Whether he’s wielding his signature Dunlop medicine bottle or fretting conventionally, Derek Trucks keeps his SG in open-E tuning. “I feel like a rank amateur in standard,” he says. “I don’t remember the last time I played a standard-tuned guitar onstage.” Photo by Ken Settle

You’ve obviously figured out how to get more complex chord voicings and different extensions in open E.
Yeah, they’re all there. Sometimes you have to stretch further for them in an open tuning—what’s really simple in standard can be a bit of a workout. But the other side of that is you end up finding different ways to play the same block chords that everyone plays naturally in standard. So it feels and sounds a bit different, which I appreciate. I found out when we were doing that year with Eric Clapton and Doyle Bramhall—three guitars in the band—it worked out naturally really well. Eric is doing the quintessential Eric stuff, but Doyle is upside down left-handed, so his whole take on things is slightly different, just intuitively, and then with me being in an open tuning, everything seemed to find its own place without having to work very hard at it. We didn’t get in each other’s way.

It’s like having three separate instruments, as opposed to three competing guitar players.
Absolutely. No one plays an Am the same [laughs]. Everyone hits it and it sounds like this really cool inversion of a chord. I appreciate that about playing in open E. Nothing feels too blocked in.

Susan, you often play a Strat when Derek is playing a Gibson. Do you do that to distinguish between the two guitars?
That’s true for certain songs, but I don’t play a Strat all the time and I have a few Telecasters. But originally that was sort of the case, like when we play Derek and the Dominos’ tunes. But one time we were in the studio and I didn’t have any of my guitars—they were all in the truck—so I had to borrow one of Derek’s. He said, “Just go upstairs and pick something out,” so I pulled out this Gibson Les Paul that had Eric Clapton’s signature on it. I went, “Ooo, I want this, what is this?” It was an exact replica of Eric’s “Beano” guitar—the Les Paul he played with John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers, which Eric gave to Derek. Derek doesn’t play it—he doesn’t really play Les Pauls very much, he always plays SGs—so I play that almost all the time now. That’s like my main guitar.

“For slide, I’ve always preferred the sound without a pick, and that carried over to everything else.” —Derek Trucks

And you take that “Beano” on the road?
Oh yeah, I take it everywhere. I play it all the time. I love it. The only problem is, it’s as heavy as crap. And Derek, of course, has the light, happy guitar: the SG. Trust me, if he wasn’t playing an SG, I would play one. It has the double cutaway and you have so much more access to the neck. I always make it way too hard for myself. I have higher action than I should and big strings. I don’t play like a normal woman [laughs]. I should be playing daintier, lighter guitars. But I don’t.

Why is that?
I use a normal pack of .011s because I like the way the guitar sounds with heavier strings. It’s more about tone. I like having a big, fat, warm sound. With Telecasters, people always think thin and bright, but most of the ones I have are warmer. I usually use the neck pickup more than the bridge pickup, which can be bright and squealy. It depends on what we’re playing and the kind of part I’m doing.

Do the heavier instruments take a toll on your singing?
Not so much my singing, just on my body. Especially if I’m wearing heels and playing wah-wah, and holding this heavy guitar for two-and-a-half hours. It definitely takes a toll. You feel it, for sure. When I pick up the Strat, I’m like, “ah....”

Derek, I understand you listen to a lot of music that’s not R&B or rock.
There was a good six-to-eight year period where I didn’t listen to many guitar players. I guess the exceptions were Charlie Christian recordings and some of the early Wes Montgomery stuff, but it was almost all horn players and singers. I really went down the John Gilmore/Sun Ra wormhole for a while. Plus all the Wayne Shorter stuff. Almost anything on Impulse! for about a 15-year period there. Those were all the records we would wear out in the van. But then also a lot of Indian classical and world music.

Assorted Gibson SGs

Alessandro AZZ head and 4x10 cab

None (doesn’t even use a pedal tuner)

Strings and Slides
DR strings (.011, .014, .017, .026, .036, .046)
Dunlop Derek Trucks Signature Slide

Gibson Custom Shop Eric Clapton “Beano” Les Paul
1970 Fender Stratocaster
Assorted Telecasters
2001 D’Angelico New Yorker

1964 Fender Deluxe Reverb
1965 Fender Super Reverb with Alessandro speakers

Vox Classic Wah
Analog Alien Fuzzbubble-45
Moollon Zeppelin Overdrive

Strings and Picks
DR strings (.011–.050)
Fender 351 Heavy

Do you bring those influences into your playing?
Absolutely. Anything you listen to, anything you really dig into—sometimes you transcribe stuff and sometimes you learn some of those lines—it’s all in there. When you’re improvising, those things sneak out. There’s times, where five or 10 years later after listening to a record heavily, you’ll be playing or improvising over something and a melody will feel really familiar. You’re not sure where it came from and sometimes it dawns on you that it’s a passage from a Wayne Shorter solo on a Blue Note record. Those things are tucked away in there, which is why, especially when you’re getting your stuff together, I think it’s really important to be careful what you listen to. Because the bad stuff is in there, too. If you’re an athlete, you’ve got to be careful with what you eat and what goes in your body. I think as a musician, especially if you’re improvising, it’s important to listen to things that count.

Your band has two drummers and such a tight rhythm section. Does this give you a lot of flexibility to get loose as a soloist?
Our two drummers are J.J. Johnson and Tyler Greenwell—who we call “the Falcon”—and Falcon played with me in my solo band for a few years before he joined TTB in 2010. I’ve been playing with him since about 2008. One thing that is great about these two drummers is that they both have different strengths and they are really good at supporting each other for the song, depending on what it is. But at the same time, they both are really great behind songwriters, so they know dynamics. If you’re going somewhere and Derek is really building or if I am building, they can follow you. If you start hitting rhythm stuff, they’re right with you. They are this massive train that is killing it at all times. But they have great ears and they are really listening. It is definitely an advantage to play with that rhythm section.

Trucks: Those guys, it’s amazing how they can snap in and out, between locking a groove and a pocket a mile wide, into getting really exploratory and playing over the bar line and stretching the boundaries. That’s something I rarely have to overthink. It’s usually pretty natural. When it’s time to go, everybody just melts into a different mode. After playing with the Allmans for years, when we were putting this band together, I really wanted to try the two drummers because when it works and it’s going, there’s nothing like it. You have this freight train behind you. When everybody’s lined up, it’s a powerful sound. It’s powerful to be a part of.

But it’s funny, sometimes, with the two drummers. If it’s locking and grooving, sometimes you just become a percussion rhythm instrument in the thick of it, and it doubles how hard it’s grooving. Other times, it just gets in the way. But you know pretty quickly: You start playing something and you’re like, “Oh, this isn’t helping” or “Oh man, that feels good. I feel like I’m in the drum section all of a sudden.” Those are things you just have to feel out as you go.

I think as musicians that’s what we’re all doing. When you get musicians that are sensitive to those things, that’s what separates good and great and beyond—when you really start focusing on that stuff. When you’re first playing, it’s very much about what you want to hear your instrument do, and all these things that you’ve imagined and have practiced, and you just want to air it all out at all times. But when you get to that level when you’re just trying to add, when it’s your time to say something, you say it. I think that’s what makes a band like this work. You have a bunch of musicians that are there to add when it helps. And sometimes the best thing you can do is just sit on your hands, freakin’ listen, and bob your head. Sometimes it’s just better to put some air in it.

Don't miss our Rig Rundown with Derek and Susan: