Except for a ‘58 Les Paul, I’ve had nearly every desirable vintage guitar. I’ve had ’57 and ‘54 Stratocasters and a Broadcaster. I had an early goldtop Les Paul. I’ve had an L5 and a Super 400. I’ve had nearly every classic guitar and I don’t think I paid over $500 for any of them. If I had all of those guitars now, I could retire with what they’re worth. But I only own instruments when I play them. If I get an instrument and it sits unused in my guitar closet for too long then I just sell or trade it. They’re there for me to play, not for me to collect. I get them playing as good as they can possibly play. I set them up. If they need refretting, I refret them. I put them out there in the hope of someone using them as a player’s instrument and not as a collector’s item.
Do you do the labor on the guitar yourself?
I do the setups but I don’t do the fretwork or anything. I do some of the electronic work, depending on the guitar – I let someone else do archtops, because it’s just too much of a pain to pull all of the stuff out of those little holes.
Let’s talk more about your gear.
Well, as far as amps go, I have several amps that I like, but the ones I use mostly are either a Fender Deluxe Reverb reissue or a Louis Electric amp that was custom made for me. Louis [Rosano] calls it “The Duke.” I don’t know if he has another name for it for other people [or for retail purposes], but originally it was a 12” and a 10”. I had him build me another cabinet that was smaller because I like them to be a little more compact. I have a 2x10 version of it now, and a 40-watt amplifier.
As for guitars, these days I use several Gibson models, and Epiphones are my guitars of choice. I do occasionally use a Strat or a Tele, but I’ve got an ES-355 Custom Shop guitar with a baritone switch. It’s particularly beautiful and a beautiful sounding instrument. I’m also using a ‘57 Les Paul Goldtop Reissue, as well as an Epiphone John Lee Hooker Sheraton, which is an incredible guitar. I use my Zephyr Deluxe Regent quite a bit – an old 1949 model. I also have a Strat that I built myself out of Warmoth parts, and an Esquire. I also use a contemporary Les Paul Junior and an Explorer that sounds amazing. The Explorer is a great guitar – there’s something about that massive piece of wood. Those are the guitars I use these days for recording and playing live.
I’ve also got a lot of cool archtop guitars. I’ve got a cool ES-350 from 1952, a 1946 Epiphone Emporer, a 1939 Epiphone Broadway, a 1944 Epiphone Blackstone and a 1938 Gibson L7. Epiphone and Gibson, to me, have always been the two top guitar makers, especially of archtops and flattops. I love flattop and hollowbody guitars in general. I use my Sheraton all the time, along with a modern Broadway.
Epiphone’s Elitist Byrdland is also an incredible guitar; they are kind of like Gibson Custom Shop guitars. The Elitists are made in Japan, with beautiful high-end woods and incredible craftsmanship. These days, Epiphones are kind of like budget Gibsons in a sense, but they’re really quality instruments. Sometimes people ask me if I ever change the pickups in new Epiphones, but I’ve never run into one in which the pickups don’t sound great. I think they’re made really well right from the beginning.
The main effect I use is a Seymour Duncan Pickup Booster, which is a great little preamp and gives you a clean boost. I like to run my amp low and use the Pickup Booster for a fatter tone. I also go back and forth between a Bad Monkey Distortion pedal, a Tube Screamer, a Boss Blues Driver and Boss Super Overdrive, but the Tonebone Radical Trimode is one that I really love. It’s an actual tube pedal, and recording with it is amazing. It has two 12AX7s in it, and you can switch between two different settings to get different amounts of overdrive. You get phenomenal harmonic distortion with it.
I use D’Addario strings – depending on the guitar, I usually use the nickel wound variety. I use .10s on Les Pauls and Fender-style guitars, and .11s or .12s on archtops. I also use flatwounds on a lot of my older guitars, to get different sounds – usually the ones with floating pickups like D’Armond pickups.
Have you reached your goal as a guitarist, or is that a never-ending road?
Hopefully it’s a never-ending road. I’ve pondered that question myself, in the sense that I’m getting older. I have pretty bad arthritis in my left shoulder which affects my playing to some extent – I’m not quite as fast as I used to be. But I think I’m continuing to get better, from all the music I’ve ingested and all the music I’ve played. I suppose this is something that most people experience, since it’s rare to not have something slow you down as you age.
Now I’m getting noticed more than ever; I’m getting all of these awards, but at the same time it’s getting harder to sing, and I’m slower than I used to be. Still, when I listen to my recent recordings, I think I’m better on them than when I had more facility and my voice was in better shape. But that’s like with anybody; I think Louis Armstrong always sounded great, right up to the end. He couldn’t quite hit the same high notes that he did when he was young, but I see him as a good role model for what I want to achieve in my life, which is lasting musical maturity. I just want to continue to mature and use what I have left of my talent until the end.
|Exclusive: Two Tracks from Duke’s newest release, Duke Robillard’s World Full of Blues!
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You’re Killin’ Me Baby
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When Duke plays the blues, here’s what he uses:
Gibson Custom Shop
ES-335 w/ baritone switch
Les Paul ’57 Goldtop Reissue
Les Paul Junior
John Lee Hooker Sheraton
Zephyr Deluxe Regent
Fender Deluxe Reverb Reissue
Digitech Bad Monkey
Ibanez Tube Screamer
Tonebone Radical Trimode
Boss Blues Driver
Boss Super Overdrive
Boss Chromatic Tuner