Derek Trucks: Slide Sans Frontiers

March 15, 2006
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Young TrucksTO MANY 6-STRING CONNOISSEURS, DEREK TRUCKS IS the most technically adept, original, and soulful rock guitarist of his generation, and scores of slide fanatics rank him among the finest to ever lay glass on steel, regardless of age or musical style. A child prodigy, the Florida native began playing guitar at age nine, and a year later started touring under his dad’s watchful eye. Before long, Trucks had his own band and was a full-fledged music professional, wowing crowds with his Coricidin bottle and red Gibson SG. While most of his peers were hanging around a mall or a skatepark, the teenage Trucks logged thousands of miles on the road, playing gigs, gaining experience, and forging his sound.Since the late ’90s, Trucks has split his time between the Allman Brothers (his uncle, drummer Butch Trucks, is a founding member) and his own outfit, the Derek Trucks Band. Between the two groups, Trucks typically plays more than 300 shows a year. On Songlines [Columbia]—Trucks’ newest album and the DTB’s first studio recording in four years—the 26-year-old slide savant moves effortlessly from the raw cry of Mississippi Delta blues to the keening tones of the Middle Eastern oud and Indian sarod. More than any other guitarist, Trucks has integrated the melismatic, microtonal melodies of Eastern music with the hot, harp-inspired sound of juke-joint slide.

“About five years ago,” Trucks told GP in an Oct. ’02 interview, “I discovered [Indian sarod master] Ali Akbar Khan. I first saw a video of him performing, and it completely wiped me out. As I looked deeper into Indian classical music, I was inspired by the approach and attitude of the musicians. They dedicate 99 percent of their lives to their instruments—it’s everything. I also borrow ideas from vocalists. In fact, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan [the late Sufi devotional singer] is as important to me as any guitarist.”

Where and how did you record Songlines?

Our producer, Jay Joyce, has a studio in his house in Nashville—a pretty small, modest, semi-basement deal. When [DTB lead singer] Mike Mattison and I went there for a week to do some writing and preproduction, it felt so comfortable we figured we’d just do the album at Jay’s place. We put the drums in a room next to the control room, where the rest of the band was set up to play. There’s a sliding glass door between the rooms, so we had plenty of eye contact and we could easily talk to each other between takes.

What’s the advantage of playing in the control room?

For one thing, I didn’t use headphones at all on this record. I’ve never liked them—it always feels sterile to play while listening to the band through headphones. Jay miked up my amp in another room, and we listened to what we were playing through the studio monitors at a comfortably loud volume. It felt like we were performing together onstage, and I think you can hear that in the music. With this band, it’s much more about getting the right vibe than having a massive studio to work in.

How did you develop the tracks?

We basically recorded one song a day. We’d start deconstructing a tune in the morning, decide how we’d approach it, and then rebuild it from the bottom up. We’d mix it and have it done by the evening. In the past, we’d choose the tunes and then cut all the basic tracks, which means you have ten or 15 songs half done before you begin recording the vocals, or overdubbing extra percussion, keyboard, and guitar. For me, Jay’s method works much better for constructing an album, because you’re recording all the song’s parts when the ideas are fresh. Concentrating on one song at a time, you stay connected to it, and everybody gets to hang out and work as a team. We live together as a group, so there are all kinds of different dynamics between different people. This record comes closer to capturing that than anything we’ve done before. We even tried to record the songs in the sequence that would be on the album. Music flows more naturally when you know you won’t be trying to fit puzzle pieces together at the end of a project.

Cutting one song a day is fast.

Some people handle recording studios and the recording process with kid gloves—they make it too precious or too clinical. Sometimes it’s better just to do it, and Jay’s take on recording is very much that way. He didn’t spend hours and hours tweaking a drum sound; he threw up the faders, got what he wanted, and that was it. There are a million ways to go about making an album, but we’re trying to get in touch with people, and that’s about being immediate. For me, going in with that attitude is better than stressing out and trying to make a perfect record. I’m after an urgent sound, and Jay captured that. I like my guitar sounds on Songlines better than any of our other albums.

Why is that?

In the past, it was more about capturing what the band does live, but with this record we decided to explore different sonic areas. Jay helped me find tones that would serve the tune, even if they were quirky or unexpected. It’s tough trying to find contemporary sounds that feel organic and not forced, but Jay is really good at that.

On this album, you play quite a bit of resonator guitar. Tell us how you got those tones.

I have an old ’36 National that once belonged to Bukka White. I found it maybe eight years ago in Atlanta. I remember calling around and borrowing cash from people saying, “I found Bukka’s guitar, I need that thing.” For a while I was scared to play it—there are some demons in that guitar. This National has such a distinctive tone—it sounds regal at times and trashy at times, which is nice for certain tunes.

