For their latest album, Signs, Susan and Derek brought their road-tested 12-piece ensemble into their Swamp Raga studio, cued up the tape, and hit record. As always, Trucks’ keening slide proves he’s one of the finest players to ever lay glass on steel.
The Tedeschi Trucks Band is a 12-piece ensemble fronted by the husband and wife team of Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks. The band’s members are A-list, first-call players, and many of them could easily front bands of their own—yet they don’t, they’re loyal to TTB. Many have been in the band since its founding in 2010, and a few are holdovers from Tedeschi and Trucks’ solo projects of the previous decade. That’s not the norm, but this team is in for the long haul. The reason for that could be because the band gigs a lot. The nightly workouts are challenging and the band boasts a massive repertoire, a revolving and ever-changing setlist, and ample opportunity to solo and stretch out.
“Whenever we play, we don’t do the same set,” Tedeschi says. “If we’re playing in one spot for four nights, then you’re getting four different shows.”
“We’ve been doing a lot of residencies for multiple nights in a given city and we try not—at least for the first two or three nights—to repeat many songs,” Trucks adds. “When we did the Beacon Theater this last run, I think we played more than 100 different songs through the course of the run.”
This ethos makes for a fertile creative environment. “I think the amount of material that the band learns and plays together is part of what makes this thing continue to grow and stay healthy,” Trucks says. “Sometimes you work up a cover tune and a certain chord change or element of that tune will unlock a door. You’re like, ‘Oh shit, I’ve heard that but I didn’t know what it was.’ And that’s something you end up using.”
But there’s a bigger reason the members of TTB are so loyal, and that—at least it seems to me—is because Tedeschi and Trucks are so freaking nice.
“Come down man, come in the studio sometime,” Trucks said after about an hour-and-a-half talking shop. “We’re in Jacksonville, down in the swamp here.”
Both Tedeschi and Trucks had established careers, impressive resumés, and multiple Grammys between them—and had already been married for over a decade—before finally making their collaboration the family business. TTB combines their myriad talents and influences, and places them on top of a twin-drum rhythm section, horns, keys, and three backing vocalists. They draw from multiple styles including funk, blues, gospel, and soul, and owe an obvious debt to Joe Cocker’s 1970 release, Mad Dogs & Englishmen, which they paid tribute to in 2015.
“We played with Leon Russell, Chuck Blackwell, and all the living members,” Tedeschi says about that experience. “Chris Stainton, Rita Coolidge, Claudia Lennear, the Moore Brothers, and a bunch of the backup singers that were on the original tour. It was really special and I am so glad we did it when we did it, because Leon is not here now. We had that small window and it was a miracle. It was really a blessing for us all to get to work with him.”
“Blessings” like that are part of the inspiration for their latest album, Signs. The lyrics of many of its core songs—“Signs, High Times” and Walk Through This Life” among them—deal with the joy and impermanence of life, inspired by the lives and recent deaths of Russell, Trucks’ uncle and Allman Brothers drummer Butch Trucks, Greg Allman, and Col. Bruce Hampton (Ret.). But the losses they reflect are balanced by hope and the always-positive glow of TTB’s music.
That warmth and attitude—not to mention impeccable chops and an insane work ethic—make the Tedeschi Trucks Band a formidable outfit. We spoke with them about their guitars, tone, unorthodox techniques, and the making of Signs. As should be evident, we could have talked all day.
Derek, first obvious question: How do you get such a massive sound without using a pick?
Derek Trucks: I don’t know, maybe it’s fat fingers [laughs]. For slide, I’ve always preferred the sound without a pick, and that carried over to everything else. You have to adjust the guitar and amp accordingly when you’re not using a pick, because there is definitely a bite that you don’t get the same way.
Do you have big calluses on your right-hand fingers?
Trucks: Yeah, they come and go. Even in the middle of a tour I get those blisters under a callus. There’ll be a few painful nights of tour where they give way, but if you play enough, you charge through it. Something happens onstage where if something is hurting it doesn’t when you’re playing for a few hours. You forget it. You just charge through.
Tidbit: TTB recorded the 11-track Signs at Tedeschi and Trucks’ home studio in Jacksonville, Florida. Trucks coproduced the album and both Doyle Bramhall II and Warren Haynes make guest appearances on guitar.
Do you have techniques, like alternating fingers or using certain fingers to play faster runs?
