We sit down and talk slidin'' Strats, playing with Clapton and southern influences with none other than Sonny Landreth


Playing Behind the Slide: An Interview with Sonny Landreth Although Sonny Landreth was born in Canton, Mississippi, the fact that his family eventually made Lafayette, Louisiana their home seems like an act of fate today. With a potpourri of styles and methods contributing to his original and infectious sound, delta blues, Cajun and zydeco influences radiate from every aspect of his playing. By means of an utterly unique slide guitar method that adds fiery spice to everything from rocked up songs to his more mellow and bluesy material, Landreth’s sound is contemporary and fresh, yet solidly rooted in tradition and rich southern heritage.


Landreth soaked up the local culture in the seventies while playing with Clifton Chenier, the renowned zydeco king. Throughout this early period he was actively perfecting his playing style, one that was also coerced along by a devout interest in the method of Chet Atkins. His high regard for the music of contemporaries such as Scotty Moore, Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix was matched with an inexhaustible desire to further his slide playing technique into unchartered territory. All of these attributes would later give way to the signature playing style of Sonny Landreth.

Guitarists throughout the world are awestruck when viewing the chordal and picking dexterity that transpires on either side of the glass. The slide, which is on his pinky finger, glides above the fretboard and along the strings; simultaneously, the other four fingers fret chords and notes to the left of it. And while the five fingers on the right hand pick, pluck and tap away, he concurrently utilizes a unique muting technique with his palms and his fingers. Both thumbs are utilized to the max throughout all of this. People who watch Landreth’s technique notice something new and extraordinary every time they’re in his presence.

Both South of I-10 and Levee Town, released in 1995 and 2000 respectively, contain some of the most incredible slide guitar work ever recorded. These Landreth albums are drenched in delta blues and zydeco flavors, a backdrop to a sound that’s both genuine and traditional. While inclusions such as “Love And Glory,” “Levee Town” and “Congo Square” (covered by names as diverse as John Mayall, Tom Principato, Kenny Neal and the Neville Brothers) went on to garner songwriter recognition, his adeptness for traditional blues ambiance is blatant on tracks like “Broken Hearted Road” and “Great Gulf Wind.”

Nevertheless, the rollicking instrumental, “Native Stepson,” has become an anthem for fans everywhere – the exclaimer of his existence to the unaware, as well. Instantly seizing the ears of music enthusiasts everywhere, the song heralded far and wide the talent of this burgeoning slide guitarist from Louisiana. Recorded live at the Grant Street Dancehall in Lafayette back in 2004, Grant Street is an amazing display of Landreth in a live setting where he creates an exhilarating atmosphere. An electrifying “Native Stepson” opens the set.

Looking outside his slide prowess – an act that’s sometimes hard to do – the fact shouldn’t be overlooked that he’s a great guitarist when playing conventionally, a fine vocalist and an accomplished composer and lyricist. Citing him as one of the most underrated musicians on the planet, as well as one of the most advanced, Eric Clapton chose Landreth to open his Crossroads festival in Chicago back in the summer of 2007. As anyone associated with Clapton, this incident assisted greatly in furthering Landreth’s notoriety. Finally, he has elevated to a level in which he’s able to call past and present idols his peers – some of which appear on his 2008 collaborative effort.

Sonny Landreth gets by with a little help from friends Eric Clapton, Mark Knopfler, Eric Johnson, Robben Ford, Vince Gill and more on From the Reach. It’s an amazing collaboration of sorts. Although Landreth composed the entire album, each song was written specifically for its special guest musician. The endeavor was such a success that one might think the guests wrote the songs instead of Sonny, primarily because the styles are so akin to their own.

It just goes to show the degree of admiration and respect he has for each friend and acquaintance on the album. One can easily sense elements of camaraderie and reverence radiate from the performances, along with an air of aptness – not in a competitive sense, but in a sanguine optimism in knowing that they’re among peers of distinction. It’s obvious that the music being made was exciting to even them. Clapton excels in his two efforts, as does Knopfler in the album’s opener, and those examples just scrape the surface. Importantly enough, Landreth shines throughout. Playing alongside him seems to have compelled each guest to stand out alongside Landreth – but then again, that’s what brilliant performers aspire to. The brilliance of performance is augmented when people of such caliber do it together, making the music all the more enjoyable to listen to.

We recently sat down with Sonny Landreth to talk about left and right hand playing techniques, the making of From the Reach and much more.
Sonny, a lot has been going on lately.

Well, it has.


From The Reach is a great album, by the way.

I appreciate it, man. I’m really happy with it.


Bassist Dave Ranson has said that your slide playing has a tendency to scare other slide players. How does that make you feel?

[Laughs] I don’t know about that, man. I just keep my head down and try to play in tune and in time. We’ve done a lot of shows with a lot of great musicians which is always inspirational. Every time I hear these other players, I go, “Oh, man.” It’s about getting fired up, in terms of the creative side of it.


Who were your influences growing up? Who helped in coercing you to develop such a great style?

I had a ton of heroes and I always loved music. My older brother was always bringing music into the house, ever since I was a little kid. We were living in Mississippi; we moved to Louisiana when I was seven years old – I thanked my dad for years about making that move. [laughs] It’s such a great culture here.

