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Robby Krieger: The Doors' Distinctive Fret Master

The Doors'' guitarist and co-writer shares his beginnings and his affinity for SGs

In the late ’60s, I played drums with a New Jersey garage band called Saturday’s Garbage (yes, that really was our name). We were enamored with the first Doors album, so much so that we covered almost every song. Our guitarist was a very good player for his age, but when it came time to rehearse “Light My Fire,” he could not get a handle on Robby Krieger’s extended solo with all its offbeat, out-there phrases. At his request, we simply omitted it and went directly to the organ solo. Problem solved.

But I’m sure our guitar player wasn’t the only one who had difficulty. Krieger—who co-wrote many Doors hits including “Light My Fire,” “Love Me Two Times,” “Touch Me,” and “Love Her Madly”— always played with a certain air of distinctness and individuality. His own style was a far cry from the usual guitar-hero suspects like Clapton, Beck, Hendrix, and Page. Thanks to his parents’ extensive record collection, Krieger grew up being smitten with classical music and flamenco guitar, as well as blues, jazz, R&B, country, and folk. Like millions of kids in the 1950s, when he heard Elvis Presley, it was all over. But while Krieger often wore his influences on his sleeve, he still managed to create an extremely identifiable style and a sound unlike anyone else’s.

After the Doors disbanded in the early ’70s, Krieger formed the Butts Band with Doors drummer John Densmore, bassist Phil Chen, keyboardist Roy Davies, and British vocalist Jess Roden. In addition, he eventually recorded and toured with his own band, which concentrated primarily on instrumental jazz/rock fusion. In 2000, Krieger recorded the critically acclaimed album Cinematix with powerhouse drummer Billy Cobham and keyboard whiz Edgar Winter. Then, in 2002, he joined with Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek and former Cult vocalist Ian Astbury in a band that was first billed as the Doors of the 21st Century, then Riders on the Storm, and now Ray & Robbie of the Doors.

What was the spark that ignited your interest in guitar?

I liked classical music at first. My father bought me a record of Peter and the Wolf that I liked as a kid, and my mother played the radio a lot and was into Frank Sinatra. Elvis Presley was the first rock ’n’ roll that grabbed my attention. When Elvis came on the radio, it was like night and day. He was my favorite. From there, I discovered Fats Domino, the Platters, and other blues-based stuff. I searched my dad’s record collection, and he had blues 78s that I wish I had kept. I liked boogie-woogie piano a lot too, but that sounded dated compared to Elvis.

Who were your early guitar heroes and influences?

I didn’t zone in much on the guitar at first on Elvis records. I liked the echo of the guitar, but didn’t know if it was Scotty Moore. My dad had flamenco records, and I liked that guitar playing best. Sabicas was probably the greatest flamenco guitarist. He was very underrated and he came up with different forms of the style. I was influenced by him, as well as Mario Escudero and Carlos Montoya, who practically invented flamenco guitar. I got into blues when I was in high school. I listened to Blind Willie Johnson, Blind Willie McTell, Mance Lipscomb, and, of course, Robert Johnson. I also got into folk music. Bob Dylan was my favorite, but I also liked Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Bud & Travis, and Woody Guthrie. They were all big influences.

Did you study guitar?

Yes. To play Flamenco, you had to have a teacher—unless you were a good musician already and could copy all that stuff off the record. I took lessons and did a lot of practicing. My first guitar was a Mexican Ram’rez classical, which was a knockoff of the better Spanish-made Ram’rez guitars. I have a Spanish one made in 1963 that my dad bought for me while he was on a business trip to Spain.

Which jazz guitarists did you listen to for inspiration?

I like Larry Carlton, Pat Martino, and John Scofield, among others, but Stanley Jordan is my favorite jazz player.

You’re most known for playing a Gibson SG Standard. How did you come to use that guitar?

Before I played electric guitars, I knew nothing about them. But then I saw Chuck Berry and had to get one. I went to a pawnshop and all I could afford was a used Gibson SG Standard—it cost me $180. That was the guitar I used in the Doors. I played ES-335s and ES-355s also, but I always went back to the SG. It’s the most comfortable guitar for me. It does what I need it to do and always has.

Do you still have that original SG?

No, it was stolen a long time ago. I found a ’67 that’s almost identical to the one I had, and I still use that one all the time.

Tell me about Gibson’s recent Robby Krieger SG reissue.

I’m happy with it. They copied the ’67 SG I have now. I didn’t like that guitar’s original neck, so the neck on it is actually a copy of a friend’s ’61 SG Junior that I preferred. Gibson wired the front and rear pickups out of phase like a wah. It was a mistake, but a good one.

What other instruments are you using right now?

I have a Stratocaster that I use once in a while, and I still play ES-355s but only in the studio, not live. I also use an older SG Special with P-90s for slide—I believe it’s a ’75. I have about thirty guitars total.

I’ve heard you bought a sunburst 1960 Les Paul years ago, too.

Years ago, I had a chance to buy the prettiest ’burst I ever saw—great flame top, lightweight— but I turned it down because the guy wanted $3000… back in the ‘70s! I wasn’t going to pay $3000 for a guitar. I should have bought it, though. So when the Burst Brothers had this Les Paul at Guitar Center in LA, a friend of mine saw it and called me. I bought it, but it isn’t as pretty as the one I turned down. But it’s still a great guitar.