Trucks: You know, most of the time it’s instinctual. But there are times when there’s a certain sound or element you’re trying to get and you concentrate on that—alternating fingers and thinking almost like banjo-style stuff—but usually it’s just a means to an end. You hear something in your head and figure out how to get there.
I didn’t really have many lessons along the way, as far as the right hand. The first few players I noticed not using a pick pointed out that the sound I was trying for probably came from that, and it opened a lot of doors. When I sat down and learned from people, it was more theoretical or writing out the guitar neck in a different tuning and figuring out where everything sits. Finding your own little map, but never really any right-hand things.
Susan, you use a flatpick, but also play fingerstyle a lot.
Susan Tedeschi: I like to have the dynamics to be able to do whatever’s called for. I play with a pick, but when I don’t want it to be so harsh and bright, I’ll use my fingers. I really care about the tone and I want it to be pleasing and pretty. I’ll use my fingers to either be gentle or pluck really hard—like for an Albert King or a B.B. King riff—to get that attack and make it squeak a certain way.It’s pretty intuitive. It has to do with what’s going on at the moment. Sometimes I’ll think, “This is not working! The pick is not doing crap for me.” So I throw it and get mad and use my fingers [laughs].
What tunings do you play in?
Trucks: Almost always in open E [E–B–E–G#–B–E]. Occasionally open G [D–G–D–G–B–D] or DADGAD, or different things for specific tunes, but 98 percent of the time it’s open E.
Tedeschi: I play in standard tuning most of the time, but I also play in open D [D–A–D–F#–A–D], open G, open C [C–G–C–G–C–E], open A [E–A–E–A–C#–E]—it depends on the song and what we’re trying to do. On some of the blues stuff, it’s just easier to play in an open tuning. Like if we’re playing “Any Day,” I play in open A. It just works out better because it sounds different from what Derek’s doing, which adds a lot of texture.
Do you get confused switching tunings?
Trucks: The only time I get confused is if I try to play in standard tuning [laughs].
Trucks: I haven’t done it in so long I feel like a rank amateur in standard. When we’re going over things, sometimes I’ll pick up Susan’s guitar to show her parts or just learn things in her tuning. It’s fun, but I don’t remember the last time I played a standard-tuned guitar onstage. It’s been a long, long time.
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.
Trucks: 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.
Trucks: 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?
Tedeschi: 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.
And you take that “Beano” on the road?
Tedeschi: 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?
Tedeschi: 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?
Tedeschi: 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.
Trucks: 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.
Do you bring those influences into your playing?
Trucks: 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?
Tedeschi: 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:
Susan Tedeschi values tone over comfort, and strings her guitars accordingly. “I use a normal pack of .011s because I like the way the guitar sounds with heavier strings,” she says. “I always make it way too hard for myself. I have higher action than I should and big strings.” Photo by Debi Del Grande
Between the keys, the two guitars, and the horns, you have a lot of instruments in the same frequency range. How do you keep from stepping on each other’s toes?
Trucks: You have to be conscious of those things. You don’t want to all be in that same sonic space. Having a B-3 fills up a lot of that, too. But I’ve been playing with keyboardist Kofi Burbridge for close to 20 years, so there’s an instinctual thing that goes on between me and him. [Editor’s note: This interview was conducted about a week before Kofi Burbridge’s untimely death on February 15.] You just play when the other person isn’t. If I am holding down a bunch of low-mid during the tune, when I go to solo, Kofi usually slides right into that range on the B-3 so you don’t feel it disappear. There’s a lot of dancing that goes on like that.
Sue’s tone is much more Chicago, Magic Sam, maybe a little punchier, which naturally occupies a different space, so her sound is a bit more percussive, almost clavinet-like. She plays a bit of wah, too, which cuts and puts it in a different place. Certain tunes, if she’s holding down the fort with more cowboy chords or things, I’ll explore more single-note things. You try not to put too much mud in there. That’s something you have to always be thinking about, especially with that much sound onstage. You have to be more aware of that.
My solo band was just one guitar forever and so I didn’t really think about those things ... you’re trying to fill space a lot of times. Then joining the Allman Brothers, you have to take on that complementary role a lot more. But then the Clapton gig with three guitars, that’s when it really started clarifying for me that you have to be aware of that stuff. So when we put this band together, I think we were already attuned to it.