The Cajun and zydeco influence started here in Dixieland, New Orleans and New Orleans jazz. I played trumpet in school, so I had classical and jazz influences with rock n’ roll. Early on it was Scotty Moore with Elvis, the Ventures and then an older kid in a music store turned me on to Chet Atkins. That’s how I learned the right hand fingerstyle approach – from Chet Atkins. Some years later, when I was getting into delta blues and discovering slide, I was using the slide with that same approach on the right hand. It set me on my path. I heard B. B. King when I was 16, and at a funky little club in Louisiana I heard Clifton Chenier for the first time – the Zydeco King. He invited me inside and my world changed that night. I saw, heard and met Jimi Hendrix in the late sixties when he played in Baton Rouge. There are a lot of influences.


Talk about playing behind the slide with the left hand.

What I learned from the delta players was to tune the guitar to a certain key. For example, if the song is in E, there are two basic tunings. I would use those and then start experimenting with tunings of my own. I was playing a blues thing and I was frustrated about playing in a minor key while tuned to a major key. Long story short, I could see the notes behind the glass and had the inspiration to fret that note behind the glass. When using a slide, the strings float over the neck – you don’t use the frets. You don’t press against the fretboard like you do when playing regular guitar. The slide makes the tones on the strings as they float above the fretboard, so behind that there’s just enough room on the hand. I have the slide on my little finger, leaving the other three fingers to chord or use for fretting positions behind and under the glass. It’s the combination of the fretted notes and the slide notes that are floating that creates the mojo.

When I discovered that, it opened the window. I sensed the potential for the creativity of slide guitar way more than I had even anticipated. I just became more adventurous and started trying things, and I started coming up with all these different techniques. But what it really comes back to is my role models; these delta players were the package in one deal – the singer, songwriter in most cases and guitar player. So they were supporting the lyric in the song, and in the case of using the slide, they could create different sounds. So that’s what it’s about for me. It’s about the song and using these techniques for the sake of the lyric more than anything.


Playing Behind the Slide: An Interview with Sonny Landreth
Sonny with Clapton ©2007 Lyle A. Waisman
Explain the right hand technique as well.

As I had said, I learned the Chet Atkins fingerstyle approach. Looking back on it, that’s when I started realizing the guitar as a solo instrument. That was the gift I got from Chet Atkins. I love those albums where it’s just his guitar – the electric guitar. But it’s somewhat of a classical approach as a solo instrument, like a piano. He would have a bass line and a fingerpicking pattern, with rhythm, chords and a melody all going around at the same time. That left an impression on me, and I think that once I got into using a slide on the left hand, which I got from the delta bluesmen, it really set me on my own path.

Now, to get a little more technical, one thing that’s important to discuss is the muting technique, whereby you assign a finger per string. From high to low, the high string would be the third finger on the right hand, the second string would be the second finger and the third string would be the first – or index finger. The thumb controls the bottom three. What happens is, whatever note I’m playing on whichever string – with the slide, for example – if it’s a single note then all the other strings are muted by allowing the fingers to drape or cover those strings. Obviously, I don’t do that all the time because a lot of times you want all that to open up and ring. But that’s how you learn to control what’s happening on one side of the slide when the notes are ringing and to use your palm to extract tones and overtones on notes on the other side of the glass.

There’s another technique that uses the palm of your right hand. You have some distance between the very bottom of the string and the fretboard with slide, so when I’m sliding those strings officially aren’t touching the frets and are not touching the fretboard. I’ll probably contradict myself later, because there’s always a weird reverse technique that pulls out a different sound when doing the exact opposite. [laughs] But basically, that allows you to press down all six strings or any combination with the palm. As you press down, the slide goes with you. That allows you to excite the strings and bend the notes behind the slide – the ghost notes I call them.

What you can do is emulate vibrato, tremolo, chorus and echo. Also, when you fret certain notes on the neck, let’s say two strings in harmony and the other four strings are floating with the slide, the clash of the two creates the potential for oscillations, which can also be controlled with the right hand. You can control the speed of them – they can really ring on and be very strange at the same time. It adds a lot of character to the overall sound which becomes more complex. You’re not just getting individual notes, but you’re getting a combination of notes and overtones plus the effect of these oscillations.


As you had said, you began on the trumpet. Did that influence your guitar playing style?

Oh yeah, and I was talking to Robben Ford about this – he started out playing saxophone. You approach the guitar with a completely different idea about phrasing because as a wind instrument player, be it sax, trumpet, trombone, oboe or flute, you have to take a breath and then play the passage. Your phrasing is completely geared around taking that breath. What that also does is bring out much more of an expression of the voice from the human side. It makes it more emotional, I think. It’s a different approach, a different idea and a different concept.


You have amazing tone, live and in the studio. Is that more a gear related thing, or is it in the fingers and through your amazing technique?

Tone is number one. Even as a kid I wanted to have my own sound. I recognized that all my heroes have their own unique style and their own sound. As soon as I hear it, I know it. That’s such and such, and this is that person. That’s what I always strived for – my own tone and phrasing. It comes from deep within.

It really doesn’t matter if it’s guitars, pickups, pedals or no pedals, amps, preamp tubes, speakers – it comes from a place where you find your own voice. Again, that’s what impressed me early on; I really wanted to sing the guitar, have my own voice on the guitar. That’s a huge part of it for me.


And it’s usually done on a Stratocaster.

I’ve got Gibsons and Fenders – I’ve just got a lot of guitars. Its apples and oranges, but I’ve settled on the Strat because it has got something going for it with slide that I just can’t shake. It’s more versatile. I can cover more bases with it. But on the other hand I have Les Pauls too. I learned to play Hendrix on a Gibson ES-175, an old jazz hollowbody. [laughs] I love ‘em all. But yeah, it’s my favorite [the Strat].


