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Interview: Joe Robinson

Super-picker Joe Robinson explains why he went electric on Let Me Introduce You, and describes his journey from hotshot instrumentalist to singer-songwriter.

Photo by Andy Ellis

Once in a great while, a young guitarist captures the attention of music lovers early in his career and manages to sustain this interest as he matures creatively and sheds the “prodigy” label. Joe Robinson is one of these rare talents: At 21, Robinson has been building a buzz for almost 10 years, first in his native Australia, then in Europe and the UK, and now in the US.

For those who’ve been following Robinson’s career, stories of the flattop-wielding teenager winning first place in major televised talent competitions are old hat. More relevant to PG readers is that fingerstyle master Tommy Emmanuel has mentored Robinson for years, often bringing him onstage for fiery duets. Though Robinson only began playing guitar a decade ago, he’s already a seasoned veteran, having done thousands of shows all over the world. He developed his jaw-dropping chops by getting up at 4 a.m. every day to put in a four-hour practice session before going to school. After school, he’d grab another four hours of guitar time. Dedication? Robinson has it in spades. This nearly freakish drive allowed him to hit the road at an age when most kids are thumbing through comic books or absorbed in video games.

“When I was 12,” he says, “I went on tour with an Australian country artist named Texas Rose. He lent me an electric guitar, which I didn’t have at the time. It was a Yamaha SG-700 and I borrowed it for two years.”

Robinson’s 2009 US debut—the all-acoustic and instrumental Time Jumpin’— earned him immediate respect from the thumbstyle guitar community, and now he regularly performs at the annual Chet Atkins Appreciation Society convention alongside such top-tier fingerstyle players as Emmanuel, Thom Bresh, Martin Taylor, Doyle Dykes, Muriel Anderson, and Steve Wariner. And consider this: Time Jumpin’ was produced by Frank Rogers, who, as Brad Paisley’s producer, knows a hot picker when he sees one.

With Let Me Introduce You—Robinson’s latest album, which was also produced by Rogers—the soft-spoken Aussie recasts himself as a singer-songwriter. The album features plenty of blazing guitar (both fingerstyle and flatpick), but the poppy vocals and carefully crafted production may leave some ardent fans of Robinson’s solo acoustic fretwork scratching their heads.

“I’d never done a commercial- sounding electric guitar album before,” he says. “So it was a huge learning experience making this CD. I got to work in some great studios with first-class musicians, producers, and engineers, and now I feel like I just graduated from college.”

Recently we spent a rainy afternoon with Robinson at his manager’s Nashville office, discussing this crash course in studio craft, as well as his creative process, favorite gear, and what he sees as the next step in his musical odyssey.

Where did you track Let Me Introduce You and how long did you work on it?
We started tracking in March last year and ended in October. It took a while because we did it in sections. We recorded the bass and drum tracks over a weekend in a studio called The Castle, just outside of Nashville. Then I went on tour and when I got back to Nashville, I started recording my guitar overdubs in various local studios. Frank Rogers, the producer, had to work on another project at one point, so he was out for a month. We kind of piecemealed it until everything came together.

Did you cut your rhythm guitar with the bass and drums?
We recorded as a trio to get really good drum and bass performances, but we replaced my tracks later. And before we went into the studio we had three days of rehearsals because I wanted us to feel like a band when we started recording. I wanted to avoid learning songs in the studio.

Keith Carlock on drums and Michael Rhodes on bass— what a rhythm section! How did you connect with them?
I’ve been a fan of Keith’s drumming for years—all the stuff he has recorded with Wayne Krantz, Oz Noy, and the whole 55 Bar community in New York. He was the guy I dreamed of having play on my album, so it was really cool that he said yes when we reached out. I knew he’d played with Michael before, so we asked him to play bass and he was really excited about it. Hanging out with those guys and hearing them play my songs was like a fantasy come true.

Were you intimidated at all? These guys have played with James Taylor, Steely Dan, Sting, Vince Gill, John Mayer, Keith Urban—the list goes on and on.
I wasn’t nervous about playing with them—that was the fun part to me—but I was nervous that my charts were wrong. I knew what I wanted on pretty much all the songs, so articulating that to Michael and Keith in a way they could understand was really important to me. Otherwise I would have walked away with something that was different from what I wanted. But it was really easy to work with such high-caliber players. You can make one little suggestion and they take it onboard so quickly and easily. I gave them charts when we first dug into the music in those rehearsals, and that’s when we all got a sense of what the project would sound like.

