Buckethead would have you believe he was raised by chickens and grew up in a chicken coop.
That he’s the proprietor of a fictional “abusement” park named after himself.
That he has a nightmare nemesis, a direct negative wearing a black chrome mask, who chases him through dreams.
Those are hearsay and rumors.
Reality is subjective when dealing with Buckethead, but it’s more than likely he’s a robot, an android of some kind. Made to look like one of us, but perhaps by someone who doesn’t know what human beings look like or how they act. He’s simulacrum from a time or place where we may be gone or where we never existed.
Whatever his origin, there is music there, of a sort.
When I saw him back in May, it was the first time he had been on tour in four years. He never stopped releasing music (he has put out more than 250 studio albums in his career), but they said back problems had put an end to his live performances.
The sudden announcement of a new tour threw that explanation out the window, so I offer another one: he needed a firmware update, or perhaps transfer to a new shell. If it was a copy, it was almost an exact match. The throwback bucket on this model was suspect, though.
That Friday night was Buckethead’s birthday (he’s 47), which is an odd thing for a robot to have. Birthdays are typically reserved for humans, countries, and some dogs.
In the beginning, the stage was empty for three minutes while the narration from Adventure Thru Inner Space played. After we had passed beyond the limits of normal mag-ni-fi-ca-tion, he appeared. A lone figure, black and slender, wielding a solid white guitar.
His hands were the only sign of exposed skin, and there was something off about them. He had long fingers and the veins running along the back of his palm stood out unlike anything natural. It was clear those hands had been grafted to the robot’s limbs and augmented to work through cybernetic impulses. You need a computer to play guitar the way he does, but it takes the dexterity of human fingers to execute.
There were times when his guitar sounded like an E11 Blaster Rifle or an astromech droid. Others when it sounds like a trash compactor. But those were only interludes between his primary functions: rock and shred.
Endless lines of code entered into his guitar via taps on the strings. His shredding can take on the sound of algorithm. Ruthless scrap code transmitted over the pickups and out through his amplifiers. The riffs were indomitable, and the effect overrides all other instincts but the need to jam.
His hands seemed magnetically connected to the strings, and every now and then one would become detached. It waved about, joints bending to preset intervals until it found its way back to the instrument.
His shoulders are contained on a single axis with no differential in between. One shoulder moves up, the other one moves down. His neck is capable of extending to great lengths both straight up and also forward, though there are moments where he has to manually recalibrate his head.
He almost always kept one hand on the guitar, which was sufficient to continue playing. At times it seems like he plays less by plucking and strumming than he does by feeding energy directly into the guitar via his fingertips. It’s almost cheating.
If you think a solo guitar act would bring less volume than a full band, you’re mistaken. If anything, a solo act brings enough sound to compensate for the missing musicians. He had an iPod Nano with all of his backing music (he is the lead, rhythm, and bass guitarist, but the drums are someone else). Every kick of the bass drum rattles your chest cavity. The rest of it hits you in the face, and you can feel the sound waves crashing against your skin.
Buckethead tried several times to convince us he’s human. He did a nunchuck routine that was just a little bit too competent to suggest personhood. He danced to electronic music (the only dance he can do is The Robot). He walked along the edge of the stage, handing out toys from a sack. Some people came prepared with toys to give back to him. He accepted few offerings, especially shirking those that seemed handmade with love.
In those moments where he left the area demarcated by his array of pedals and modulators, he needed extra sensory input. A technician stood to his side, shining a flashlight along the path he was to follow, a clear sign of infrared tracking and definitely not a sign that it is hard to see out of the Mike Myer’s mask/faceplate.
During another cycle across the front of the stage, he held out his guitar to the people gathered there. He showed them how the mystical killswitch works and then let them tap on it. The whole scene was as if to say “Nothing up my sleeves…” or “My power could be yours, too.”
Only two aspects of his character betray what might be humanity.
The first is his basketball fandom. Several of his best songs are named for his favorite players. “Jordan” is the song you’re most likely to have heard, while “Jumpman” is another one that references #23 (a jersey that Buckethead has even worn during performances). He’s also named more than a couple of songs after Lebron James, including “King James,” an old favorite, and “Lebrontron,” my new favorite.
Robots don’t care about basketball, so that’s one suggestion of something fleshy and warm behind the mask.
The other comes in short bursts, apparent only when soul escapes from his guitar.
Buckethead’s shredsmanship is unquestioned, anomalous, incalculable. Functions are transmitted from unseen processors, digitized across those frets, and rendered into sound.
But then comes a breathtaking solo. A joyous lick. A riff that is pure funk. A soft melody written for his parents.
The shredding caused the crowd to gesticulate and cheer while trying to keep up with his fingers.
Those moments of purity left us transfixed, though. They are moments that a machine could not replicate, not even by studying all of the greatest guitarists. It remains the best evidence that there might be feelings in there, somewhere.
He disappeared as suddenly as he had appeared, with an implicit understanding that there wouldn’t be an encore. The crowd’s hushed murmuring couldn’t fill the void of silence he had created, no more than the ringing in my ears.
If he is a robot, and there’s still more evidence that he is than not, who created him? Who sent him to us? What did they make him for?
After seeing his show, I don’t have any more answers. I’ve tried to imagine his routine after leaving the stage. Maybe he’s carefully sealed in a crate surrounded by packing peanuts and shipped off to his next destination. More likely he’s sat down and plugged into a jury-rigged charging station while data from the night’s show is downloaded and analyzed.
What I don’t imagine is the bucket coming off. It’s not an alias or a secret identity. It’s Buckethead. Once you bring a character to life, there’s no going back. Especially not when he makes his own theme music.
Credit to Jack Hughes for the great concert footage.