Playing Behind the Slide: An Interview with Sonny Landreth
Photo: ©2007 Tim Mosenfelderon
Which goes back to the idea that tone is in the fingers anyway.

It really is. You color that with various gadgets, gear and that sort of thing, but it really starts with that. You really should be able to hold your own. If you really want to test your metal, sort of speak, don’t use any effects. Plug straight into an amp and just try playing a gig like that. When you’ve got your own voice, it’s going to come through no matter what.


How’s the action set up on your guitars?

I use what would be considered a medium action for acoustic guitar. I use gauge .13 thru .56, pretty heavy for a rocker, but it’s really not for a grasser. Bluegrass players like high action and the heavier strings are okay for them. What it does for me, when using open tuning – chordal tuning – is that gauge really opens up the sound of the guitar. You get a lot more harmonics and overtones, which enables you to get a more complex sound.


What tunings do you get into?

I have a lot of tunings I use, but at a gig it’s anywhere from five to eight. It depends upon the set list and what we’re doing that night.


Are there any particular tunings you like more than others?

I’d put them more in a group. I like the slack key tunings – the Spanish tunings, like G and D. I love the elasticity of the sound and the feel it gives you. The notes elongate just a little more. They really sink into each note. I love that, like in Elmore James’ “Dust My Broom.” D is just the blues key I think. For some of the more complicated things, the higher tunings like E and A, for example, the fingering is all the same from E to D. The fingering positions are the same for A and G. However, it’s a higher sound because the harmonics are different, there’s more tension and it just gives it more of an edge for tunes that rock a bit more. And F minor, or various tunings in minor keys, I love those. Some of my favorite tunings are minor, and I’ve always felt that the minor blues is about the most beautiful sound there is.


You played at Clapton’s Crossroads festival last summer.

Yes, we did. We were the first ones to come out the chute, man – 12 o’clock noon. We had been up most of the night before, playing a late night gig and we were ready to rock at noon. [laughs] It was just a real huge moment for me when Eric Clapton came out and sat in with us – that was about the greatest affirmation for me. He was one of my original guitar heroes. That’s why I wanted him on the new album, too. It was really exciting and we’d been playing a lot so the band was on. As a group we felt really good. It was crazy because it’s always by the seat of your pants at any festival oriented gig. The crew and all were fantastic, but it’s just great to play live and be around all those amazing musicians.

Playing Behind the Slide: An Interview with Sonny Landreth
Photo: ©2007 Tim Mosenfelderon
You played with John Mayall for a while.

Actually, I worked on his album, A Sense of Place, in 1990. On that project I met my future co-producer, Bobby Field – R. S. Field. And that was another one. I was a huge John Mayall, Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck fan. Way back I’d listen to their music, so I was really honored to get to do that. He was great to work with and the fact that he did a couple of my songs was a huge honor as well.


He got a lot of wear out of “Congo Square.”

Yeah, that’s the one most covered by people.


On your new one, From the Reach, were the tracks all done correspondently?

Not all, but just about all of them. The way I put it to everyone was that I’d do whatever they wanted. Of course, they were invited to come to South Louisiana or I would go to them with the tracks – however they wanted to do it; at home and send it back to me. In most cases, that’s what they did and I had anticipated that. They had all been on heavy touring schedules and were finally home. That way they got to go to their studio with their engineer. So my job, as producer, was to use the Pro Tools technology and capture the moment emotionally. The beauty of this format was that we’d mix as we’d go.

I was able to send each artist the exact mix we were working with. I think that really helped. The twist on this project that was different from other collaborations or guest albums is that I wrote the songs for each of the guests to play on. I hoped to open the door enough because of my intense familiarity with their styles. I’m so into their playing and that helped me as a songwriter to gear towards that. But at the same time, I hoped to keep my own foot in the home soil. And it was as much a tribute to them for me – that’s how I felt about it. That excited me as a songwriter. I was told I was in a lot of trouble, labels getting in the way. They said they wanted to do it and then the red tape; blah blah blah. But it went without a hitch. Everyone was so great about wanting to do this and as their performances came back, it was just so obvious. I was totally blown away by all the performances.


I like the first Clapton contribution, “When I Still Had You.” And as you had mentioned, it’s a lot like the current Clapton style. It’s amazing the way in which the two of you go back and forth. There’s quite a lot going on in there. The second one, the bluesy thing, is good too.

Yeah! I was thinking I’d go through it and maybe use one solo. But then I thought, “Man, I ain’t gonna deny the world any Eric Clapton solos,” so I kept it all on there. [laughs] I thought it would be cool to take a song that represented his pop era, in a way, but it would have a hook and then go from that into a kind of guitar jam. I tried to be adventurous with it.


Playing Behind the Slide: An Interview with Sonny Landreth
The Eric Johnson song, “Milky Way Home,” is a brilliant excursion. It seems as though the both of you had quite a time flying all over that.

After sending the track, his was the first one to come back, in less than a month. I just love his playing – he’s just incredible. We’ve gotten to be friends over the years and we’re going to do some shows together. The great thing this did for me, I mean, it was so much fun. It pushed me because they all played so great. That’s what I like. And it’s good to get out of your comfort zone because you’ve got to get shook up, rattled and rolled. Reach down and bring up the magic. That’s what I always hope for.