Give us an example of the kind of direction you offered.
Well, it was really quite detailed. For instance, I knew the exact feel I wanted on the hi-hat and often I wrote out the bass lines. I handed Michael some notation at one point and he was like, really? But on “Lethal Injection,” I had to. It’s a part—not just chords—so I had to show him that. He liked a lot of the lines I came up with, which was cool, though he felt he needed to de-literalize some of the parts to make it more of a feel thing and less of a mechanical performance.

What were some of your biggest challenges making this album?
A big part of it for me was learning how to sing and play at the same time. On the acoustic songs, I wanted it to sound like a fingerstyle guitarist accompanying a singer, so I had to learn to play the guitar with a good feel and execute the parts I wanted to hear, yet also sing without thinking about the guitar playing.

I used James Taylor as a model because I love the way he plays and sings. His phrasing is so good on both the guitar and vocals—the two fit so well together. I wanted the guitar to play an integral role in the song, so I essentially took the same approach with counterpoint that I use in my solo acoustic guitar pieces and applied it to the context of singing and interacting with other musicians. My instrumental concept involves a constantly moving harmonic structure—a bass part going one way and a melody part moving on top of it. The challenge was to add vocals to that underlying structure.

Robinson’s Gretsch Country Gentleman is one of his main stage guitars, but he mostly played a ’60s Gibson E-335 on Let Me Introduce You. Photo by Ethan James Photography

Did you record home demos to work out your parts?
I did guitar-and-vocal demos of all the songs. I played all the songs on acoustic—even the ones I knew would be electric on the album—just to hear them in their most basic form. I demoed a lot of songs to determine which ones felt right for this album. I lived with the demos for about a month, so by the time I was at rehearsals, I had a grasp of the material. I really focused on these work tapes, trying to hear if the lyrics were solid and if they were communicating what I wanted to say.

I was nervous that I’d never really sung on a record before. And, although I’ve written a lot of songs, I’d never really written any for myself as an artist. So once I knew I wanted to do an album of vocal-based songs with a band, I decided I needed more experience in this area. I went through a process of co-writing songs with people on Music Row [the historical area on 16th and 17th Avenues in Nashville that’s home to dozens of music publishing companies]. Five days a week for six weeks, I churned out a song each day. Each week I’d get a better handle on the songwriting process and write better stuff. It was interesting to explore that world—some of those writers are just geniuses.

What did you take away from those songwriting sessions?
One of the dangerous things about being a skilled musician is you can basically play any song and make it sound okay. Sometimes when working with other songwriters I’d play a cool guitar lick and they’d say, “I love that.” And we’d write a song that was kind of neat, but what held it together as a song was the guitar lick. I’ve really tried not to rely on that.

Sometimes I’d show up for a Music Row session and the first thing they’d say is “what format are you in?” I’d be at a loss— I’m definitely not writing songs for country or even pop radio. I just want to write music that inspires me.

And how would you describe that music?
I love people who have a unique melodic sense—that’s exciting to me. When I watch The Voice or American Idol, I see some great singers but they all sound similar. It’s the same when I see blues-rock guitarists—they all play the same licks. The musicians I like are those who take their talent and technique and use them to make something interesting and original. That’s why I love writing with piano players—they always have nice harmonic ideas that guitarists might not think of. I really try to incorporate piano voicings in my guitar parts.

Are all the songs on Introduce from this recent writing period?
I wrote most of the songs on the album a few months before going into the studio. The instrumentals are a bit older. I’ve had “Lethal Injection” for a year, and I wrote “Uli’s Jump” when I was 17. That’s the oldest song on the CD.

“Uli’s Jump” reminds me of Jimmy Bryant. Did you ever get into him?
Oh yes, Jimmy Bryant is crazy amazing! You know the albums he made with [steel guitarist] Speedy West? I can play several of those songs by heart. A friend from Sydney and I used to play all the parts in harmony.

I wrote “Uli’s Jump” with Pat Bergeson, a Nashville guitarist whose playing I love. I was opening a show for him in Germany and staying with a guy named Uli, and Pat and I jammed on that theme. I was basically trying to steal as many licks from Pat as I could.

What gear did you use on Introduce and what did you learn from these sessions about capturing great guitar tones?
I was lucky—I tracked a lot of my electric guitar overdubs at Frank’s home studio, and he has a really great guitar collection. That’s important because each electric guitar sits in a different sonic spot in the mix, and if you find the right guitar, it can really make all the difference.

