When 16 year-old “Smokin’” Joe
Robinson burned through a Chet-inflected
medley of “Day Tripper” and “Lady Madonna”
at the introductory round of the 2008 Australia’s
Got Talent competition, the entire
house—including the judges—gave him
a standing ovation. He went on to win
$250k with his take on Tommy Emmanuel’s
arrangement of “Classical Gas” in
Born in the bush country of New South
Wales, Australia, Robinson started playing
guitar at age nine, abandoning the
piano lessons he’d been taking for the
past three years. He quickly outpaced his
guitar teacher and began educating himself
via the Internet. Within a couple of
years he was touring regularly and sharing
stages with artists such as Tommy and
Phil Emmanuel, both of whom served as
After winning the Australian National
Songwriting Contest, Robinson released
his debut album, Birdseed, in 2005. Tommy
Emmanuel then invited him to Nashville,
where among other things he hooked up
with Brad Paisley’s producer Frank Rogers,
who helmed his 2009 release, Time Jumpin’.
That same year, Robinson was awarded
the title of “Senior Grand Champion Performer
of the World” at the World Championships
of Performing Arts in Hollywood.
He has also performed at Bonnaroo, and
was voted “Best New Talent” in the 2010
Guitar Player Readers’ Poll.
For the past year or so, Robinson has
honed his skills as both an electric guitarist
and as a vocalist, and in late 2011
he recorded the Rogers-produced Let Me
Introduce You … [Joe’s Garage], accompanied
by an all-star team that includes
drummer Keith Carlock, bassists Michael
Rhodes and Bernard Harris, keyboardist
Gordon Mote, percussionist Eric Darken,
and background vocalist Hershel Boone.
The result is a record replete with catchy
melodic hooks, sophisticated pop progressions,
soulful vocals, and superb guitar
playing that encompasses influences from
Sweet Baby James to Django. “I’ve been
meaning to make an album like this from
the start,” declares Robinson. “So, after
spending years touring as a solo instrumental
guitarist, I wanted to push myself
in another direction.”
How did you balance the roles of virtuoso guitarist
and pop singer-songwriter?
This record was all about the songs and
the arrangements, so I didn’t want to fill
them with shredding—but I also didn’t want
to throw away all of the technical aspects of
my playing. Just learning to play the kinds
of things I wanted to play and sing at the
same time was really challenging. I had to
go back and rebuild from the ground up.
Who were a few of your most significant singing
and songwriting influences?
I modeled what I was doing on musicians
like James Taylor, who writes amazing
songs, plays guitar in a signature way,
and also has a great vocal style. Stevie
Wonder was another major influence, the
Beatles for melodies, and some of Michael
Jackson’s Off the Wall stuff. I also like contemporary
artists such as Jason Mraz and
John Mayer. I guess I wanted the album to
have a contemporary flavor, while incorporating
technical ideas I got from heroes of
mine like Wes Montgomery and Django
Reinhardt. That’s something I felt hadn’t
really been done before.
Did you have everything worked out before
entering the studio?
I pretty much knew the tunes and what
I wanted on them beforehand. I wrote all
the parts out and handed the guys charts.
We tracked basics and drums at the same
time and then overdubbed the rest. It was
fun for the musicians because every song
has a different mix of influences, which
kept them on their toes.
You play both acoustic and electric on the
album. Describe the differences in your picking
On electric, I use a pick almost all the
time, mostly doing straight up and down
alternate strokes—but I also do a lot of
hybrid picking incorporating my fingers,
and I play rhythm stuff with my thumb. I
use either Dunlop Jazz III picks or the big
teardrop-shaped Wegan picks, depending
on the type of music.
On acoustic I use a thumbpick and just
the flesh of the fingers, no fingernails. I love
Django’s picking—the ways he drew sound
out of the instrument—and even when I
play fingerstyle that comes through because
it’s all about the dynamics. I also use really
heavy strings, gauged .018-.056, and I adjust
my picking technique accordingly.
Those really are heavy strings.
Yeah, those are what I string my Maton
808TE with, which is my main acoustic. I
also used a Maton Custom Shop, a ’60s
Gibson J-45, and an Everett 000 on the
album, and those were strung with slightly
lighter sets, gauged .016-.053. We used different
brands, including GHS, D’Addario,
and Martin—but we wound up going with
Elixir 80/20 Bronze Nanowebs on most of
the tracks because they reduce finger noise.
What electric guitars and strings did you use?