The Vince Gill songs are excellent, too. He’s another great guitarist. Rockers don’t always realize the greatness of many of the present country pickers. When he took to the stage at the first Crossroads festival, he kind of blew everyone away.

Yeah, Knopfler and I were talking about that years ago. That guy [Gill] can play anything – any instrument he picks up. He’s an amazing musician and I wanted to hit on that on this album, but we ran out of time. I worked with both him and Dr. John in the studio for this album, but I think that’ll be my next project – guests on all instrumentals. We had an instrumental and he did a real fast chicken pickin’ kind of thing, complex chord changes and stuff, but we just ran out of time. I’ll look forward to getting into that with him. Vince is amazing.


What guitars were you using on From the Reach?

For this album, if you listen to it, I’m on the left and they’re on the right in the mix – for the most part. Another thing I wanted to stick with was to make it more thematic by using the Strats and my Dumble Overdrive Special. That was my main rig. I also used a Demeter on a couple of things – the Vince Gill track. I used the ‘69 Les Paul on the track with Robben, “Way Past Long,” to offset his humbucker. I went for more of a woman tone on the left and he’s got more edge on the right. I used some pedals on some things. I used the Keeley Compressor on a couple of things, the Demeter Compulator on “Uberesso.” I switched between a Demeter head and Dumble head on that song. I used a Zen Drive on “Uberesso.” For the most part, those are Vintage 30 speakers, an old Bandmaster cab and a double cab that Alexander built for me back in ‘95 on my amp. I also used this cool little combo, a little class A called the Goodsell. It’s brilliant. That’s what you hear in the riff on “Milky Way Home” in the verse. It’s real chimey and open-ended. I used various other Fenders for colors and such, but that’s typically what I used with mostly Lindy Fralin pickups.

Man, I’ve got to tell you. I don’t know if you’ve heard about this silent singlecoil backplate system that Lindy Fralin is using, from Suhr [the BPSSC System]. You’ve got to check this out! It’s the latest and greatest thing that has come along in a long time. The way it works it doesn’t alter your tone at all. It works with the two trempots that tap off of the leads for your ground. It’s a big, flat pickup that’s part of the backplate. It’s a larger plate and that’s part of the secret I think. It takes the hum way down to where it’s manageable. They say 85 percent; I don’t know, but it’s a huge difference. In a really noisy environment, you can open up and tweak those trempots back to find the sweet spot, no matter what kind of single-coils you’ve got. I really like Steve’s DiMarzio bridge pickups, the Virtual Vintage are good and I’ve used the DP181s for years – the Fast Track twin blade in the bridge. So I went back and forth with the single-coil, Lindy Fralin’s and then with some of Steve’s pickups.


Playing Behind the Slide: An Interview with Sonny Landreth
Photo: ©2007 Sandro
Do you have anymore interesting stories about the making of the new album From the Reach?

There’s a bunch of things, but the one thing I’m going to miss the most is getting text messages from Eric Clapton. I’d be in a hamburger joint here at home, just getting ready to go to the studio and the thing starts vibrating. I look down at it and it says, “I just finished working on the track, and I’m feeling good about it.”

As it would progress, he’d give me these updates. I’d text him back asking him to sing harmony on “When I Still Had You.” He’d text me back, saying, “Well, I’ll try.” The next morning, he text messages me, saying, “Well, I did the harmony vocal. I think it sounds like crap, but you’re welcome to use it.” [laughs] I then called him up, knowing he was in the studio and he answered the phone laughing. I said, “Man, there’s no way that’s going to sound like crap.” He said, “Well, I just couldn’t phrase it the way you did” – being really critical of himself. But it sounded awesome, of course.


Sonny’s Gearbox
On the road and in the studio:

GUITARS
‘65 and ‘66 Fender Stratocasters
‘88 Fender American Standard
Stratocaster – black, 2-Tek Bridge
‘89 Fender American Standard
Stratocaster – sunburst, Trilogy
Tuning Bridge
‘60 Gibson Les Paul
‘69 Gibson Les Paul
Les Paul with Neil Skinn
TransPerformance tuning system
A red R&B custom built by Mark
Riley, patterned after the National
“Map of the U.S.” electric
PICKUPS
Lindy Fralin/Suhr BPSSC
Pickup System
Steve’s DiMarzio Bridge Pups
DiMarzio Virtual Vintage
DiMarzio DP181 Fast Track Twin
Blade (fit into his “Road Strats”)
AMPS
Dumble Overdrive Special –
100 watts
Demeter TGA-3 – 75 watts
Matchless Chieftain
Matchless DC-30
Marshall 50-watt Head
‘54 Fender Tweed Deluxe
Goodsell Class A Combo
 
SPEAKERS/CABS
Marshall 4x12s w/Vintage 30s
Matchless 2x12 w/Vintage 30s
EFFECTS
Keeley Compressor
Demeter Compulator
Demeter Tremulator
Zendrive
MXR Dyna Comp
Fulltone Fulldrive 2
EH Big Muff
BOSS CE-5 Chorus
BOSS CH-1 Super Chorus
Ibanez Echo Machine Delay
Line 6 POD (in combination with
Demeter or Matchless)
STRINGS
D’Addario EJ22 XL strings,
.013-.56



Sonny Landreth
sonnylandreth.com

He’s worked with Bob Dylan and Arlen Roth, with Tom Waits and Ronnie Earl. And that’s just a few. An interview with the East Coast bluesman who has been


Duke Robillard
He’s worked with Bob Dylan and Arlen Roth, with Tom Waits and Ronnie Earl. And that’s just a few. An interview with the East Coast bluesman who has been quietly dominating the scene for decades.

