The Ry Cooder/Steve Vai Crossroads Guitar Duel


A wonderful 1986 Walter Hill film, Crossroads explores the relationship between a Julliard-trained college boy who loves the blues (Lightnin’ Boy, played by Ralph Macchio) and Willie Brown (played by Joe Seneca, who shared a birthday with yours truly).

The plot is that Willie, like his friend and mentor, the blues legend Robert Johnson, sold his soul to the Devil– at a crossroads, of course– in order to be the best harp player in the world. Lightnin’ Boy will try to save Willie’s soul (and his own) by winning a haircutting guitar duel with the Devil’s guitar player, Jack Butler, played by the astonishing Steve Vai.

Here’s the duel, which is actually played by Steve Vai with Ry Cooder playing Macchio’s part, or at least the bottleneck portion of it. I’ve heard so many conflicting stories about who played exactly what in this sequence that I don’t believe anyone except Cooder and Vai and maybe the film/sound editor knows for sure!

Macchio’s hands are obviously sped up in the Peganini’s Caprice #24 section but he does a rather nice job of mimicking the actual hand positions. He was coached by Arlen Roth, who has a ton of great instructional materials available on many aspects of the guitar. The harp playing in this clip is by blues great Sonny Terry, whom I was lucky enough to meet in Tampa one night in 1972.


Macchio’s “playing” a ’70s maple-necked Telecaster (either an American Standard or a Japanese Squier; no skunk-stripe on the back of the neck) in this, while Vai “plays” a red variant of his trademark Jackson whammy-barred specials. Most folks say Vai played his portion of the actual duel on his heavily customized “Green Meanie” Charvel guitar in the studio.

This is, to my knowledge, the ultimate guitar-playing scene in any flick. Some ’60s albums used to be labeled, “Play it LOUD;” I recommend “Play this video FULL-SCREEN!”


“Like Joan Sutherland and Kermit the Frog . . .”

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Hey; he said it; I didn’t!

Great clip of three of my favorites live at The Odeon in NYC in 1983: Linda Ronstadt, Randy Newman and a slicked-down Ry Cooder. I have the complete performance on VHS somewhere but no way to play it.

Here’s their version of Mr. Newman’s Rider in the Rain from his Little Criminals album. On the record, he’s backed up vocally by The Eagles, who started as Ms Ronstadt’s backup band.

This clip is a great example of what I believe is a good rule for music and other things: Take the prep and practices seriously, but have fun with the performance. It’s obviously sung in a key that isn’t Mr. Cooder’s first choice, but I love what he does with it.

When Patty, her brother Billy and I saw Randy Newman at the spooky old Tampa Theater live in the 1970s, he worked solo. He is so talented and tuneful.

In George Martin’s memoirs of his days with The Beatles, he describes visiting Mr. Newman at a jingle factory in LA. He had been sent by The Fabs to recruit Newman as their first Apple Records artist. Newman turned Mr. Martin down, as writing jingles on demand was steady work and he had a family. The Beatles chose James Taylor instead for an Apple release, and he’s done pretty well!

As has Randy Newman.

God Bless Ryland P. Cooder!

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I first heard of Ry Cooder when I was in high school; he was a session player on a couple of the better Stones albums (Let It Bleed and Sticky Fingers) and on their jam session LP, Jamming With Edward. Then a friend gave me a tape of an album Ry did with Taj Mahal; they called themselves The Rising Sons.

As a geek who studied the liner notes on albums like they were the Dead Sea Scrolls, I kept seeing this name come up. When Rolling Stone magazine started coming out, I’d see his name all the time. I’d search out his work on the albums at the Record Bar in Naples; his stuff was there, if you knew where to look.

His first album, Ry Cooder on the old Reprise label, came out in 1970 and was astonishing. It wasn’t just the tasty playing on guitar and mandolin, it was the TYPE of songs he chose to do. Cooder was all over the place, with a seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of any kind of music, past and present. He could play it all and play it better than anyone else. He’s done so many great albums. Once, when my old VW van was broken into, they stole all my eight-track tapes except for Ry Cooder’s; I guess the villains weren’t familiar with him. I was glad that they left the best music I had behind!

Mr. Cooder is also responsible for what may well be the best soundtrack album ever; it’s of the music he did for the movie, The Long Riders. Here’s a taste:

Here’s a spectacular clip from a Record Plant show in 1974. When they start showing him playing, about 43 seconds in, watch his hands on Blind Blake’s Police Dog Blues:

As you continue watching, and I surely hope that you will, please pay particular attention to the little fills or transistions he throws in between the sung verses. Uncanny. He’s playing what appears to be an old O-sized Martin acoustic at first and then switches to a hardtail Strat with a bound ebony fingerboard.

I have a magazine-editor friend (hey, Charlie!) who used to jam with Ry occasionally. He told me that the strings on Cooder’s many guitars are set so high off the neck that no one else could play them. If that’s the case, then Ry Cooder must have the strongest pair of hands on the planet.

It seems odd to me that a person playing a high-action guitar can have such a delicate touch. If I had to choose one word to describe Mr. Cooder’s playing, it would be majestic. Listen to his version on that video (it begins at the 6:23 mark) of the 1929 tune by Blind Alfred Reed, How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live, and see if you don’t agree. That song’s on Cooder’s first album, too.

If you just have heard of Ry Cooder as the guy who put together the Buena Vista Social Club movie, you are in for a treat.