Jay is also a guitar player, so he has all kinds of odd instruments lying around. Some of the resonator guitar on this album is his old red Supro. The cone is aluminum, but the rest of the body is fiberglass. It’s a weird beater guitar, but it has a unique sound. I really had to lay into it to it get it to speak, but its cutting tone worked really well on “Chevrolet.”

On “Chevrolet,” did you record the Supro at the same time as the vocal?

Yeah, that was a completely live track with Mike and me together in one room, and Rico [Yonrico Scott] and the Count [M’butu] playing percussion in the other room. We originally intended to come in with the full electric band after the first few acoustic verses, but once we heard the percussion beneath the guitar and vocals, it felt so good we decided to leave it at that and simply add clavinet and a few weird keyboard sounds.

Which resonator did you play on “I Wish I Knew”?

It’s that Supro again on the first half of the tune. It’s a unique instrument; I’ll have to track one down or run off with Jay’s.

What about your electric guitars?

I played all the electric parts on my Gibson SG. It’s a 2000 ’61 Reissue; I converted the vibrato to a fixed tailpiece, but otherwise it’s pretty stock. In pre-production, I played some tracks on a D’Angelico, but I don’t think any of that made it to the record.

Does your SG have stock pickups?

I’ve gone through a few different things, but I believe those are Seymour Duncans in there now. You know, I don’t pay attention to gear that much. I change pickups around until the guitar sounds good.

What amps did you use?

Mostly my trusty Fender Super Reverb with cheap Pyle speakers. But during the sessions its transformer went down, so while the Super was being repaired I’d plug into to whatever Jay had lying around. One was a Matchless—that’s his main amp. I don’t know the model [for details, see “Trucks’ Hot Wheels”]. I was worried that putting a new transformer in the Super would ruin its sound. The amp is different now, but it still has that ring to it. Maybe it’s like having your favorite blanket as a kid. My sound might not actually be in the amp, but I’m more comfortable playing with it than anything else.

What tuning did you use for your slide and fretted parts?

I played everything in open E [E, B, E, G#, B, E].

What kind of slide did you use, and did you play with a pick or fingertips?

I like the Dunlop Pyrex slide that’s a recreation of the Coricidin bottle Duane Allman used. I use the large version, but it’s still pretty light. And I always attack the strings with my fingertips; I’ve noticed most slide players end up playing fingerstyle because that gives them the ability to mute individual strings with their picking-hand fingers.

And what kind of strings do you use?

They’re DR nickel-wound strings; I use the same custom gauge on both my SG and the resonator guitars—.011, .014, .017, .026, .036, and .046. The third string is always unwound.

Many electric slide guitarists have a brash, cutting tone, but yours is sweet and singing—almost like a violin. What’s your secret?

It’s mostly about getting a sound in your head, and then tweaking your gear until you get there. But sometimes you don’t have to do anything, it’s simply second nature. It’s easy to lose track of why you’re getting a sound if you analyze it too much. You need to know what you’re going for and then leave it at that. I notice if I fiddle with my stuff too much, I end up getting away from where I want to be. I tend to go, “Okay, it’s working. Let’s just grab some backup tubes, plug in, and do this gig.” I always live on the neck pickup, that’s a lot of it. That cutting sound comes from playing slide with the bridge pickup.

Who are your sonic inspirations?

When I started playing slide, the first sound I was going for was the Duane Allman electrified-harmonica tone. Then I spent years listening to the vocals on Donny Hathaway and early Stevie Wonder records, Wurlitzer piano, and Ali Akbar Khan’s sarod. All of these sounds mix around in my head, and eventually they come out in what I play.

Occasionally on Songlines, you venture into the world of effects—a departure for you. Take the crazy solo in “All I Do,” for example. Did you track with the effect or add it after the fact?

I cut that solo with it. Jay has a huge rack of pedals he uses for different colors, and he talked me into taking a few passes with an octave box. We wanted that solo to be as out as possible. He even muted the band tracks and had me solo without accompaniment, but we wound up keeping what I did with the band.

What approaches do you use to generate such outside lines?

I’ve picked up some ideas playing with Jimmy Herring, who does a lot of outside stuff. Sometimes I’ll lean on notes outside the key, or bounce around in a whole-tone scale, or play through cycles that John Coltrane used. He had a way of stacking intervals that keep going more and more outside until everything rounds out again.

“Mahjoun” starts off with a growling kora-like part that plays call-and-response with another guitar. What’s going on there?

I’m playing both parts, using the SG on each. I’m attacking the main line—the one that starts the tune—using the side of a pick. I was trying to emulate a Moroccan oud player I’d heard. That first line is me basically hanging on the low-E string with the Super Reverb fairly cranked; the second, clean part is the Super turned way down.

A-ha, a pick. What kind?

I found a medium gauge Susan Tedeschi pick lying around; it’s the only way to get that sound [laughs]. “Mahjoun” came from a

4-track demo I’d recorded at home. I capture tons of ideas this way, just messing around and not thinking of using them on a band record. But when Jay heard it during our week of pre-production, he said, “You should use some of that.” I never visualized one of these ideas working its way into a band tune, but now I see that in the studio, you can get away with these things. It’s fascinating.

So you experienced a conceptual breakthrough while recording Songlines?

Yes, this album was a great learning experience. Once you get a record you feel good about under your belt, it starts to solidify what you’re trying to do as a group, and this even translates into how we perform onstage. It was a turning point for us; we came out of the studio a changed band with a new confidence in our music.

Can you elaborate?

You get into a routine of how you play things live, and that becomes locked in. We wanted to shake it up a bit, so when we got ready to record tunes we’d been performing forever, we completely rethought our arrangements. It made everyone realize there are other ways to present our songs. Just because there are five or six musicians in the group, it doesn’t mean five or six people have to be playing all the time. You can have a duo or trio for a while, and that’s how we approached this record. For instance, our percussionist Count M’butu can carry a tune with a shaker. If he is playing an African percussion part, it can drive the tune and we’ll play to that. You don’t need a full drumset all the time. Musically, there’s a lot more trust within the group; we’re more relaxed and we’ve learned to rely on each other in a different way.

Songlines features a piece by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan—an elaborate, 10-minute performance with tricky melodic and rhythmic shifts. Was that hard to nail in the studio?

Strangely, that was probably the easiest tune to record because we’ve been hitting it on the road for so long, it was just a matter of getting a good take. That was one arrangement we didn’t mess with too much. I guess it was both the easiest and the hardest because there’s no toying with the tune—you either get it or you don’t.

In “Revolution,” you switch between slide and fretted guitar. Did you do the parts in the same pass or track them independently?

In the past I might have done it all in the same pass, but this time I came back and overdubbed the straight solo. When you’re not worried about knocking everything out in one pass, you relax and play differently. Being able to go back and try two or three takes gives you the confidence to fly, although because of that you might end up using the first take anyway. You stumble across things you maybe wouldn’t playing live, because you’d rather fall on your face in the studio than in front of an audience. Of course, it’s fun to fall on your face in front of an audience every once in a while, just to humble yourself.

Exploring your history, it doesn’t take long before Col. Bruce Hampton pops into the picture. Who is he and how has he affected your musical development?

He’s kind of the music guru of the South East. He seems to get his hands on a lot of musicians right at that stage when they’re starting to understand things or when they’re getting discouraged. He was really good with Jimmy Herring and Oteil Burbridge [bassist in the Allman Brothers, and brother of Kofi Burbridge, the DTB’s keyboard and flute wizard], shaking them out of that and showing them a whole world of musical possibilities. Aquarium Rescue Unit and the Codetalkers are two of his bands. He is one of those guys who really gets music and is good at communicating that to people.

The Colonel was the one who turned me on to John Coltrane, Sun Ra and his tenor saxophonist John Gilmore, Son House, and Bukka White. I might have come around to all these musicians, but being exposed to them at age 14 changed the way I thought about music. It showed me the possibilities, from top to bottom: The ugly beauty of Son House playing out of tune but singing his ass off, or the other side of it, which is a record like Coltrane’s A Love Supreme—a musician’s life’s work coming together at one moment in the studio.

You’ve been playing with this core band for many years. What are the challenges of keeping a group together in this era of short-term projects?

Keeping a band together can be hard, especially with all the other schedules involved. My wife [Susan Tedeschi] has her own group, and playing in the Allman Brothers can take up half the year for me. It gets complicated, but I’ve been fortunate to have musicians that are loyal and have hung in there. They saw the light at the end of the tunnel, even when it was really faint.

This record was hard in one respect: If you’re with a major label, as we are with Columbia, and you’ve recorded two or three albums, they want to shift it up if you’re not selling a boatload of records. The label was really trying to get me away from my group—there was a lot of pressure to not have the band on this album. Once we finished the record and the people at the label heard it, they felt more comfortable, but it took a lot of kicking and screaming to get this album done. Sometimes you have to hit people over the head with something good to make them see it.

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