Often regarded as one of the most comprehensive and proficient blues guitarists today, Duke Robillard views genre boundaries as nothing more than commercial necessity. With a playing style that provides him with the ability to, in his words, “touch all the bases,” Duke has had a passion for delving deeply into blues roots and its subgenres ever since his formative years as a founding member of the New England-based Roomful of Blues. He realized early on that a correlation existed between most pre-1980s American music – from blues, jazz and R&B to bluegrass, rock n’ roll and country – and has enjoyed running the gamut of possibilities in blending these styles and techniques.


Duke Robillard Duke’s calling card has always been an energetic mixture of jump, swing and blues that stirs up dance floors, along with an amorously obsessive connection to the music of Texas bluesman T-Bone Walker. Though he often evokes styles of great players of the past, and frequently flows at intervals along a historic musical timeline, it’s executed in a uniquely fashionable manner. No matter what type of music he’s playing at any given time, the phrasing within his solo work is incredibly diverse and tasteful, with chordal arrangements moving in fluidly invigorating rhythms.

Though Duke has long been recognized for his work with Roomful of Blues and for his stint with The Fabulous Thunderbirds, these highlights were mere stepping stones in the five-decade career of Michael John Robillard. The Woonsocket, Rhode Island-born guitarist, vocalist, songwriter, bandleader, studio musician, and producer gained long-due recognition in the beginning of the new millennium. He won the W.C. Handy award for “Best Blues Guitarist” in both 2000 and 2001, earned a Grammy nomination for “Best Traditional Blues Album” in 2006 for Guitar Groove-A-Rama, and was nominated for the W.C. Handy “Best Instrumentalist” award in the field of guitar in 2006. In 2007, however, he won an award that’s closest to his heart, the Pell Award for Artistic Excellence, given in his home state of Rhode Island. As if this recognition wasn’t enough, B.B. King labeled him “one of the great players.”

Duke Robillard has released about twenty solo albums since the mid ‘80s, all interesting and special in their own right. The latest release from the guitar virtuoso is a dual CD set entitled Duke Robillard’s World Full of Blues. It’s the ideal display of his progression as a mature performer and brilliant musician. It’s also an appropriate title, mainly because of Duke’s all-encompassing technique and vast knowledge of music in relation to the blues. The CD set is two hours of material, both lyrical and instrumental, and 23 superb interpretations of compositions by the likes of T-Bone Walker, Bob Dylan, Booker T. Jones, Bo Diddley, Tom Waits, Jimmy Reed, and of course Duke Robillard. For the love of the instrument and especially for fellow enthusiasts, the guitar used in each recording is cited in the jacket liner notes.

I had the recent pleasure to sit down with the Duke and discuss the many aspects of his World Full of Blues.


Your playing style incorporates blues, jazz, rock, pop, as well as numerous subgenres – probably more so than most other guitarists. Where in the musical spectrum do you find yourself?

Well, the blues is the root of everything I do. When I was very young, I was inspired by my brother’s 45s, back in the ‘50s and early ‘60s. Chuck Berry was a big influence on me. I discovered that the flipsides of some of his records had these slow tunes, like “Deep Feeling” and “In the Wee, Wee Hours.” I didn’t know what they were, but they really moved me. They happened to be blues. I really grew to love this music that, for quite a few years, I didn’t even know what it was.

At the same time, I heard country music – guys like Hank Williams. It was different, but I could see the similarities in the overall sound and chord progressions in relation to other music and to the blues. I even heard the correlation in some jazz. To me, all pre-1980s American music is based in the blues. Whether it is rock, heavy metal, blues, jazz, country, bluegrass or R&B, I hear the blues in everything. That’s why I’m so diverse, as people say – because to me it’s almost all the same.


The music of T-Bone Walker has been significant throughout your life, correct?

Of course – he’s a giant influence on me. When I heard T-Bone it all came together, because he’s all of the above. He’s jazzy and bluesy at the same time. He had some sophisticated phrasing in double timing and stuff that only jazz players had done before him. So that became an instant influence on me; I took to it immediately like a fish to water.


Do genre boundaries in blues and jazz actually exist?

Well, there are boundaries within every type of music and that’s pretty much because of business. The boundaries are commercial, rather than musical. I mean, there are musical boundaries, but the reason they’re divided up so much is because of marketing.


How do you break through those?

You can blend and make your own sound out of anything. I mean, in today’s world of incredible media you can experience everything, so why not? Whatever works is the way to go – there are things that you blend that don’t work sometimes, and there are things that do work. For me, it’s been fun to touch on all of the bases, mix up the stew, and put my own twist on things. It has been a great thing for me, and it has kept me very excited about music over the years.


Who has been the most influential guitarist on you, as a teacher and as a person?

The guitarists who have been the biggest influences on me are the ones I’ve never met. Most have died before I got a chance to meet them. Some of the biggest ones are T-Bone Walker, Charlie Christian, B.B. King, Freddie King and Gatemouth Brown, along with Guitar Slim, Johnny Guitar Watson, Lowell Fulsom, Tiny Grimes, Kenny Burrell and Herb Ellis. There are so many!

