“I STILL GET A CHARGE OUT OF THE GUITAR,” SAYS 66
year-old legend Robbie Robertson. “But it’s not the same charge
I got when I was a teenager. When I pick up the guitar now, I’m
not practicing licks or jamming, it’s for writing. Every time I pick
it up I’m searching for something, and when I find it—whether
it’s a simple rhythmic line or a fully realized song—I get a different
kind of satisfaction than I did just practicing licks.”
When Robertson’s career began in the late ’50s, he was a wideeyed
gunslinger, well versed in hand-to-hand barroom guitar
combat. His time with rock and roll pioneer Ronnie Hawkins
showed Robertson’s 6-string voice to be searing and ferocious,
with over-the-top string bending and hedonistic pinch harmonics
peppering his feral, Tele-centric style. But by the time Robertson
and his musical cohorts—Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Richard
Manuel, and Garth Hudson—began writing and performing as
the Band, Robertson’s guitar style had become strikingly sublime.
Instead of macho string bending and extended solos, Robertson’s
playing became the ultimate servant to the song—sparse,
funky, and ultra-melodic.
When his time with the Band ended in 1976, Robertson produced,
acted, and started to work on film soundtracks as both
a consultant and a songwriter. He has worked on a boatload of
Martin Scorsese films, from Raging Bull to 2009’s Shutter Island
among many others, so it’s easy to see why Robertson has only
released a smattering of solo albums in the in the 35 years since
he and the Band parted ways. But with How to Become Clairvoyant
[429 Records/Savoy], Robertson’s fifth solo record, he has once
again entered the solo artist fray. And to think
the seeds of the album were sewn with Robertson
simply kicking it with an old friend.
“I was hanging out with Eric Clapton—we
go way back—and we didn’t have anything
particular in mind other than enjoying telling
each other stories and playing guitar a
little bit,” explains Robertson, who performed
at Clapton’s 2007 Crossroads festival. “Eric
and I messed around with a few song ideas
until we eventually had to go our separate
ways. A couple of years later I accidentally
stumbled upon the tunes that we had worked
on, and I thought, ‘Man, this sounds good.’
I called Eric and told him there was a lot of
material there and I think we may be on to
something and he said, ‘Yeah man, I knew
that!’” Aside from Slowhand, who contributed
guitar and vocals to How to Become Clairvoyant,
Robertson also enlisted Steve Winwood,
Tom Morello, and Robert Randolph to buff
out the record’s all-star cast.
What did Clapton’s guitar playing bring to How to
Well, he made me step my game up a bit.
Eric is a real guitar virtuoso, whereas I’m more
from the John Lee Hooker/Bo Diddley conservatory
of music. It’s great because when
we play together we come up with stuff that
isn’t about how loud you can be or how fast
you can play—it’s more about a slinkier, sexy
approach to the instrument. When we were
tracking, it was like the guitars were talking
to one another. There was a beautiful communication.
Eric and I go back a long ways. I met him
in 1968, after Music from Big Pink came out.
I knew a little bit about his previous work
with the Yardbirds, but I wasn’t really listening
to the stuff coming out of Britain at that
time. Later on, I became familiar with Cream,
which I thought was a powerful, interesting
experiment in that kind of music.
By the time Music from Big Pink came out, your
style had morphed from the raw rock and roll thing
to a more refined, understated approach. In fact,
Clapton famously cites the album as the driving
force behind his decision to quit Cream and head
toward less bombastic musical pastures.
I think Eric appreciated the subtleties in
my playing and my determination to avoid
the obvious or the acrobatic. I mean, I did
that screaming, wailing, youthful guitarthing
with Ronny Hawkins, I did it with
Bob Dylan, I did it with the Hawks, and so
by the time we got to Music from Big Pink, I
wanted a fresh deck of cards. Besides, everyone
was playing wailing guitar by 1968, so
I simply wanted to go in the opposite direction.
I wanted to develop a guitar style where
phrases and lines get there just in the nick
of time, like with Curtis Mayfield and Steve
Cropper. Subtleties mean so much, and there
is a stunning beauty in them.
How did you change your style?
I just wrote songs that demanded that
“Fear of Falling” from the new album really
showcases your crafty, R&B rhythm guitar style.
It’s not a jamming-type of guitar style
where you’re making stuff up on the fly.
There are actual parts, which are used to set
up a song. That Curtis Mayfield/Pops Staples
style provides a songwriting lead to the listener,
saying, “Ahh, we’re going somewhere.”