For “Barely Hanging On,” I played a Strat I’ve had since 2003. It was the first electric guitar I ever bought. When I was a kid, I broke the neck by cranking the truss rod too far, so I recently got the neck replaced. It has pickups wound by Mick Brierley in Adelaide, South Australia. He does great stuff—his pickups are reasonably priced and a lot of Australian guitarists use them. I have Brierley pickups in two Strats and one Tele.

We didn’t use my Gretsch Country Gentleman—one of my main stage guitars—that much, as it turned out. In “Adelaide,” my Gretsch is rocking out somewhere in the mix, and it appears in spots on “One Heart at a Time.” But mostly I played Frank’s ’60s Gibson ES-335 through a Laboga Alligator 30—a Polish class A 30-watt 2x12 combo. I love it. It sounds a little like a Vox AC30, but way creamier.

How did you discover the Laboga?
There are probably only about five in the US. What happened was Tommy Emmanuel had one here in Nashville. I borrowed it once, and it changed my life. Certain amps just don’t work for me with my Gretsch. I like AC30s with the Gretsch, but I don’t much like blackface Fenders with that guitar. When I played the Gretsch through the Laboga, I was in heaven.

So I went out on a limb and asked Laboga to send me one. I managed to get one here, though it was quite difficult with international shipping and customs. For this album I used the Laboga with a Dr. Z Carmen Ghia 1x12 combo and they just worked together so well.

You tracked through both amps simultaneously?
Yes. And we discovered that if we turned one off we’d miss it, so the amp chain stayed pretty consistent. I also used an old vintage Tube Screamer and a T-Rex Octavius. As far as nondistortion effects like delay or reverb, I’d record dry and add them in the mix using plug-ins.

What about acoustics?
On some of the acoustic songs I used Frank’s Gibson J-45. I also played an Everett, which is a small-bodied acoustic, as well as my Matons, which I strung with impossibly heavy strings and mic’d really close. We used ribbon mics on certain tracks, and on every song we used a different mic-and-guitar combination.

Robinson rocks his Custom Shop Strat—the first electric he ever bought—at the Let Me Introduce You release party at Nashville’s 12th & Porter on February 22, 2012. Photo by Andy Ellis

Define “impossibly heavy” strings.
I use 80/20 bronze Elixir .012 sets on my acoustics, but with a .016 for the 1st string. And on some tracks, like “Hurricane,” for example, I couldn’t get the notes to speak properly, so I put on a .013 set with an .018 for the top E string. For that song, I played my Maton, capoed at the 1st fret. My fingers were sore afterward! Since then, that guitar was broken in a flight. Maybe the airline did it or maybe the heavy strings did it in.

Do you put comparably heavy strings on your electrics too?
On the Gretsch, I usually use an .011–.049 set, but with a .012 or sometimes a .014 on top. My Strats have a .010 set, but with a .012 on top—it just feels more balanced to me. I use Elixir Nanoweb strings on my electrics.

What gear do you use onstage?
For my acoustic, it’s a Maton with a stock undersaddle pickup, onboard mic, and Maton electronics. As far as electric guitars, I usually travel with a Strat and my Gretsch.

When I carry an electric guitar amp, it’s the Laboga. But even when I backline my electric guitar amp, I always take an AER Compact 60 acoustic amp. I find it hard to rely on monitors for acoustic guitar—they never feel quite right. For me, the combination of the Maton’s preamp and the Compact 60 sounds incredible. I also carry a Peterson StroboStomp2 tuner. It has a DI output, so if I’m sitting in with someone, I just use the pedal as my DI. That’s pretty much it.

You’re known for your intense live performances. How did you develop your stage chops?
When I go onstage, I feel like a boxer stepping into the ring. I try to project my playing as if I’m slapping you in the face with my guitar. [Laughs.] I try to have—it’s hard to explain—a certain confidence, a certain attitude, a certain attack. It’s almost like you’re trying to make your solo smack into the back wall at the end of the room.

All the players who have affected me the most, the ones I’m most awestruck by, have that quality. Listen to Stevie Wonder play harmonica—it just hits you right between the eyes. The guitarist who sits there playing every note perfectly with his head down ... that music has never really jumped out at me. And that’s not the way I’ve ever done it. Of course, I have a respect for people who can play a ballad—I’m terrible at playing ballads—but I try to put on a good show.

Do you remember when it first dawned on you as a young musician that this was how you wanted to play?
Absolutely. As a kid when I played on the street or at a bar, I wanted to sell my CDs and make some money, so I’d try to make it as epic as I could. I’d play as fast as I could and try to leave the biggest impression possible. And it worked for me—I sold a lot of CDs. Those experiences stick with you, and when I play now, I still want to make the audience go crazy.