I was lucky to be able to play with Herb Ellis, make two albums with him and get to know him. He is a personal hero of mine because of it – he’s a very nice, warm guy who made me feel like I was doing something. When I recorded with him I was extremely nervous. I was afraid I really wasn’t at his level and that I shouldn’t be recording with him. We went into the studio to cut two songs together and it ended up being two albums.


How gigantic is the honor to have been a founding member of Roomful of Blues? Easily New England’s longest running premier blues band, Roomful is on a pedestal with the best predominantly- white blues bands of all time.

Well, you know, it’s so far in my past. I’m proud of the group and the work I did with them, and I’m glad that they’re still going. It was my beginning in a lot of ways, so it means a lot to me. It was my first band out of high school, so when I started that band I was really intent on creating the sounds that I loved. I wasn’t concerned with commercial success. The fact that it has remained and done well for so long is a great thing.

I’m actually working on a CD now that is 80% material that I did in the early version of Roomful of Blues. It’s kind of a tribute to my heroes back then. It is a jump blues album, which is something I wanted to explore. That’s why I added the horns to Roomful of Blues, to explore the ‘40s jump blues sound. This CD is kind of going back to the beginning for me. It’s kind of fun, but weird at the same time. I had Rich Lataille, the sax player from Roomful, play on quite a bit of it. It’s just funny how, after all these years, we played the same way together as we did back then – it’s like getting into a time capsule. [laughs]


What was it like to replace Jimmie Vaughan in the Fabulous Thunderbirds?

Jimmie and Kim [Wilson, vocals] and I were friends, all the guys really. Before they were really known, they came up to the New England area. We used to hire them to open for us at gigs because we wanted our crowd to hear them. We got to know them and jammed a lot together. There was a lot of musical friendship between the two bands. I knew them so well that it was a natural, easy progression to walk into that band. I respected Jimmie’s playing a lot, you know. It was a fun period for me – I did miss doing my own thing, but I enjoyed it and I’m glad I did it.


You’ve earned quite a lot of recognition and awards over the years. W.C. Handy Awards, Best Blues Guitarist four times out of five. B.B. King has said that you’re one of the great players.

The Houston Post declared you “one of God’s guitarists.” The New York Times labeled you “a soloist of stunning force and originality.” You were nominated for a Grammy for Best Traditional Blues Album for Guitar Groove-A-Rama in 2006 and received a Rhode Island Pell Award for Artistic Excellence in 2007. Has it been difficult to live up to such high standards and expectations on a regular basis?

You know, it’s great to win all of these, and sometimes you wonder if you deserve all of this. Why is this all coming together in a close period? You wonder about all of these things, especially if you feel like me, as I’m developing kind of an arthritic physical handicap. I start thinking, Geez, when I was really going strong and I had all of the facility in the world, I never got these awards. Of course, everybody ponders things like that. Am I deserving of this? I think any artist has a tendency to second guess himself and reevaluate his talent, what he’s doing with it. It’s a serious thing, and I take it very seriously. But it certainly is a great thrill to be honored in all of these ways.




“ Whatever works is the way to go – there are things that you blend that don’t work sometimes, and there are things that do work. For me, it’s been fun to touch on all of the bases, mix up the stew, and put my own twist on things. It has been a great thing for me, and it has kept me very excited about music over the years.”




Duke Robillard I’m quite fond of “Blues-A-Rama” from your 2006 release, Guitar Groove-ARama. It’s amazing how you went through the different styles of these great guitarists and influences – I don’t think many players could have pulled that off as well as you did. Did a lot of time and effort go into that, or did it just come naturally?

Well, it was kind of a one take thing. It’s something that I’ve played a little bit over my career, on certain nights when I had my trio. I could easily take any direction because of the three-piece setup, without worrying about tripping up other musicians. It was something I’d do occasionally off the cuff.

I had Guitar Groove-A-Rama all recorded and I decided I was going to add another tune to it. So we went in to do it and in the second chorus I go from E for Muddy Waters down to Guitar Slim in F. I have to use a capo for that because it''s the only way to get that style. My biggest problem was putting the capo on and getting it right, so it wouldn''t fret out and sound weird or out of tune. [laughs] Then I had to take it off and continue the song. I had a few false starts, but I think I got it by the third time. Luckily, it was right in the beginning so if there was a problem I wasn''t like ten minutes into the song.

By the time we got to the third one I got the capo to stay on right and everything stayed in tune. That was the third try and the third take of it, so it was completely live, straight out in the studio.


How did you go about acquiring the tone needed to replicate each style?

Well, as they say, it''s all in the fingers. I played it all on one guitar, of course, a Les Paul. I had a Tubescreamer, so when I needed it more distorted I would have that tone. I also went between my fingers and a pick. I have a way of tucking the pick under my middle finger, and playing with my first finger and thumb. I played a lot of the styles with my fingers and some with a pick. Of course, I used different pickups for certain parts. Between all that, I was able to replicate all of the tones.


That''s pretty good.

It''s mostly in the fingers. The other things help to enhance it, to make it sound like the guys. But something I''ve always had a talent for and really enjoy is figuring out how my favorite guitar players got their sound, and how to make it sound like they did. Play with your fingers and snap the strings to make it sound like Johnny "Guitar" Watson. You play country blues, like Muddy Waters, with your fingers. To get different artists'' sounds, you do different things. That''s almost like a hobby of mine, in a way. What has kept me very excited about music is trying to get those tones, because tone is such a big part of it ­ the sound and the nuances of the sound. That''s why I like to produce, because I''m excited about the sounds of recordings. Everything I''ve listened to, which are millions of records over the years, are stored in my head. It''s kind of a library of sounds.


