Roy Rogers' Split Decision

July 1, 2009

NAMED AFTER THE SINGING COWBOY WHO repeatedly rode Trigger off into the celluloid sunset and plastered his name on a chain of burger joints, San Francisco Bay Area-native Roy Rogers has since re-appropriated the name for himself on the strength of his funkified roots repertoire and wicked slide chops. He released his first album with harpist David Burgin in 1976, and then gigged around the Bay with the Delta Kings in 1980, before capturing blues legend John Lee Hooker’s attention. The Hook not only asked him to be part of his Coast to Coast Band from 1982 to 1986, but also hired him to play on and produce his 1989 comeback album, The Healer, as well as 1991’s Mr. Lucky.

Since then, Rogers has released 11 studio albums, including this year’s swampy and swanky Split Decision [Blind Pig], which is packed with his deft slide chops and a smorgasbord of layered acoustic and electric tones.

Your tones are pretty adventurous on this album. You’ve got everything from killswitch sounds to stuttering slide and pensive nylon-string work.

I’ve always used a lot of doubled-up guitars and different guitar textures, but in the past I’ve had more of an acoustic-oriented, or solid, straight-ahead guitar sound. I wanted this to have very distinct textures and a much edgier guitar sound.

Did you use a lot of gear you haven’t used before this time around?

No, it was still mainly stuff I’ve used for a while. I have a wealth of guitars. Everything from a ’60s Epiphone 12-string—which I used on songs like “Bitter Rain”—to a ’57 Fender Strat reissue, a Gibson J-45 acoustic, a ’58 Gibson Les Paul Jr., and a custom doubleneck built by Sean Chappell. Of course, I also used my 1970 Martin 0-16 New Yorker with a DeArmond pickup—that’s kind of a signature guitar for me.

What is it you find so appealing about the New Yorker?

I love the playability of the short, wide neck—it’s almost a classical-style neck. It gives me a lot of breadth to move with slide playing and fingering. I’ve always liked small bodies, and I’ve never needed a cutaway because I go up there anyway. I like the fact that the small body and the DeArmond pickup let me play at a significant volume and control it—keep it right on the edge of feedback. If I had a bigger guitar body, I couldn’t control it as well. And I’ve always loved that sound. It’s also comfortable to play. I do beat them up, though. I’ve gone through a number of them, and I’m going through another one now. Even if I put a pickguard on them, my picking seems to dig into the body of the guitar.

Tell me about your incredibly compact Chappell doubleneck.

That’s one of a kind. It’s got two 6-string necks with slotted headstocks. Why? The necks can be closer together because of the tuning pegs, which point backward like on a Rickenbacker. And I wanted a smaller body that was lighter than your average doubleneck. That guitar is always on the road with me. One neck is tuned to D and one is tuned to G, so I can use different necks for different tunes—or both in some tunes. The low neck has a single P-100 pickup for a little more kick, and the top neck has two P-90s.

Which slides and strings do you prefer?

I use a Jim Dunlop 212 Pyrex slide and a Texas Blues Tube electropolished metal slide. For strings, I use D’Addarios gauged .013, .016, .022w—or .024w on a heavier guitar— .032, .042, and .052. I use Martin Silk & Steel strings for my New Yorker. I also use Shubb capos.

What about amps?

I have an old 10-watt Valco amp that’s got the best sustain and distortion. It looks like a suitcase and has a 10" speaker. I use that and a Bad Cat 30R and my Mesa/Boogie Mark IIB with an EV speaker that I’ve used for years. I also use a Motion Sound rotating speaker for songs like “Bitter Rain” and “I Would Undo Anything.”

Unlike a lot of blues and roots players, you’re a big fan of modulation effects, particularly the Arion Chorus pedal. Do you use that in the studio, too?

I’ve used chorusing for a while—I like the way it widens the texture. And when you have a direct sound like a miked acoustic paired with a chorused guitar, it gives you more of a bite. I like the Arion, which is a fairly inexpensive pedal, because it gives your signal a bit of gain boost in addition to the chorus.

“Your Sweet Embrace,” with flamenco guitarist Ottmar Liebert, is eerily gorgeous.

That melody had been going around my head for a while. I had the chordal arrangement, and in the bridge part—which is where Ottmar played—I felt we needed a different texture. I’d met him recently, and when he heard the track he said he’d love to play something there. I sent it to him and he soloed on it and then sent it back, and I put it into Pro Tools. I was delighted that he consented to play on the song, because his part takes it into a different dimension. I played the New Yorker on that, and I felt like it needed a little thickness so my engineer Joel Jaffe and I tried a bunch of stuff and ended up adding a lot of delay and reverb for that eerie sound.

What’s the most important thing to remember about playing slide?

First, slide guitar mimics the human voice much more than a lot of guitar playing you hear. It lets you get all those in-between tones. So, if you think of it like a voice that’s speaking, it can really influence your playing. The classic illustration of this is Robert Johnson. If you listen to him and Tampa Red and all the blues guys of that time period, the guitar and the voice are doing the same thing. They would sing a lyric, and then oft times they’d sing half the next lyric and then answer the last part of the lyric with the guitar. Thinking of it that way makes it much more of an emotional statement. Second, you don’t have to play slide guitar separately from “regular” guitar. A lot of players play slide, and then they take it off. But for me, it’s part of the whole thing. I use my fretting- hand fingers to fret chords and play slide, and I can play all kinds of augmented and ninth chords while I’m doing it. It’s a different approach to the instrument, and everyone has to find their own approach—but I find it in no way limiting.

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