You mention Stevie Wonder. Who else inspires you musically?
I’ve been listening to a lot of Dylan lately, for the lyrics. I have an appreciation for modern bands like Bon Iver and the Black Keys. The scene over in the UK is quite strong right now, too.

As far as giving me a foundation in guitar, when I was starting off in Australia, seeing Tommy Emmanuel for the first time hit me like a ton of bricks. I thought, “I have to learn how he does that.” I was so compelled to absorb his approach that I spent the next three or four years watching all his videos. Not that I wanted to copy him, but I wanted to use his techniques to make my own music.

There were local players where I grew up who inspired me, too. Someone who affected me in a big way was Alan Morgan, a guitarist who played a mixture of R&B, blues, and bluegrass—all with a great feel. I’d go wherever he was playing and stare at him from side stage. When I’d ask how to do this or that, he’d show me.

Now that you’re performing some of the songs from the new album live, what has the reaction been from your fans? Do people come expecting Joethe- instrumentalist from Time Jumpin’ or are they familiar with this record and willing to accept you as a singer, too?
The last two times I’ve been to Europe I’ve taken a trio, so the audience there has gotten a taste of my electric sound. And I’ve already arranged the album’s songs to work onstage with just me and an acoustic guitar, so with the exception of “Lethal Injection,” “Out Alive,” and “Uli’s Jump,” I can perform all of them as a soloist.

In Europe, the acoustic guitar thing really flies, but after 90 minutes of instrumental music, I can sense a little fatigue in some crowds. For me, I’m a guitar player first, but the vocals make the show more interesting, especially for non-musicians.

Introduce sounds carefully manicured and very polished. What’s your take on that?
We started recording a year ago and now that the album is out, I can look back with a real perspective on that music. There’s not a lot of improvisation on the album—it’s pretty much all written and composed. I’m really proud of Introduce, but I’m also really excited for the future. This was an important transitional moment for me and a stepping-stone for what I want to do next.

And what’s that?
I’d like my next project to be a lot more raw and have a certain grit to it. I feel I’ve made my statement with this album and now it’s a matter of relaxing with who I am and really trying to create stuff I love. There are thousands of albums released every year, and I feel to stand out in the crowd, you have to capture a real energy and an authentic performance. And the rawer and more real the music, the more powerful it is.

I like the Black Keys for that reason. Adele’s latest record is raw in a lot of ways, with alternative aspects in the production, and it’s pretty cool to see people gravitate towards that. The other day I was listening to Disraeli Gears, the old Cream album. There are so many imperfections in it, but that’s what makes it an amazing record. Down the road I’d like to do an album that’s totally feel and not written, one that offers a lot of improvisation. That will be liberating— just go in and do it.

Joe Robinson's Gear

Gretsch G6122-1962 Chet Atkins Country Gentleman with Tru-Arc bridge, Fender Custom Shop ’60s Strat with Brierley pickups, ’60s Gibson ES-335 (borrowed from producer Frank Rogers), Maton 808TE acoustic, Maton Custom Shop acoustic.

Laboga Alligator 30, AER Compact 60, Dr. Z Carmen Ghia.

Eventide TimeFactor, Electro-Harmonix Deluxe Memory Man, T-Rex Tremster, T-Rex Octavius, Ibanez TS808 Tube Screamer, Peterson StroboStomp2 tuner/DI , T-Rex Room-Mate, T-Rex Alberta, Voodoo Lab Sparkle Drive, Radial Tonebone, Jim Dunlop Cry Baby wah.

Strings, Picks, and Accessories:
Elixir 80/20 bronze .012 set with a .016 or .018 1st string, Elixir Nanoweb electric .011 set with .012 or .014 1st string (Gretsch Country Gentleman), Elixir Nanoweb electric .010 set with .012 1st string (Fender Strat and Tele), Wegen flatpicks.

YouTube It
To appreciate Joe Robinson’s fretboard wizardry, you need to see him perform. These videos illustrate his awesome command of both acoustic and electric 6-string.

Wielding his Gretsch in a rocking trio, Robinson performs one of his originals at The Basement, an intimate Nashville club.

Tearing up his Tele, Robinson pays tribute to Jeff Beck with an original instrumental.

Robinson displays his fingerstyle chops in this solo acoustic instrumental. Dig the Lenny Breau-inspired harmonics!

Robinson plays a solo acoustic piece from Time Jumpin’—his 2009 US debut— onstage in Germany.

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