Let''s talk a bit about the new record, Duke Robillard''s World Full Of Blues. It''s a nice double set with a lot of good music, diverse in sound and tone. It''s really kind of a condensed sample of the broad musical personality of Duke Robillard, in my opinion. Obviously a guitar CD, I like how you list the guitars used on it, like the ES-335, the R8, the Gretsch and all. It''s an excellent album.

Thank you. I had a lot of fun making it. I''m very proud of it because it touches pretty much everything I do. It touches on all of the different elements of what my music is. I felt it was too much to get on one CD. I''ve been bugging my label for years to let me do a double CD and they finally agreed. I feel I''ve made a statement now. It''s pretty cohesive, too ­ it has a listenable flow. It was tricky to pick the music and sequence it so it didn''t sound like flipping through radio stations. [laughs]


Duke Robillard How do you go about choosing a certain guitar for a specific song? Does it depend more on style or tone?

You know, it''s such a personal thing. I could go onstage with a Telecaster, or I could go on with a big, fat guitar. People tell me that I sound like Duke no matter what. It really doesn''t matter what guitar you play; to me, it''s all part of this guitar obsession I have. With certain instruments, I can get closer to where I want to get. I experiment with that in the studio, but usually it''s not even an experiment. Generally speaking, I just pick what I think is going to feel and sound closest to what I''m trying to do. I get good results by doing that.

It''s just fun to play a bunch of instruments. I keep trading them ­ I trade them like baseball cards in a way. I hang on to a few that I really love, the older guitars, but I''m always trying new things, seeing what kind of sound I can get out of this or that.


In talking about the sounds you get out of guitars, you do an interesting and gritty cover of Dylan''s "Everything Is Broken" on the new album.

Oh, yeah.


I like the sound of the slide guitar you use on that one ­ the Galanti, I think it was.

It''s a Galanti, yeah. It''s a really cool instrument. Not exactly high tech, but it''s got a unique sound. It doesn¹t sound like anything else.


As you mention in the liner notes, the T-Bone Walker penned "Treat Me So Lowdown" segues nicely between a swing and funk groove. That is an interesting rhythm, and the lead guitar is enticing throughout. I believe it''s the Epiphone Zephyr Deluxe Regent.

Yes. The Zephyr Deluxe Regent is sitting here right next to me. That''s one of my favorite guitars. It''s really an incredible instrument.


Though you''ve been friends since the ''60s, supposedly you and Sugar Ray Norcia recorded together for the first time in the James Cotton instrumental “Slam Hammer.”

Yeah, we played together quite a bit, but we never really recorded together until recently. I’m on quite a bit of his latest album as well, maybe half of it. But it’s the first time we’ve recorded together. It’s cool; it has been a lot of fun and he’s such a great player and singer. You don’t often hear him in a situation where he’s just playing, backing someone up. I think he really shines on those cuts. He played great and I think they were only one or two takes.


I noticed that your old friend, Al Basile (of early Roomful of Blues fame), is on a couple of tunes on your new CD. The CD he released last year, Groovin’ in the Mood Room, is very good. Your contributions to that were fantastic as well.

Thank you. He has a new one coming out soon. I think it’s his best yet. He’s becoming an excellent songwriter.


Yes, he is. The last song on the CD set, “Stretchin’,” is really very nice. It’s basically an improvisational jam.

I’m a big fan of that style – jazzy and bluesy organ combo stuff from Prestige Records of the ‘60s.I’m a big fan of that style – jazzy and bluesy organ combo stuff from Prestige Records of the ‘60s.


Do you get into much improvisation when playing live?

Sure. When you play any song a number of times you remember what it was you played. Naturally, you’ll often go for what you remember as being the best of what you played before, but I always try to come up with something new. Some nights the solos are totally improvised and sometimes I’m relying on the best licks I’ve played before. You never know. That’s the beauty of music – you never know what’s going to happen.


Duke Robillard You used a ‘58 Les Paul reissue on the next song, “You’re Killin’ Me Baby,” and it has an incredible tone. Where do you think the reissues and historics sit, in comparison to vintage instruments?

I take each instrument one at a time. I don’t think you can say that every old Stratocaster or old Les Paul is a great guitar. I’ve owned some that weren’t and I’ve owned some that were. To me, the age only matters when it’s got an acoustic body. An arched or flattop guitar is when it matters most, because when the wood gets old it dries out and sounds better. It’s true with solidbody guitars as well, but I’m very happy with the vintage reissues of all those instruments, whether they be Gibson, Epiphone, Fender, or Gretsch. They’re all really nice and extremely well made. I hate to think where we’d be if they didn’t start doing that because there’s only so many of those original guitars – they’ve become too pricey for people to buy. I love the fact that I can buy a Les Paul with a big neck like a real ‘50s Les Paul. They make the pickups great now – those ‘57 classic pickups sound incredible. To me, they’re just as good as the old ones, though I’ve never had a real ‘58 Les Paul because I’m not rich. [Laughs]

Except for a ‘58 Les Paul, I’ve had nearly every desirable vintage guitar. I’ve had ’57 and ‘54 Stratocasters and a Broadcaster. I had an early goldtop Les Paul. I’ve had an L5 and a Super 400. I’ve had nearly every classic guitar and I don’t think I paid over $500 for any of them. If I had all of those guitars now, I could retire with what they’re worth. But I only own instruments when I play them. If I get an instrument and it sits unused in my guitar closet for too long then I just sell or trade it. They’re there for me to play, not for me to collect. I get them playing as good as they can possibly play. I set them up. If they need refretting, I refret them. I put them out there in the hope of someone using them as a player’s instrument and not as a collector’s item.