I used several Fenders, including a ’52
Relic Tele, a Custom Shop ’60s Strat, and
a ’70s hardtail Strat. They were all strung
with sets gauged .012-.046. I also used an
early-’60s Gibson ES-335 and a Heritage
H 535, both strung with .011-.049 sets,
and a Gretsch Country Gentleman strung
with .012-.060s. That ES-335 was one of
the most beautiful guitars I’ve ever played.
For some overdubs and doubling I also used
a Danelectro Baritone. Again, I used Elixir
Nanowebs for most things, but I also used
GHS and Ernie Ball sets.
What amps did you use?
On most of the album I used a Dr. Z
Carmen Ghia and a Laboga Alligator 30
combined in mono. We combined them
because as soon as I turned one off I felt I
was missing something. We recorded them
in different parts of the studio to get different
sounds, with a bunch of close and room
mics, including a Shure SM57, some ribbons,
and some large-diaphragm condensers.
We also used a combination of mics
to record the acoustics, including KM 84s
and other Neumanns.
How about effects pedals?
Pretty much all of the dirty stuff was
done with a ’70s Ibanez TS808, and I also
used a Keeley Katana Boost on a lot of the
tracks. Other pedals included a vintage Cry
Baby wah, a T-Rex Tremster, and an Eventide
Did you play everything in standard tuning?
Yeah, everything’s in standard. I haven’t
messed with other tunings a whole bunch
because I cut my teeth playing live, and to
play in multiple tunings means traveling
with lots of guitars.
On several tunes you play harp harmonics.
Are you a Lenny Breau fan?
I love Lenny Breau! There are certain
players that transcend the instrument and
Lenny is one of them. Tommy Emmanuel
has also been a massive influence, and he
and Lenny really inspired me to develop
that harmonic technique.
You met Tommy Emmanuel early on. How
has that relationship influenced your playing?
I first met Tommy when I was 11, and
he was very encouraging and supportive.
Then, when I was about 15, he invited me
to come to America, and I had a chance to
play with him, which really started the ball
rolling. Tommy has really been a mentor
figure, as has his brother Phil. As far as his
playing goes, I never wanted to copy him, but
I couldn’t help myself. When I’d hear him
play, I would just be compelled to work out
what he was doing.
How much of your ability is innate and how
much of it is the result of hard work?
There was a point in my life where I
decided to discipline myself and become a
better guitar player. When I was about 14, I
would get up at four o’clock each morning
and practice for four hours before going to
school, then practice for another three or four
hours once I got home. I did that religiously
for a year or more. That’s when I developed
most of the technical abilities that I rely on
today. I was just a kid with a knack and a natural
obsession for guitar playing, and I’m still
that kid now, wanting to expand and push
myself and not be content with mediocrity.
Do you currently have a practice routine?
Yeah, but it’s always different. At the
moment I’m trying to improve my time and
learn more about jazz harmony. I never went
to college, so I want to learn as much theory
as I can to stay above the game. I guess I
spend a lot of time working on things I want
to improve, and not necessarily just to keep
in shape. I still tour and perform a lot, which
is the best workout.
Do you study with anyone?
If you really want something, you’ve got
to do it yourself. I have a lot of heroes that
live and work here in Nashville, and I go to
New York and hang with a lot of jazz players.
Watching them, and maybe getting them
to show me a few things, fuels me to want
to learn. But essentially everything I have
developed came from me getting out there
and searching for it—slowing down recordings
and transcribing solos and just learning
arrangements or whatever.
Do you read music?
When I was 15, I had my heart set on going
to the Conservatory of Music in Sydney, so
I got out the theory books and learned how
to sightread. The understanding of harmony
and theory and just the way rhythms work
has helped me, so reading definitely was a
great thing to learn, though I haven’t had
to read in years.
Where do you go from here?
I’m looking forward to getting out there
and playing these new songs live. I also want
to keep pushing the boundaries and exploring
musical ideas that I feel haven’t been explored
before. I want to make playing compositionally
intricate guitar parts and singing at the
same time my style. There are very few people
that actually do that with the independence
that I can see myself developing. There are
also a lot of people that I’d like to collaborate
with, like Imogen Heap, Bon Iver, and
Esperanza Spalding. And with the Internet,
there are so many people out there to discover
and be inspired by. I remember when
I was a kid there was a day when I didn’t
feel like practicing, and I saw this ten yearold
in Taiwan playing Paganini on YouTube,
which sent me straight to the practice room.
I thought, “I can’t let this happen—I have to
be the best!”