We know why the flightless bird shreds

Still evading the press, Buckethead continues to fascinate

With a bucket as a hat and a mask covering his face, Buckethead’s appearance has remained static (save for a change of bucket from time to time) since the start of his career in the late ’80s. But his prowess on guitar continues to overshadow any need to know the face behind the mask.

Famously, or infamously, the story goes that Buckethead didn’t pass an informal audition to be Ozzy Osbourne’s guitarist at Ozzfest some years ago. Not because he couldn’t manage Randy Rhoads’ blistering “Crazy Train” riffing, since Buckethead could probably play that in a wrist cast, but because he wouldn’t take off his bucket and his mask, and didn’t really like being called by his given name, which is Brian.

(Which is also Marilyn Manson’s given name, so maybe there’s something going on there.)

Apart from the troubling revelation that Ozzy expects all his players to be, y’know, straight-up kinds of fellows (or at least not visually upstaging his Ozness), it also speaks to the chubby metal relic’s utter cluelessness about Buckethead, whose presence onstage would have certainly added more than a little octane to Ozzy’s floundering relevancy. It almost did for Guns ‘N Roses at the beginning of the aughts, when Buckethead took over Slash’s seat for much of Chinese Democracy and a handful of live shows before the tide of GNR drama and lawsuits lofted the band into regrettably temporary oblivion.

Plenty of others had no such problem with the bucket, as the guy has collaborations from Bill Laswell to Les Claypool and the late Bernie Worrell, fusion crushers like Jonas Hellborg and Mike Shrieve, respected producers like Travis Dickerson, Bassnectar, Bootsy Collins, and others on his resume.   

And what would a bucket-less Buckethead be, anyway?

We know via the scattered and meager samizdat of extra-character interviews that Buckethead has done (none recently that we could find) that the kid who grew up to be this nuclear-burn guitarist and nunchuking maestro grew up deeply marinated in amusement park and horror movie culture, obsessed with basketball stars and the mythos of Michael Jackson and didn’t really go outside and play very much.

He practiced guitar, by himself, in his SoCal suburban bedroom… a lot. (He also took some lessons from Racer X guitarist Paul Gilbert, the California shredder par excellence, and Gilbert’s influence, as well as the late Shawn Lane’s, remains a palpable component to Buckethead’s metallurgic precision assaults.)

The bucket and mask idea was a bit of a fluke, something he dreamed up after watching one of those dreadful Halloween sequels. That was almost 30 years ago, when the principal was in his late teens and already a good enough player not to need a stage or costuming gimmick. Around the bucket (originally and periodically since, depending on the trademark lawyers’ whims, a KFC bucket) grew a bizarre and not entirely coherent mythology involving chickens and robots through which he communicated to his online fans and the luckless music journalists assigned to try to interview him.

Buckethead has been off the road for three years, just now returning to a series of solo dates that started this past spring, and which will deliver him to the Boulder Theater on Saturday night. We’re pretty sure he’s been to Disneyland more than once in that time (his website says he’s been there more than 500 times, and that was written years ago). But he’s been busy. In 2011, he began his “pikes” series of releases, 30-minute EPs of instrumental prog metal, doom metal, speed metal, zombie ballads… whatever… usually with bass and drum accompaniment (uncredited, but presumably all performed by Buckethead himself.)

As of February this year, he had released 219 of them. That’s not a typo. For a period in 2015, he was releasing one a day. A traditional musician’s manager would throw himself out a window if his client did that. There really is such a thing as giving your fans too much.

Chickens and robots and abandoned amusement parks in post-apocalypse sunsets may be the cinescape that Buckethead sees behind that mask, and talking in obtuse pop culture allegory may be the words he cannot avoid throwing up on his website, but the guy speaks in music.

And he cites Michael Jackson as one of his prime influences. In some ways, Buckethead’s image is the mirror opposite of the image struggles that MJ wrestled with in his post-superstar years. Where Michael Jackson kept re-imaging his face, Buckethead’s has been fixed, the blank and expressionless kabuki mark gazing somewhere over the crowd. Guitarists are supposed to grimace when they reach for a note — does Buckethead grimace?

Probably. There’s a guy in there, the living embodiment of the vindicated nerd-obsessive shut-in. He once recorded a song called “I Love My Parents,” a tender and achingly gorgeous ballad, one of several he dedicated to them.  

It would take less than a hardened cynic to openly say, “Yo Brian, you’re too damned good a guitarist and creative soul to remain imprisoned in this persona. You’re 47 now, a guitarist of unimpeachable repute, a rare talent. An adult. This is why you practiced. This is what all those comic books and music theory drills and slasher flicks led you to. You’re here now. The world can’t break you or damage you anymore.”

It’s OK for the rest of us to see Brian Patrick Carroll playing the shit of that white Les Paul.

But it’ll never happen. All those images — the slasher villain lunging from the closet, the rumble of a passing roller coaster car, the crusted crumbs of extra-crispy recipe bouncing off a KFC napkin, the heroes and anti-heroes of pop-culture redemption, watching the boats with his dad — all reside behind those blackened eyes, the blood red killswitch on that customized Les Paul glowing like some spacecraft auto-destruct switch under freakishly long fingers. It’s Buckethead’s world, and we only get to visit it once in a while.   

Horror and virtuosity, with a biscuit and a side, at a special price.