Cool John Ferguson says he wasn’t cool until he lived in Durham during the ‘90s.
“I was just told that I was a cool dude, probably because I don’t talk much,” said Ferguson, calling from his Atlanta home. “I’ve been cool ever since, which isn’t a bad thing. There’s worse nicknames.”
The Beaufort, S.C., native is an original, earning attention for how he plays his guitar. Ferguson is left-handed, and thus plays his Stratocaster upside down.
“I never rearranged the strings,” Ferguson says. “This is the way I’ve always played the guitar.”
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Venerable blues player Taj Mahal has compared Ferguson to Jimi Hendrix and has placed the unconventional guitar hero in the upper echelon of six-string masters, according to Ferguson’s website.
“When Taj Mahal was kind enough to say that, well, that’s some incredible praise,” Ferguson said. “We did a 32-city tour together. Taj said when I do a cover tune, I make the song better than it was originally.”
Ferguson will perform Dec. 22 at the Blue Note Grill in Durham. Expect a number of covers, songs from his catalog, and some new tunes he is working on for his next album.
“The ones I’m working on now are some blues, and well, it’s a mixture of instrumental songs right now,” he said. “I’m halfway through this album. I’m looking forward to getting back to North Carolina. I loved living there. I loved living in South Carolina. I loved growing up in Beaufort.
Boxing icon Joe Frazier grew up down the road from Ferguson in Beaufort — about 3 miles away, Ferguson recalls.
“I can’t tell you how proud we were when he beat Muhammad Ali for the heavyweight title (in 1971), I was a senior in high school and I was so happy.”
Frazier loved to sing, Ferguson said, and formed a backup band, the Knockouts, which included Ferguson.
“It was fun,” Ferguson says. “There was nobody like Joe. It’s fun anytime you get onstage with someone who is world famous. That was so even though Joe couldn’t sing. He was about having a good time when he performed, and that’s how I am.”
Ferguson keeps it loose when he plays live.
“That’s the only way I know how to do it,” Ferguson says. “Before I play anything , I get the feel of the audience. I might just start with a shuffle and see how the crowd reacts. Every show is different.”
Ferguson gives back by being part of the Music Maker Relief Foundation, the Hillsborough-based organization that seeks to preserve Southern music traditions by assisting musicians.
“It’s important to help people out,” Ferguson says. “The foundation helps out the old-timers, who need some support. You have to help out those who make music. Most musicians aren’t rich.”
When Ferguson isn’t on the road, he performs at his church.
“That’s where it all started for me,” Ferguson says. “I’m blessed. I found my calling. I found my passion. I love to play guitar. That’s what it’s all about for me.
“I’ve come a long way from when I was a kid playing this beat-up guitar that I played until it actually fell apart,” he said. “I was obsessed. I remember scraping together the money to buy a Sears Silvertone. It had a guitar case with an amp built in. Life is so different today. Technology has changed things for a guitar player for the better. The one thing that has stayed the same is that I play guitar. I can’t imagine not playing guitar.”
Who: Cool John Ferguson
When: 8 p.m. Dec. 22
Where: Blue Note Grill, 709 Washington St., Durham
Info: 919-401-1979 or thebluenotegrill.com