That style always conveys a melodic, dreamy,
sensual, rolling feel to me. There’s continuity
to it as opposed to rambling.
How did you decide on casting Tom Morello and
Robert Randolph on the tune “Axman”?
I wanted to pay homage to all of the great
players who inspired us as guitarists—Link
Wray, Duane Allman, Robert Johnson, and
Hendrix among others. So I started thinking,
who fits the “Axman” character today?
Who does something on the guitar that completely
mystifies me? That’s why I chose Tom
Morello and Robert Randolph. I can stand
right in front of those guys, watch every
move they make, and still have absolutely
no idea what they’re doing. They speak a
different language. I should know by now
what they’re doing, but I don’t. I do know,
however, that when they play I stand up on
my toes. They hit me emotionally.
How do you cast tones for songs?
The guitars that lead the way for me the
most are a few signature model Strats that
Fender made for me. The biggest difference
between them and a stock Stratocaster is that
I move the middle pickup back towards the
rear pickup. That’s something that I‘ve been
doing since the The Last Waltz days.
You do that to fatten up the sound?
Yeah, when I use both pickups it gets close
to a humbucking sound. I’ve always found
the rear pickup on a Strat to be tinny when
used alone. Plus, for a while I was using metal
fingerpicks, and the middle pickup got in the
way of my picking. I also have old Tele knobs
on my Strats, because I use the volume control
a lot and the stock Strat knobs don’t give
me the grip. So I used those guitars on the
new record, as well as an old Fender Broadcaster
and a Gibson Les Paul Black Beauty
for a few rhythmic things.
The star guitar of this record, however,
is a 1921 Martin 000-45 gut string. I used it
for the solos on “He Don’t Live Here” and
“Tango for Django.” Eric plays it on “Madame
X” and “Hold Me Back.” It’s a great-sounding
old instrument and Eric fell in love with
it. I had to remind him that it’s mine.
You were associated with Telecasters early in
your career. Why the change to Stratocasters?
The Strat is a little more comfortable with
the contoured body. It feels balanced, like a
rifle. There are also more tonal options and a
wider variety of neck profiles. Actually, Strats
just felt a little more upscale and I figured I
deserved one [laughs]. That being said, growing
up there were a lot of Tele players that
I admired, including Roy Buchanan, James
Burton, and Fred Carter Jr., who played with
Ronnie Hawkins before I got the gig. Also,
from a practical standpoint, you couldn’t beat
a Tele. They’re light enough to wear for marathon
gigs, and they never break.
What amps did you use to track the new
I used a Bogner head a lot, through one
of their closed-back 1x12 cabs. God, those
Germans—they do some s**t really good. If
you want an amp or a car, they’re way up
on the list. I also used an old Fender tweed
Twin that I’ve had forever. I used it on The
Last Waltz and it was old then. It’s amazing
For effects, I like Electro-Harmonix stuff,
like the Freeze and the Wiggler. I also used
a Way Huge Swollen Pickle, a Crowther
Audio Prunes & Custard, a Plush Royal
Plush compressor, an old TC Electronic
Stereo Chorus/Flanger, a Dunlop Cry Baby
Fasel wah, a Peterson tuner, a Line 6 DL4
delay, and Fulltone Supa-Trem and Fat-Boost
pedals. When it comes to effects, I learned
a lot from Daniel Lanois years ago. He’s an
expert with implementing that stuff.
You crossed paths with Roy Buchanan back
when he was playing with Ronnie Hawkins cousin,
Dale Hawkins, right?
I did. I think I was 17, and he was probably
in his early 20s. Ronnie was trying to
decide if he was going to use Roy or me for
some upcoming gigs. Let me tell you, Roy
was much more accomplished than I was.
He was older, further along on the instrument,
and he had been around the block
a bit. I really admired his playing. So one
night Ronnie pitted Roy and I against each
other—like a dance contest with guitars. And
man, Roy was amazing. I thought to myself,
“Jesus, I’m done.”
What did you do?
I made it look like I was doing something
more interesting than him. You have
to understand, Roy was a dark, mysterious
dude. He played the s**t out of the guitar,
but he would just stand there playing. I was
bouncing around like a kid, wailing my heart
out, so I got the sympathy votes. In the end,
Ronnie just thought Roy was too weird. Roy
liked to talk about being raised by wolves
and that he was going to run off and marry
a nun. Ronnie couldn’t deal with all of that,
so I got the gig. I guess luck plays a little
part in all of this!
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