brother brought home a copy of Are You Experienced? by Jimi Hendrix. "That's really what started changing it for me," Lopez says. "When I heard that backwards guitar solo by Hendrix, it felt just like I'd levitated."
Lopez never took formal guitar lessons. It was always just learning with other children in the neighborhood as they played guitars and swapped ideas. He and his buddies would attend arena-sized concerts (AC/DC, Cinderella and RATT) and muscle their way to the front of the crowd just to watch legendary guitar players like Angus Young shred, and then they rushed home and emulated those riffs on guitar.
"That's how I took lessons," Lopez says.
In June 1990, Lopez moved to Dallas. Two weeks after his arrival, he attended the Blues Festival Tour where he discovered a bluesman who could make a guitar cry. It was Stevie Ray Vaughan. "That was it," Lopez says. "After hearing Hendrix and spending this whole time searching through hairbands to seeing Stevie — that's it. That's the guy. That's the sound. There it is; and then he was gone."
Two months later, Vaughan died in a helicopter crash on the way to Chicago from Wisconsin. For Lopez, it felt like discovering Hendrix was dead all over again. "It was like this tragic, bittersweet melody surrounding these guys. It really just drove the mission, drove the inspiration even harder."
Lopez had some knowledge of the blues, but to feel the blues, to channel them, he would need to go back to the roots. So his stepfather took him to the University of Southern Mississippi where, in the basement of the library, a vinyl shop with a vault of Delta blues albums awaited the aspiring guitarist. "I had this box of blues guys you've never heard and some you have — a bunch of obscure stuff."
At 14, Lopez moved back to Louisiana, and his father began taking him to various blues clubs, asking old bluesmen if his son could join them on stage. At first, they were skeptical, but when they saw him play, "they were like, 'Oh my God, this kid can play the blues.'"
Lopez was immediately hired into the bands. He played from 5 p.m. to 5 a.m. at least three nights a week. "New Orleans never stops," he says. Each night he'd sit in for the happy hour gig, the regular gig and the after-hours gig. "Life hasn't changed much since then."
In high school, Lopez played jazz ensemble, and was also a featured soloist. He received a scholarship to Berklee College of Music, but he went to Dallas first. Then one night he jammed with Lucky Peterson, and one of Johnnie Taylor's guys saw him play and hired him on the spot.
The Johnnie Taylor Band was jamming all across the South. "I was thrown in with the wolves," Lopez says. "It was like college for me." He later joined Lucky Peterson's band and the Buddy Miles Express. "Buddy loved me so much because of my love for Hendrix. He considered me a son he never had."
The legendary James Brown also wanted to hire Lopez, but he turned Brown down. "I was already doing my thing, and I felt as if I had done my time with the other guys. It would have been real weird. I love his music so much, and I didn't want to join his band and end up hating his music."
In 1994, Lopez was blazing through a riff of "Red House" by Jimi Hendrix at the Blue Monday Jam session at the Greenville Bar & Grill when ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons entered the bar to listen to this young guitarist. "It was kind of one of those legendary movie kind of things," Lopez says. When he left the stage, Lopez saw Gibbons waiting for him in the back room. "So I ran over there with my Stratocaster and a Sharpie for him to sign my guitar, and he was like, 'Man, we got to jam together.'"
Gibbons became his mentor. "He wouldn't tell me what to do, but he'd go, 'If I were you, I'd kind of be thinking about this ...'" At the time, Lopez was playing a white American Stratocaster modified similarly to Hendrix's. "There's a string tension difference when Hendrix played his guitar upside down," Lopez says, so he turned the necks of his right-handed Strats upside down. Then Gibbons nudged him. "Hey man, you played Strats for a long time, but you'll really sound good on these,'" and he pointed to a pair of humbucker pickups. (Gibbons recorded all of his early ZZ Top stuff playing a Les Paul.)
Lopez recently signed with Paul Reed Smith and now plays a guitar that resembles a 1959 Les Paul burst, one of the most sought-after guitars by collectors. He'll play Trees on Friday.
Lopez says it's getting harder to find good blues venues in Dallas, especially with the recent closing of the Pearl Street venue. "For Dallas, it's really sad. There are a lot of great young guitar players who are coming up, and there needs to be something to culminate that. But if there's no place to play, nobody is going to play here."
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