Why You Should Know Him
Peter Buck, from the Athens, Georgia band, R.E.M., is the next icon on our list of unfortunately over-looked guitarists. Throughout his years with R.E.M., and especially in the early ‘80s, Buck’s unique style of bright, jangly rock guitar and songwriting was a sharp departure from mainstream rock (think Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty), nothing like hair bands, and nothing like the New Wave music coming out of the UK.
It is not a stretch to say that Peter Buck and R.E.M. basically defined the genre of alternative rock, a term that really didn’t exist until R.E.M. ushered in this sound that was an “alternative” to mainstream rock. Having sold more than 85 million records and influencing too many alt rock artists to mention, Buck’s legacy is undeniable.
Listen to early works like “Radio Free Europe,” “Can’t Get There From Here,” the underground college hit, “Superman,” or later hits like “Orange Crush,” “Losing My Religeon,”and you begin to realize just how great an impact this band has had on the alt-rock scene.
During the decade of shredding and hitting those high fretted notes, Buck pulled the reigns a little bit and encouraged, as well as displayed, a playful tone with a hint of punk that was slightly reminiscent of the tones of ‘60s pop music. However, pop wasn’t exactly his forte, so by adding this hint of punk, Buck took jangle pop to a new, much-needed level. His playing focused more on using simpler three- and four-note chords with little distortion, but with great energy and rhythm.
As for his riffs, he kept to a higher end of the spectrum by playing on the bottom strings of his guitar, to give it that twang and jangle tone. Buck was hardly a shredder and instead played each note individually as if it deserved its own recognition. He also played these on the lower frets, and often used the open strings to hit the notes instead of their fretted counterparts, giving his tunes a much more musical and stylistic significance.
What’s truly significant about Buck is not only how he played his guitar, but also how that playing shaped the playing of other bands and musicians after him. His electric and acoustic guitar parts sound eerily similar, which only attests to his uniqueness in playing, and the fact that he brought a little more soul to the once generic “jangle pop.”
Peter Buck’s tone changed with his guitars, and as we can see by his wide variety of sounds, he must have used a lot of guitars. The earliest years of R.E.M featured strictly a Fender Telecaster, which is what you hear in the band’s breakout hit, “Radio Free Europe,” off their first album, Murmur. However, when that Telecaster was stolen from him, Buck bought a used Rickenbacker 360. Though around this time he was also playing a Gibson Les Paul, the Rickenbacker became something of a trademark look for him on stage.
He loved using cheap old guitars because their tone was so different and unexpected. Buck would actually acquire a used guitar and record as little as one part with it, just to feature its tone somewhere in the song.
As far as amplification goes, Buck used mainly Fender Blackface amps throughout the ‘80s to get the clean tone he was looking for. When the ‘90s came around, he began using Vox and Marshall amps to put a roar in his tone.
Where Is He Now?
R.E.M. disbanded in the fall of 2011, and by the spring of 2012 Buck had announced he was recording his first solo album. Though the album was released in extremely limited edition (2,000 vinyl copies), Buck played a number of dates and shows to promote the album. In 2014 Buck returned with the album, “I Am Back to Blow Your Mind Once Again,” which was another vinyl-only release, and he toured a select number of dates to promote that, even supporting Alejandro Escovedo for a few shows.
In 2016, Buck did a tell-all interview with Rolling Stone where he described the ever-changing technology that went into making music and his disdain for the industry. Most of his current work is done off the grid, performing at nightclubs with bands like Filthy Friends, Minus 5, and Scott McCaughey.
Along with recently co-producing the Jayhawks’ album, Paging Mr. Hurst, Buck continues to perform as a solo artist and release new albums such as his latest, Warzone Earth.
Bonus Video! R.E.M. performing one of their later-period singles, "Leaving New York," live in 2004: