A song-based guitar hero with deep blues and classic-rock roots uses open tunings, big riffs, iconic instruments, and studio spontaneity to define himself on Flux.
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.
This 1969 Gibson Les Paul goldtop is one of Robinson’s main guitars and played a major role in the making of his ninth solo recording. His other go-to is a 1963 Gibson ES-335 that was resurrected after being damaged by floodwaters from 2012’s Hurricane Sandy. Photo by Alysse Gafkjen
“Music That Will Lift Me” has some particularly great acoustic and electric guitar textures. How did you record them?
A lot of the time we used a pair of Gefells on the acoustics, and on the electrics we used a mixture of Shure ribbon mics with a range of placement. We miked some up close and others far away, to really get a depth of different sounds. I’m really happy with the way all of the guitars sound on the album—very natural and organic.
Overall, what were you going for when you made the album?
I’ve done every album I’ve made for the last 25 or so years in a slightly different way. On my last record, The Ceaseless Sight, I wrote a few songs and song fragments, and I wanted to use the studio to finish them. I liked the way it turned out, so for this record I said I’m not going to finish anything—even more so than the previous record.
For Flux I decided to channel all the inspiration and energy you can get going on in the studio. I like to use the studio as a source of inspiration. When you go into a high-end place like [Woodstock, New York’s] Applehead, with a certain past, you really have a finite amount of time available, and so there’s an urgency to make decisions on the fly and to finalize everything as efficiently as possible. I really work well with that kind of pressure.
I love the fact that Flux is a very eclectic record. It draws from all of my different influences and it’s kind of like a journey, which is what a good record should be. It was interesting to see where the music took me in the studio and where the album takes you when you listen to it from start to finish.
You mentioned pressure—how long did you have to make the album?
We only had two weeks to record, and we basically tracked one song per day. Sometimes I came into the studio with skeletal melodies, and some of the songs were more fleshed out, but, again, I opted to do most of the composing and arranging in the studio, to see what it would elicit from the music.
What are some examples of the skeletal ideas you fleshed out in the studio?
“Ides of Nowhere” and “Sleepwalker” were songs that evolved from these little ideas. They really came to life when the band and I were in the studio. They weren’t anything like originally planned, and it was really exciting to experience that transformation with the band.
With “For to Give,” I went into the studio with just the verse and the chorus and they really wanted to go somewhere. It’s a pretty frenetic song, so I thought it would be a cool contrast to have a mellower intro with a cool melodic element. I used it for the bridge, too, because it breaks up the more active parts nicely.
The band sounds really tight on the album. Tell us about the players you worked with.
My drummer, Joe Magistro, and I have been playing together outside of the Black Crowes. Not only are we friends, but he really gets what I do. He has the uncanny ability to know what I’ll play before it happens, and we land on the same plane constantly. It’s really a gift to play with Joe.
Matt Slocum is a really talented keyboard player who’s played with Susan Tedeschi, Jimmy Herring, and other killer musicians. He did a phenomenal job of just coming in and nailing the perfect parts to the songs.
Outside of your solo career, you’ve been playing with Bad Company lately. How did that come about?
When I was growing up you couldn’t avoid Bad Company, and I always thought that [singer] Paul Rodgers would be really fun to work with. Obviously that wasn’t something I could even think about doing when I was with the Crowes.
Fast forward to last year, when I went to the Experience Music Project in Seattle, where guys like Jerry Cantrell, Duff McKagan, and Kim Thayil were doing this tribute to Jimmy Page. Paul was there, too. [Editor’s note: In the 1980s, Rodgers collaborated with Page in the short-lived supergroup the Firm.] He asked me to join him onstage for some Firm songs, and then, for this recent Bad Company tour, Mick Ralphs wasn’t available, so they asked me to fill in for him and I jumped at the opportunity.
You’ve also been painting. Your work has also been seen on your album covers and you just had pieces on display in Morrison Hotel Gallery in NYC.
Yeah, it’s great to have another creative outlet—one that balances out the musical outlet really nicely. I’m really fortunate to be able to have both, and I take painting as seriously as I do music.
How are painting and music different to you—and similar?
Painting is different from music because it’s a more solitary activity that I have complete control over—it begins and ends with me. I tend to respond to the feel of the paint as textures develop when I’m working. With music, it’s generally more collaborative, and less tangible—I react to the sonics all around me.
The Black Crowes are known to take a breather from time to time, but have you really disbanded this time?
It’s true that we’re done. Finished. It was finally time to call it a day, and I have no regrets—we had a great run.
With his gorgeously inlaid Zemaitis acoustic guitar built by master luthier George Lowden, Rich Robinson plays a solo version of the inspiring “Music That Will Lift Me,” from his new solo album, Flux.