Do you do the labor on the guitar yourself?

I do the setups but I don’t do the fretwork or anything. I do some of the electronic work, depending on the guitar – I let someone else do archtops, because it’s just too much of a pain to pull all of the stuff out of those little holes.


Let’s talk more about your gear.

Well, as far as amps go, I have several amps that I like, but the ones I use mostly are either a Fender Deluxe Reverb reissue or a Louis Electric amp that was custom made for me. Louis [Rosano] calls it “The Duke.” I don’t know if he has another name for it for other people [or for retail purposes], but originally it was a 12” and a 10”. I had him build me another cabinet that was smaller because I like them to be a little more compact. I have a 2x10 version of it now, and a 40-watt amplifier.

As for guitars, these days I use several Gibson models, and Epiphones are my guitars of choice. I do occasionally use a Strat or a Tele, but I’ve got an ES-355 Custom Shop guitar with a baritone switch. It’s particularly beautiful and a beautiful sounding instrument. I’m also using a ‘57 Les Paul Goldtop Reissue, as well as an Epiphone John Lee Hooker Sheraton, which is an incredible guitar. I use my Zephyr Deluxe Regent quite a bit – an old 1949 model. I also have a Strat that I built myself out of Warmoth parts, and an Esquire. I also use a contemporary Les Paul Junior and an Explorer that sounds amazing. The Explorer is a great guitar – there’s something about that massive piece of wood. Those are the guitars I use these days for recording and playing live.

I’ve also got a lot of cool archtop guitars. I’ve got a cool ES-350 from 1952, a 1946 Epiphone Emporer, a 1939 Epiphone Broadway, a 1944 Epiphone Blackstone and a 1938 Gibson L7. Epiphone and Gibson, to me, have always been the two top guitar makers, especially of archtops and flattops. I love flattop and hollowbody guitars in general. I use my Sheraton all the time, along with a modern Broadway.

Epiphone’s Elitist Byrdland is also an incredible guitar; they are kind of like Gibson Custom Shop guitars. The Elitists are made in Japan, with beautiful high-end woods and incredible craftsmanship. These days, Epiphones are kind of like budget Gibsons in a sense, but they’re really quality instruments. Sometimes people ask me if I ever change the pickups in new Epiphones, but I’ve never run into one in which the pickups don’t sound great. I think they’re made really well right from the beginning.

The main effect I use is a Seymour Duncan Pickup Booster, which is a great little preamp and gives you a clean boost. I like to run my amp low and use the Pickup Booster for a fatter tone. I also go back and forth between a Bad Monkey Distortion pedal, a Tube Screamer, a Boss Blues Driver and Boss Super Overdrive, but the Tonebone Radical Trimode is one that I really love. It’s an actual tube pedal, and recording with it is amazing. It has two 12AX7s in it, and you can switch between two different settings to get different amounts of overdrive. You get phenomenal harmonic distortion with it.

I use D’Addario strings – depending on the guitar, I usually use the nickel wound variety. I use .10s on Les Pauls and Fender-style guitars, and .11s or .12s on archtops. I also use flatwounds on a lot of my older guitars, to get different sounds – usually the ones with floating pickups like D’Armond pickups.


Have you reached your goal as a guitarist, or is that a never-ending road?

Hopefully it’s a never-ending road. I’ve pondered that question myself, in the sense that I’m getting older. I have pretty bad arthritis in my left shoulder which affects my playing to some extent – I’m not quite as fast as I used to be. But I think I’m continuing to get better, from all the music I’ve ingested and all the music I’ve played. I suppose this is something that most people experience, since it’s rare to not have something slow you down as you age.

Now I’m getting noticed more than ever; I’m getting all of these awards, but at the same time it’s getting harder to sing, and I’m slower than I used to be. Still, when I listen to my recent recordings, I think I’m better on them than when I had more facility and my voice was in better shape. But that’s like with anybody; I think Louis Armstrong always sounded great, right up to the end. He couldn’t quite hit the same high notes that he did when he was young, but I see him as a good role model for what I want to achieve in my life, which is lasting musical maturity. I just want to continue to mature and use what I have left of my talent until the end.


Exclusive: Two Tracks from Duke’s newest release, Duke Robillard’s World Full of Blues!

Stretchin’
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You’re Killin’ Me Baby
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ROBILLARD Gearbox
When Duke plays the blues, here’s what he uses:

Guitars
Gibson Custom Shop
ES-335 w/ baritone switch
Les Paul ’57 Goldtop Reissue
Les Paul Junior
Gibson Explorer
Epiphone
John Lee Hooker Sheraton
Epiphone Sheraton
1949 Epiphone
Zephyr Deluxe Regent
Custom-built Strat
Fender Esquire
Amps
Fender Deluxe Reverb Reissue
Louis Electric
Custom Amp
Effects
Seymour Duncan
Pickup Booster
Digitech Bad Monkey
Ibanez Tube Screamer
Tonebone Radical Trimode
Boss Blues Driver
Boss Super Overdrive
Boss Chromatic Tuner
Accessories
D’Addario strings



Duke Robillard
dukerobillard.com
stonyplainrecords.com
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