Tedeschi: The horns and backing vocals definitely have to coordinate, because if not, they’ll take each other’s parts [laughs]. What we try to do is let the singers choose first, and then we’ll work the horns around it. Because with horns, you can write all different types of parts and they can play whatever, but singers can only really sing so much in their ranges.
Who does the arrangements?
Tedeschi: Each section does its own. The singers will do their section, and if something’s clashing, then we'll bring it up. Derek will hear it, or when Kofi’s around, Kofi will hear it. “Somebody is playing a C# and you should be playing a Bb,” or whatever. So there's definitely awareness of what everybody’s playing, and if somebody is clashing or somebody has a problem, we communicate and we fix it.
How do those sonic choices translate in the studio?
Trucks: That’s something we think about a lot. Sometimes you don’t think about it until you track a tune and go in and listen in the control room and you go, “Oh, that’s fucked. That’s way too much of one thing or the other.” You go out or reimagine your parts or you think of different instrumentation. That’s the beauty of making records: You get to work that stuff out in real time. That’s some of my favorite parts of making records, finding where things go sonically, where things sit. Sometimes, it’s addition by subtraction.
You go in and start muting things and go, “Ah, that’s better. Maybe this song doesn’t need this other part.” Then you find the thing that propels the tune. Sometimes it’s Susan’s rhythm, sometimes it’s Kofi on piano, sometimes you realize you don’t need everybody doing everything. You figure out what’s making the tune move down the road, and what its focal point is, and you rally behind that.
Do you switch different amps and guitars in the studio, just to vary tones?
Tedeschi: I have a 1964 Deluxe Reverb that is my baby. I love that thing. It’s pre-CBS, it was made in February of ’64, and it still says Fender Electric Company on it instead of Fender Musical Instruments. It’s all original and it sounds amazing. I took really good care of it. I had two guys who worked on it in Boston for years—Jim Mouradian and Roy Goode. It just has to do with maintenance. Whenever we’re recording, Derek likes to use it, too, and I say, “We have 100 amps, why do you want my one amp?”
Trucks: It’s track to track, but generally I use an old blackface Fender. When I can get my hands on it, I use Sue’s Deluxe. We have a few in the studio, but hers is the one, so when I can sneak it away from her, that’s what I use. But usually she takes it back [laughs]. I usually use a Neumann 47 FET on the amp and a ribbon a few feet away, but one of the things we did a bit on this record when we were mixing was re-mike my guitar through a Super and an Echoplex.
You reamped it?
Trucks: Yeah, through a Super. We wouldn’t use a whole lot of that sound, but just enough. Maybe if the guitar is sitting right-of-center for a tune, maybe left-of-center you’d add a little bit of that air. It just gave the track a little depth and somehow cleared it up. We had this old tape Echoplex the band gave me a while ago, and it was a lot of fun to go out there and mess around with that and the Super.
How rehearsed is the band?
Trucks: The band works hard. When we’re on the road, the soundchecks are pretty long—an hour or two depending on how much we can get. There’s a rehearsal room set up backstage, too, so we’ll run through tunes at soundcheck, and we give a few tunes another crack in the rehearsal room. Sometimes you’re working up tunes for a few shows down the road. This band works hard when it’s on the road, there’s a lot of extra time put in. We don’t get as much time to rehearse away from the tour, just because we’re working a lot and people have families and it’s a big band to get together. When things are healthy and good, the more you’re playing together, the more you’re hanging out together, the better.
Do you ever pull weird things out of the hat?
Tedeschi: All the time [laughs].
And you don’t have charts?
Tedeschi: You can write a lead sheet, but for the most part everybody has got it in their heads. You know, Derek runs a tight ship. He keeps us working and our brains going. It’s good—we don’t have time to get bored.
Watch TTB track “Anyhow” live in their studio. With two drummers, the groove is deep, and the horns, singers, and keys provide a rich sonic foundation for Tedeschi’s soulful vocals. At 5:18, Trucks cuts loose with a searing slide solo.
TTB is a well-oiled sound machine, as evidenced by this nearly two-hour concert at Red Rocks Amphitheater in Colorado. The musicians and singers all get space to shine, and, of course, Trucks’ open-E slide guitar brings down the house, time and again. If you dig the Allman Brothers, you won’t want to miss TTB’s rendition of “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” at 1:25:36, with Marcus King joining Trucks on guitar.