In addition to the instruments he used for Flux, Robinson has a significant collection of guitars including several, like the one in this photo, handbuilt by eye-catching Nashville-based designer and luthier Teye. Photo by Alysse Gafkjen
In the late 1980s, as hair metal bands placed a premium on pyrotechnical guitar work and just before grunge acts took a decidedly less polished approach to music, a group with an altogether different modus operandi emerged from the Atlanta suburbs. From their inception, the Black Crowes—founded by singer Chris Robinson and his brother, Rich Robinson—established themselves as purveyors of the blues-rock that had waned in popularity during previous decades.
Over the course of eight studio albums, beginning with 1990’s Shake Your Money Maker, and various personnel changes and intermittent hiatuses, Rich Robinson served as one of the Crowes’ primary musical architects. He has consistently drawn uncanny textures on both electric and acoustic guitar through the use of nonstandard tunings, and his classic riffs, plucked from the lexicon of Southern rock, propelled early Crowes hits like “Hard to Handle” and “She Talks to Angels.”
Robinson stepped out as a leader with his 2004 solo debut, Paper. On his latest album, Flux, the guitarist and singer-songwriter branches further out, building on his Southern-rock roots with excursions into psychedelic and jam-band territory. At the same time, Eagle Rock Records has just released expanded editions of select offerings from Robinson’s solo catalog: Paper, Llama Blues (2011), Through a Crooked Sun (2011), and The Woodstock Sessions (2014).
In between being a guest guitarist with Bad Company this year and kicking off his own tour in support of Flux, Robinson told us about the creative processes at work in his music and the gear he used to get killer tones on his new album. He also reaffirmed his January announcement that the Black Crowes are over.
You’re best known for your work with the Black Crowes, the band you and your older brother, Chris, formed. Do you come from a musical family?
Yes. Music was all around us when we grew up in Georgia. We were always listening to blues, gospel, and classic rock albums in the house, and we had sing-alongs as well. My dad, Stan Robinson, scored a Top 40 hit in the 1950s—“Boom-a-Dip-Dip”—but became a sales rep instead of a professional musician. He played folk and country music, and a highlight of his short musical career was getting to play at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville with Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. Most important, my dad taught me my first three chords—C, G, and D—and his 1953 Martin D-28 is my desert-island kind of guitar.
Given your late father’s short time as a recording artist, what did he think of your career choice?
At first he tried to discourage us from being professional musicians, because he thought that it would make for a difficult life. But once the Black Crowes took off he was fully supportive.
Speaking of desert-island guitars, you’re quite the collector. What was it like when the Black Crowes’ storage space was flooded by Hurricane Sandy in 2012?
I’ve had a lot of great guitars throughout the years, including my old ES-335 that got damaged in the flood and then restored. But the truth is, the guitar isn’t much more than a hunk of wood with strings attached to it. Any guitar is just a tool for expressing your creativity. In the end, rather than feeling sadness about the flood, I felt a bit of relief—it was almost like the flood washed away some of the negative energy I had with the Crowes.
Despite the negative energy, you and the Crowes really brought back Southern rock in a big way. Was your music a conscious response to the hair metal that dominated the airwaves in the ’80s?
Not exactly. We just played what felt good and natural to us. We tried to write great songs and really explore them, playing them a little differently every night, sometimes being an acoustic band and other times electric. We always pushed ourselves to become better musicians and songwriters in an organic way, rather than follow trends or react against them.
While your latest album, Flux, covers a lot of stylistic territory, you remain true to your Southern roots, especially on a song like “Time to Leave.”
Yeah. I view that as a Gram Parsons type of song—slightly left of center. I love the simplicity of it, but there’s this kind of really cool airy element that country doesn’t normally have, with all that echo and delay. I was thinking of the Flying Burrito Brothers [the country-rock band that Parsons co-founded with Chris Hillman] when I wrote it.
On the record, you really explore alternate tunings. Which ones do you favor?
In general I use probably about 15 different tunings, but on the album I kept things simple and went with just a few. “The Upstairs Land” and “Shipwreck,” for instance are in open G; “Music That Will Lift Me” is in open F; “Life” and “Astral” are in dropped D; and “For to Give” is in open G.
How did you get into alternate tunings?
Alternate tunings definitely appealed to me early on. I remember as a kid hearing Crosby, Stills & Nash’s “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” and just being memorized by the tuning that Steven Stills was using [an unusual E5 tuning, low to high: E–E–E–E–B–E] before I even knew what an alternate tuning was. Later, when I got into old blues, the tunings that players like Mississippi Fred McDowell were using really spoke to me.
But Nick Drake is the musician who’s had by far the biggest influence on me in terms of alternate tunings. I heard him for the first time in the mid ’80s. I had a friend who worked in a record store and he sent me Time of No Reply, which included the last four songs that Nick ever wrote and recorded. Hearing that was a game changer.
How has Nick Drake influenced you?
I don’t really use Nick’s tunings, but he’s a profound influence nonetheless. He really sent me down that road of exploring alternate tunings on my own, and it’s something I’ve been doing for years.
Can you point out specific songs where you were thinking about Drake when you wrote them?
From an early song like [the Black Crowes’] “Thorn in My Pride” to stuff from Flux, I feel that you can really hear a Nick Drake influence in the way that the rhythms roll and, even more so, in the timbre of the ringing open strings.
Being a big gearhead, what did you play on the album?
I actually kept things pretty minimal. I got a new Echopark with P-90s, and I used my goldtop and my 335 like I always do. Those are my main guitars. For amps, I had some Vox AC30s, my signature model 50-watt Reason amp, and an amazing ’50s tweed Vibrolux. I also used a 1971 Marshall 50-watt JMP that sounds great, as well as a Silver Jubilee that I’ve used forever. Then I have these Fulltone Tube Tape Echoes that I use three-at-a-time.
As for acoustics, I’ve got a quad 0 [Martin 0000-21] that was built to George Gruhn’s specs and a couple of Zemaitis George Harrison signature models made when Tony Zemaitis passed away and the company moved to Japan. They farmed out their acoustics to Lowden, who are based in Ireland and make incredible guitars.