What do you like about that guitar?

My ’burst is very light. I don’t like heavy guitars, and the neck on mine is slimmer than the ’59s—which generally had necks like telephone poles. I think Gibson made the best necks in 1960 and ’61. I never take that guitar on the road, for obvious reasons.

What’s your current amp rig?

My rigs have changed quite a bit over the years. The first amp I used with the Doors was a Magnatone with two 12" speakers. Then we got a deal with Acoustic, and I used their 260 model for a while. Ray was using one of their amps, too, but we both grew disenchanted with them after awhile. Then I started using a couple of Twin Reverbs that were rebuilt with JBL speakers in them by my friend, Vince Traenor, a crazy genius who also works on pipe organs. He likes to sneak into cathedrals and play the pipe organs. My current rig is two Fender Hot Rod DeVilles, with either 2x12 or 4x10 speaker cabs.

What’s on your pedalboard right now?

I use a Boss ME-10 multi-effect unit, which they don’t make anymore, and I use the gain channel on the amps too. That’s my basic rig. Very simple.

Back in the '60s, did you have freedom to create your own guitar parts with The Doors, or were you taking direction from anyone?

I was free to create parts on my own, but once in a while Jim would tell me what to play. There were four different versions of “Roadhouse Blues,” all with different guitar parts.

Lonnie Mack played bass on that track, didn’t he? How did that come together?

Lonnie had quit the music business and was actually working for Elektra Records doing something. I know he sold Bibles for a while too. He was around the studio when we were getting ready to record “Roadhouse Blues,” so we asked him to play bass. He did a great job, and got back into music after that.

The Doors always used bass players in the studio, didn’t they?

Yes. Ray and I used to write the bass parts. On the first album, we used Larry Knechtel, the session guy. He passed away recently. On the second and third albums, we used Doug Lubahn from the band Clear Light. On the fourth, Harvey Brooks played bass, and we used Ray Neapolitan and Jerry Scheff on the fifth and sixth albums. Jerry is probably best known for having played in Elvis’s band for years.

What was the recording process like with the Doors?

It was two- or four-track, which was very limiting. Everything had to be perfect—there were no excuses. If it wasn’t, you went back and did it again. Of course, all the technology in the world doesn’t make for a great album, either. I would’ve loved to have had Pro Tools back then.

Speaking of recording, there’s a new live Doors CD coming out, right?

Yes. It’s a six-disc set called Live in New York. It’s being released on Rhino Records, and it was recorded over four shows in two nights. It’s pretty neat. The audience was really great, and we were up for the occasion. I think it’s the best live Doors recording available.

You’re still working with organist Ray Manzarek.

Yes, we’re now billed as Ray & Robby of the Doors. We were called Riders On The Storm for a while, because we couldn’t use The Doors anymore due to that ridiculous lawsuit by John Densmore. That was totally unnecessary, but he won in court, so we had no choice.

Why is John no longer performing with the band?

You’d have to ask him why he’s not involved. Actually, John has tinnitus, so he’s not playing loud music anymore. I wish he would come around and play. He’s still a partner in the business end of the band, but the lawsuit has made it difficult to remain friends. We really haven’t been close with John since the ‘70s.

What was it like for the Doors to continue as a three-piece band after Jim died?

I have to say it was tough not having Jim up front, but he had become so unpredictable and unreliable. Ray and I had to take over lead vocals. After he was gone, we could actually make a set list and stick to it—but it wasn’t much fun. Jim’s onstage spontaneity was a big part of the Doors live experience. The audiences were very cool about it, though. We took along another guitar player named Bobby Raye, a friend of ours from LA, and a bass player named Big Jack Conrad—the first time we ever had a bass player onstage.


Guitar: 1967 Gibson SG Standard, 2009 Gibson Robby Krieger Signature SG Standard, 1975 Gibson SG Special, 1964 and 1967 Gibson ES-355s, 1963 José Ram’rez classical

Two Fender Hot Rod DeVilles with 2x12 or 4x10 speaker cabinets

Boss ME-10

If you could talk to Jim again, what would you say to him?

Look what you’re doing to yourself and the band. Look how you’ve fucked yourself up. You’ve wasted your life. You couldn’t tell Jim anything; he did what he wanted.

I understand you have a solo album coming out soon.

It’s all instrumental and titled Singularity. It’s been finished for a while, but we had to find a good label to release it. It’s on a small label called Oglio Records that’s mostly known for doing comedy records. There’s flamenco and jazz on there and lots of guitar. It’ll be out soon.

Any words of Krieger wisdom for our readers?

Try to find a style you like that’s the most fun and work on that. Try to use as many guitars as you can to get different sounds.

One last question: When I saw the Doors on TV playing “Touch Me,” you had a huge black eye. What happened?

I had a fight with Jim and he hit me. You’ll have to read my book to find out what happened. I’m writing it myself and it’ll be done sometime soon. Ray and John both wrote their own books about the Doors, so I figured I should write one too.